When kids misbehave, yelling feels like a natural response. Particularly if parents are stressed out and their tolerance for nonsense has worn thin. A parent stressed over the state of the world might yell at a child before they even realize they’re doing it. But, despite the fact that yelling feels like a release, an attention-getter and discipline all at the same time, it’s important to understand the psychological impact that yelling can have on kids. As provocative as some behaviors may seem, little kids simply don’t have the emotional sophistication to fully understand adult frustration. And screaming at toddlers repeatedly can change the way their brains develop and process information. A child who’s been yelled at will look scared or cry but ultimately yelling at kids is deeply unhelpful.
According to Dr. Laura Markham, founder of Aha! Parenting and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting, yelling is clearly a parenting “technique” we can do without. Happily, she has some anti-yelling rules to remember, and some tips for helping us learn how to stop yelling at our kids, no matter how frustrated we may feel in the moment.
Yelling at Kids Is Never Communicating
Nobody (except for a small percentage of sadists) enjoys being yelled at. So, why would kids? “When parents yell, kids acquiesce on the outside, but the child isn’t more open to your influence, they’re less so,” says Dr. Markham. Younger kids may bawl; older kids will get a glazed-over look — but both are shutting down instead of listening. That’s not communication.
Grown-Ups Are Scary When They Yell at Kids
The power parents hold over young kids is absolute. To them, their folks are humans twice their size who provide things they need to live: Food, shelter, love — Nick Jr. When the person they trust most frightens them, it rocks their sense of security. And yes, it’s truly frightening for a child. “They’ve done studies where people were filmed yelling. When it was played back to the subjects, they couldn’t believe how twisted their faces got,” says Dr. Markham. A 3-year-old may appear to push buttons and give off an attitude like an adult, but they still don’t have the emotional maturity to be treated like one.
Yelling at Kids Makes Causes Fight, Flight, or Freeze
Dr. Markham says that while parents who shout aren’t ruining their kids’ brains, per se, they are changing them. “Let’s say during a soothing experience [the brain’s] neurotransmitters respond by sending out soothing biochemicals that we’re safe. That’s when a child is building neural pathways to calm down.”
When a toddler with underdeveloped prefrontal cortex and not much in the way of the executive function gets screamed at, the opposite happens. “The kid releases biochemicals that say fight, flight, or freeze. They may hit you. They may run away. Or they freeze and look like a deer in headlights. None of those are good for brain formation,” she says. If that action happens repeatedly, the behavior becomes ingrained.
It’s Not About “Letting Them Off Easy”
A parent may feel like they’re putting their foot down and establishing some discipline when they yell. What they’re really doing is exacerbating the problem. Scaring a kid at the moment may get them to knock off what they’re doing, but it’s also eroding trust in the relationship.
There is an alternative method that’s more effective and not as hardline: humor. “If the parent responds with a sense of humor, you still maintain your authority and keep them connected to you,” says Dr. Markham. Laughter seems like a more welcomed outcome than cowering.
How to Keep From Yelling at Kids
- Remember young children aren’t trying to push your buttons. Give them the benefit of the doubt.
- Consider that yelling teaches children that adversity can only be met with a raised and angry voice.
- Use humor to help a kid disengage from problematic behavior. Laughter is better than yelling and tears.
- Train yourself to raise your voice only in crucial situations where a child might get hurt.
- Focus on calm dialogue. Yelling shuts down communication and often prevents lessons from being learned.
Parents Who Yell at Kids Train Kids to Yell
“Normalize” is a word that gets thrown about a lot these days in politics, but it’s also applicable to a child’s environment. Parents who constantly yell in the house make that behavior normal for a kid, and they’ll adapt to it. Dr. Markham notes that if a child doesn’t bat an eye when they’re being scolded, there’s too much scolding going on. Instead, parents need to first and foremost be models of self-regulation. In essence, to really get a kid to behave, grown-ups have to first.
When It’s Okay to Yell at Kids
While the majority of the time yelling isn’t prescriptive, “there are times it’s great to raise your voice,” says Dr. Markham. “When you have kids hitting each other, like siblings, or there’s real danger.” These are instances when shocking them works, but she points out that once you get a kid’s attention, modulate your voice. Basically, yell to warn, but speak to explain.
Nobody is going to stifle themselves around their kids all the time, and nor should they. That’s not what it’s like to be a person. But it’s a harmful long-term parenting strategy.