dad yelling at little girl
Loud Noises!

What Am I Doing to My Kid When I Yell?

With the exception of umpires, NASCAR pit crews, and political radio jocks, being a parent is one of the few occupations where yelling feels mandatory. The question isn’t why parents yell — there are myriad reasons —  but what effect it’s having on children. And the growing scientific consensus is that yelling or scolding makes them more aggressive, more anxious.

According to Dr. Laura Markham, founder of Aha! Parenting and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting, shouting is something we can do without. But she’s also a realist. You get three hours of sleep a night, you’re going to lose your shit. The good news is that for those who sporadically go to 11, the psychological and emotional damage to a kid is minimal (assuming it’s not true verbal abuse). The bad news is those who are doing it constantly are setting up more shouting matches in the late-elementary school and teenage years. Here’s what’s actually happening when parents raise their voice.

dad yelling

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 an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex and not much in the way of 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.

Shouting Is Never Communicating

It doesn’t matter if someone is in a boardroom or the playroom, the minute that person raises their voice, their words lose credibility. Nobody (except for a small percentage of sadists) enjoy 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,” says Dr. Markham. Younger kids may bawl; older kids will get a glazed-over look — but both are shutting down instead of listening.

Grown-Ups Are Scary

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 that person they trust implicitly 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.

sad child on stairs

Parents Who Yell Train Kids Who Tell

“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.

It’s Not About “Letting Them Off, Easy”

How else will a kid know dad is super pissed unless there’s yelling? That parent may feel like they’re putting their foot down and establishing some discipline; what they’re really doing is exacerbating the problem. Because while scaring a kid straight in the moment may get them to knock off what they’re doing, it’s eroding trust in the relationship. Better to not say anything than risk getting their hair blown back.

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.

When It’s Ok To Yell

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 that. That’s not what it’s like to be a person. But if yelling is your default, it’s time to understand that it’s a harmful long-term parenting strategy.

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