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What Am I Doing to My Kid When I Yell?

Short answer: You're setting yourself up for a lifetime of shouting matches.

Yelling at kids often occurs unconsciously. But getting loud is not communication — it’s debate or harassment. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel effective. After all, yelling often feels like the best technique for getting a kid’s attention, punishing them, or simply expressing feelings of anger. But all of the shouting, screaming, and yelling at kids is deeply unhelpful to parenting.

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. But she’s also a realist. You get three hours of sleep a night, you’re going to lose it. The good news is that for those who sporadically yell, 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.

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.

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Yelling Makes Kids 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.

Grown-Ups Are Scary When They Yell

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.

How to Keep From Yelling at Kids

  • Remember that the younger children are the less likely their button-pushing behavior is intentional. 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. Then lower your voice to communicate.
  • Focus on engaging in a calm dialogue. Yelling shuts down all forms of communication between you and the child and often prevents lessons from being learned through discipline.

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”

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.

When It’s Okay 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 they. That’s not what it’s like to be a person. But it’s a harmful long-term parenting strategy.