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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.

When kids misbehave, yelling feels like a natural response, particularly if parents are stressed out and their tolerance for nonsense has worn thin. The messiness and monotony of parenting requires extreme patience, and yelling at kids is far easier and more instinctive than pausing to react calmly. Yelling at your kids might feel like a release, or serve as a form of discipline. It can seem like yelling and screaming is the only way to get a kid’s attention. But it’s important to understand the psychological effects of yelling at a child, and why they render it a less-than-optimal strategy.

As provocative as some behaviors may seem, little kids simply don’t have the emotional sophistication to fully understand adult frustration. Yelling at them won’t suddenly trigger their understanding, but it might, infact have some adverse psychological effect. Some, long-term, with the potential to change the way their brains develop and process information. As hard as it can be to resist the temptation to scream, 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 a parenting “technique” we can do without. Thankfully, 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 start yelling at kids, they acquiesce on the outside, but the child isn’t more open to your influence, they’re less so,” says Dr. Markham. Younger kids and toddlers may bawl; older kids will get a glazed-over look — but both are shutting down instead of listening. That’s not communication. Yelling at kids might get them to stop what they’re doing, but you’re not likely to get through to them when your voice is raised. In short, yelling at kids doesn’t work.

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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 everything they need to live: food, shelter, love, Paw Patrol. When the person they trust most frightens them, it rocks their sense of security. “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. Being screamed at by their parents can be seriously stressful for kids. 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.

The Psychological Effects of Yelling at Kids: Fight, Flight, or Freeze Response

The psychological effects of yelling at children, especially younger ones, are real. Dr. Markham says that while parents who yell at their kids 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 parents yell at their toddler, who has an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex and little executive function, the opposite happens. Their body interprets their resulting fear as danger and reacts as such. “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, and informs how they treat others. If you’re yelling at your toddler every day, you’re not exactly priming them for healthy communication skills.

Replace Yelling and Screaming with Humor

There is an alternative that’s more effective and not as hardline as yelling: 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.

Not Yelling Isn’t About “Letting Them Off Easy”

Parents may feel like they’re putting their foot down and delivering adequate discipline when they yell at their kids. What they’re really doing is exacerbating the problem. When parents yell at toddlers they create fear, which prevents kids from learning from the situation or recognizing that their parents are trying to protect them. 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.  Learning how to slow your reaction and stop yelling at your kids isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.

How to Stop Yelling at Kids

  • Recognise your triggers.
  • 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, but parents shouldn’t underestimate how much power they have over what behavior children learn is acceptable. Parents who constantly yell and shout make that behavior normal for a kid, and eventually, kids will adapt to it. As easy as it is in the moment to yell at a kid, the long term effects could backfire. Dr. Markham notes that if a child doesn’t bat an eye when they’re being scolded, that’s a good indicator that 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 by shouting works, but Markham says that once you get a kid’s attention you should modulate your voice. Basically, yell to warn, but speak to explain.

Nobody is going to stifle themselves around their kids all the time, nor should they. That’s not what it’s like to be a person. But failing to do so on a daily basis and constantly shouting is probably a less than productive long-term parenting strategy.