Is yelling at your kids as bad as spanking?

Research claiming yelling at kids is as harmful as hitting or spanking has many parents worried. Learn about the long-term effects for your family.

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Rachel Hudson* has a confession: like many of us, she yells at her kids. It’s not that she enjoys hollering at them, but when her sons, five-year-old Kirk* and two-year-old Will*, misbehave, her patience wears thin. Frustration takes over and next thing she knows, she’s shouting.

“I yell if I have to ask for something to be done more than four or five times, and when we’re running late and Kirk won’t get dressed. I yell at dinner when he’s being picky. I yell when Kirk disrupts Will’s nap,” the Toronto mom says. “I rarely shout at Will, but when I do, it’s because he’s pulling the cat’s tail, trying to ride our 70-pound dog, hitting his brother or climbing on something unsafe.” Ironically, Hudson also yells at her boys when they’re—yep—yelling at each other. Sound familiar? I’ll admit it’s a common scene at my house, too.

In 2014, the journal Child Development published some headline-grabbing research with an alarmist message: Yelling at your kids can be just as bad as corporal punishment, and it could cause behaviour problems and emotional development issues. Even Dr. Phil went on the morning shows to tell parents to turn down the volume, because, he said, yelling will just cause your kids to go into “shutdown mode.” According to the study, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor determined that severe verbal discipline from parents is particularly destructive to tweens and teens. Adolescents whose parents had been using yelling as a discipline method were more likely to have behavioural issues and to act out (including with vandalism and violence). The effects of frequent verbal discipline and insults were comparable to those of physical discipline (like spanking and hitting) over the course of the two-year study.

This topic has long been explored by child psychologists. A study published back in 2003 in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that in families where there’s 25 or more yelling incidents in 12 months, children can end up with lowered self-esteem, an increase in aggression toward others and higher rates of depression. In these families, the researchers noted that the kind of yelling categorized as verbal or emotional abuse is more than simply shouting at your kids. It’s a constant form of “psychological aggression,” and often escalates to insults or words of humiliation. Considering how often parents can lose their temper—for some of us, it’s way more than twice a month—these findings are good reason to cut out the bad communication habits now, before our kids reach their teen years.

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When we asked parents who use shouting as a form of discipline to fess up, only a small handful (Hudson included) owned up to it. But we know there are plenty of bellowers out there. The Journal of Marriage and Family study revealed that almost 90 percent of the nearly 1,000 parents surveyed said they’d yelled, screamed or shouted at their kids in the previous year. Of families with children older than seven, nearly 100 percent of parents said they could count themselves as confirmed yellers. Our generation of parents has been told that spanking is a no-no, and we know that not every child responds to time outs. Plus, taking away screen time and toys can be more vexing for moms and dads than for the kids. Sometimes, when the kids aren’t obeying and we’re exasperated, yelling feels like the only option left in our discipline arsenal.

Toronto father-of-two Douglas O’Donnell* believes yelling works in his home, as it gets his point across in a “no-nonsense manner.” His biggest ongoing issue with daughters, Hannah,* 5, and Autumn,* 2, is when they aren’t listening to instructions. “If I have to repeat myself more than two or three times, I tend to crank the volume up to 11,” he says. “It doesn’t even have to be anything serious. I just have very little patience for it.” He’s noticed that his shouting has affected his oldest daughter. “She has started to anticipate it, and will occasionally cringe because she thinks she’s about to get yelled at. That makes me feel bad.”

Identifying the discipline patterns in his own household is a good first step for O’Donnell. Yelling isn’t a constructive discipline technique, it’s a reaction, explains Stephanie Cristina, a child psychologist in Ottawa. While it will likely get a child’s attention and might stop naughty behaviour in that instant, yelling—like spanking—“does not teach the child anything about how to behave appropriately,” she says. “It may also send a confusing message if we, for example, spank children for being physically aggressive, or yell at them for screaming at their siblings.”

Yelling also causes a physiological reaction in both the parents and the kids. When we get frustrated, the brain releases cortisol (the stress hormone), and too much of it causes us to go into fight, flight or freeze mode, explains Kylee Goldman, a child and family therapist in Aurora, Ont. “The cognitive centre of the brain shuts down and the emotion centre takes over,” says Goldman. “Kids’ brains follow the same pattern. Their cortisol levels go up because they’re stressed, their emotions take over, and they either freeze and do nothing, or respond by screaming back, or end up having a tantrum.” If this kind of stress persists during the formative years, a child’s emotional functioning can be affected as he or she grows up.

Joan Durrant, a professor in the department of Family Social Sciences at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, adds that we need to step back and decode our kids’ behaviour before exploding in a reactionary way. “Parents need to understand the real reasons behind children’s behaviour and not simply interpret it as defiance. As adults we need to work on our own self-regulation so that we can help kids with theirs.”

Durrant’s advice has worked for Michelle Baxter, a mother of two kids, now 13 and 8, in Newmarket, Ont. Baxter vowed to change her own behaviour and break her yelling habit after she realized her children were scared of her. “They were walking on eggshells around me, and they worried about what might set me off.” She discovered that one of the biggest triggers for her was when her kids were whiny, and that the whining usually boiled down to one thing: attention. “Instead of yelling at them for whining, I asked why they were whining. Were they really hungry or bored? Usually the answer was no. If I stopped what I was doing for 15 minutes to read a book or play Lego with them, the whining stopped.” Baxter’s additional strategies for yelling less are pretty simple: Before flying off the handle, inhale and exhale while you reflect, even for a split-second, about whether this particular aggravation or infraction is worth shouting about. “Taking time to step back is huge,” she says. “If I just take a moment and breathe—and think about whether the battle is worth fighting—chances are, I won’t yell.”

For me, one particularly wrath-fuelled episode weighs on my guilty conscience: I once went into a screaming, Disney-villain-like rage when my two girls turned the freshly cleaned bathroom into a sopping-wet mess while brushing their teeth. I worried I’d scarred my poor kids for life with my accidental outrage (for which I eventually apologized, and explained to them why I lost my cool). But Cristina assures us there are positives to these situations. “If kids see that we get angry sometimes, but that we are also able to calm ourselves and come to a point of rational thought, this is good modelling. It also shows children that the people who love them the most can still disapprove of their behaviour.”

So don’t beat yourself up too much for flipping your lid—Cristina says all parents yell, and as long as it’s not frequent or belittling, it isn’t necessarily damaging. “Children need to see that their actions have an impact on others, and they need to understand that their parents can feel and express a full range of emotion. And parents have to be forgiving of themselves, because raising kids is a tough job. We’re only human.”

* Names have been changed

Read more:
6 discipline fallbacks… and how to fix them!
29 toddler discipline tactics that work

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