Did you yell at your kids over the holidays? Who didn’t??? If you are one of those parents (I am with you), you may feel awful reading recent news headlines such as: ‘Adults shouting at children can be as harmful to a child’s development as sexual or physical abuse” (CNN);  ‘Shouting at children may be as damaging as physical or sexual abuse’ (The Guardian). These headlines are two examples of many articles that came out recently based on a new study considering verbal abuse a form of child abuse. 

Let me be clear: I totally think that verbal abuse is a form of child abuse. But what I don’t agree with is with those headlines. In my opinion, this is an example of scientific research being misinterpreted and parenting advice missing important nuance, not only failing to help parents but provoking parental shame and guilt. What this study really found is that HOW we speak to our children matters. The tone of voice we use is important but WHAT we say is more important. There is a big difference between occasionally yelling at your child: “BRUSH YOUR TEETH, NOW!!!” and “YOU CAN’T DO ANYTHING RIGHT!!!”. Not all yelling is equally negative. There is no scientific evidence supporting that occasional yelling is negative for children. 

Am I advocating that it’s good to yell at our children? Not at all, it is clearly much better to talk to our children in a calm manner. But let’s be honest: who hasn’t yelled at their kids? Unless you have nerves of steel, it is almost impossible to raise a kid without at least yelling occasionally at them. So, let’s be realistic and instead of aiming to never yell, let’s try to do it as rarely as we can, and when we do it, not to say things that we will regret. 

Let’s consider some relevant aspects of yelling. 

The content of the yelling is more important than the volume. Yelling is always wrong when we insult, belittle, demean, degrade, shame, ridicule, threaten or name-call our child. We should never use our words to cause distress to our child, no matter the volume of our voice. 

Frequency matters. If the family’s ‘normal’ is yelling, chances are that the household is probably not a warm and caring environment. There are families when parents are ‘always yelling’. If this is your case, it would be a good idea to address this issue.  

Watch your child. If your child looks scared when you yell at him, you need to stop. You never want to scare your child. When that happens, your child cannot really process what you are saying, and it is negative for their development. 

Why may yelling be negative for our children?

Children are predisposed to believe the important adults in their life. So, when we say things to our child such as “you can’t do anything right”, “you’re useless”, or “you’re stupid”, they are likely to believe us and to internalize those messages. A recent survey in the UK found that children aged 11-17 considered these three messages the most upsetting they hear from their parents and carers. Worryingly, 51% of children reported hearing at least one of these messages weekly and 1 in 10 said they heard such messages daily. Children who are treated this way have more chances to experience low self-esteem, and are at higher risk of experiencing anxiety, depression and substance and alcohol abuse. 

Julien L via Unsplash

Why do we yell? 

Often yelling is not a discipline strategy but an emotional response. We feel overwhelmed, frustrated, impatient, tired and we may end up saying things that we regret. 

To stop yelling it is important to know your triggers. It could be a messy room (definitely mine), having said the same thing over and over, being slow at getting ready, not listening, or picky eating. 

Your yelling might also be influenced by how you were raised. Was yelling the norm for your parents? If that is the case, think how it made you feel and consider whether you want it to be the norm for you children. 

So, if you never yell at your children: amazing! But as a parent and a psychologist I would say that it is almost impossible to never yell at your child. It will happen. The important thing is that it doesn’t become the norm. Let’s try not to, but if on occasions we do yell, let’s not blame ourselves. It doesn’t mean that we are bad parents, and it won’t harm your child irreparably and forever. And remember, you can apologize to your child. Saying “I am sorry, I’m very stressed tonight and I lost my temper” goes a long way. 

If you want to learn more about this topic, watch the recording of a webinar we held in early 2024. Note that you have to be a REC Parenting member to access it. Join our community now!

I hope you have found this article useful. As always, do get in touch at hello@recparenting.com if you have any queries or comments. And remember that our parenting experts are available to support you. 

Much love,

Ana

Dr Ana Aznar

Registered in England & Wales. Company No.13460950. Registered office Salatin House, 19 Cedar Road, Sutton, SM2 5DA, United Kingdom

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