Do you yell at your children?

Losing your cool comes with parenting territory but when does it cross the line?
Losing your cool comes with parenting territory but when does it cross the line? Photo: Getty Images

Modern society holds a magnifying glass to parenting. The list of rules is long and the variations on those rules even longer. Yet it seems that while many approaches to parenting are liberal and open minded. Some are set in stone. Abuse, violence and neglect are not debateable. But what about yelling? Should parents refrain from yelling at their children, is yelling the new parenting taboo?

A new study published in the journal Child Development suggests exactly that. The study highlights that when parents yell at their kids this can be just as harmful as physical discipline. The US-based study followed 976 families and found that 45% of mothers and 42% of fathers used harsh verbal discipline with their child, aged 13. The study links this verbal discipline to increases in behaviour problems such as fighting with peers, trouble in school and lying to parents. Alarmingly, the study links harsh verbal discipline with symptoms of depression.

Clinical psychologist and mother of four, Sally-Anne McCormack reinforces that harsh verbal discipline is detrimental to children. “Degrading your child is never okay. When you yell at them all the time and tell them that they are failures, they will live down to your expectations.” However, she does highlight that there are degrees of yelling. Some families are just loud and this increase in volume, as part of the family dynamic, can be fine. “It is not the volume of communication, it is the tone and the message behind what you are saying, the emotions.” Sally-Anne highlights that some parents can be degrading, abusive and use harsh words in a quiet voice and that this is just as bad as yelling. A balanced interaction with positive and neutral moments is encouraged by Sally-Anne. “If you choose to use yelling as a form of discipline you have to make sure you balance it out and that this is not the only interaction you have with your child. If yelling constitutes more than 15% of your time then you need to rethink your parenting behaviours.”

Counting to three works really well to control a situation instead of yelling for Adele Huxtable, a mother of four. “If we get to three they need to go into time out.” Yet, even Adele who is conscious of her yelling finds that the combination of the morning rush and kids who do not listen can result in her yelling. Instead of feeling guilty that she yelled she apologises. “It is not the best way to have handled it, I shouldn’t have yelled at you and I’m sorry.” Taking ownership of our actions as parents is imperative. “It shows the kids that even adults lose it sometimes and it is okay to be wrong.”

Director of and author of One Step Ahead, Michael Grose, understands that sometimes parents feel that the only way they can be heard is to yell. But with young teens, when parents yell it can hurt their self-image, impact their feelings of self-worth and diminish their self-esteem. “Just like with toddlers, interactions with teenagers need more time and parents need to allow more time for these interactions.”

Michael empowers parents with a few simple strategies;

  • Change your expectations – of both yourself as a parent and your teenager or child. Unrealistic expectations are only to going to fuel an environment for yelling.
  • Pause and walk away – the best way to diffuse a situation is to step away from it.
  • Lower your voice – it may sound simple, but we often forget that just by being assertive, maintaining eye contact and asking as opposed to yelling – communication is enhanced.
  • Go visual – for teenagers it may be pointing with your hand and looking away; for younger children use a chart – if a five-year-old is problematic during the morning school routine use a chart that has a few simple steps that they can follow so they know what to do and when.

Parents need to understand the difference between the occasional outburst and constant verbal abuse. Verbal abuse towards children, irrespective of the volume of voice being used, is wrong. Parenting can feel like a juggling act of rules. But it should simply be about being a good role model. Parents need to focus on their behaviour to empower their children to act in a positive way themselves. Children learn from what they see and hear and not necessarily from what they are told. Impulsive, reactive outbursts are normal in parenting. It is how often they happen and what parents do afterwards that matters most.