What Science Says About Parents Who Yell

Is yelling really as harmful as hitting?

Photo by Heather M. Edwards on Unsplash

My house is very loud. As a parent of three kids, the volume in my home can crescendo up and down at a dizzying speed because my kids love to argue with each other. All of this amplified bickering inevitably leads to me losing my cool and yelling above the racket. I also yell because I get sick and tired of repeating the same directions half a dozen times to my kids, who flat out refuse to follow them. Mostly, I want them to hear me over their shouting matches so that I’m not repeating myself ad nauseam. But also? If I’m honest, I yell because I get frustrated and angry. But a recent study suggests that when I yell at my kids, I may as well be hitting them.

I have some questions about this.

What parent doesn’t yell?

I have a hard time believing parents who preach about how great they are at never raising their voices. I am sure they exist, but I am equally sure that they had gone to therapy or read a pile of parenting books to calm their frustrations and find specific tools to help them navigate the aggravations that are a part of raising kids. Any parent who tells me they just don’t ever get worked up is lying, I’m convinced.

Nevertheless, I am hell-bent on trying to find a path toward being that mythical unicorn mom who doesn’t ever yell. I don’t particularly appreciate how I feel when I scream across the house for everyone to sit down and be quiet. I hate the dripping guilt I feel when I realize that my outburst is truly no different than my kids’ outbursts — I’m not controlling my big emotions just like they aren’t. But I’m bigger and older, and I manage the fun stuff like PS4 controllers and snacks, so I get to be the one to dole out the punishments like time outs. It’s not a fair situation, but I sometimes feel like that little bit of power I wield is the only thing keeping my sanity intact while I battle to keep my kids from destroying our house.

Most of the time, I feel like I am barely hanging on as a mom. Yelling has become a tool I use, and I know that I am not alone — nearly every mother I know has either been a yeller, is currently a yeller, or is on some path to move beyond yelling. Yelling, it would seem, comes pretty damn naturally to parents. And it isn’t because we’re all terrible at parenting; it’s because we don’t have better tools to use when our kids drive us to the edge.

Science says yelling is no different than hitting.

In 2014 a fascinating and eye-popping study was published in the Society for Research in Child Development that made a strong link between adolescent depression and parents who yell. The study was led and authored by Ming-Te Wang and Sarah Kenny, who looked at data from 976 two-parent families. They were looking to see what happens when parents yell at their 13-year-old kids. There is plenty of research about physical discipline on kids but not much about the use of yelling. Can yelling at kids be as dangerous as hitting them?

It turns out that the effects of yelling on kids are pretty harmful. Kids who are yelled at, according to the study, have a predictive increase in behavioral problems and depression. What’s worse, the parents who yell are unable to balance the yelling with affection to undo the harm they caused by shouting in the first place. Meaning, even when parents demonstrated loving warmth before or after the yelling, the yelling itself was still damaging.

But what kind of yelling are we talking about here?

As a yeller, I can tell you with certainty that there are most definitely times when yelling is necessary, such as trying to alert my kids to danger, like not stepping into a busy street, or quit wrestling before someone gets knocked out. Or when I’m trying just to get heard over the screeching decibels of my kids.

The type of yelling that this study is peeling apart isn’t the type that a parent would use to grab their child’s attention quickly. Researchers are looking specifically at the kind of yelling that one could easily argue is emotionally abusive.

“Parental harsh verbal discipline can have a dramatic impact on the behavioral and emotional development of adolescents,” the study reads. “Harsh verbal discipline refers to the use of psychological force with the intention of causing a child to experience emotional pain or discomfort for the purposes of correction or control of misbehavior.”

Specifically, parents who use swearing, name-calling, and threats that humiliate the child are causing the worst psychological and emotional damage, which researchers call severe discipline. The study has some shocking numbers that describe how common this type of yelling is. According to the report, in a national survey of American parents, 90% said they had experienced one or more severe discipline episodes that include yelling with swearing, name-calling, or threats.

The study shows that kids who get yelled at severely are more likely to become depressed and to act out. It shouldn’t take scientific research to see that kind of conclusion coming. Kids who feel rejected and humiliated by their parents are not going to feel good about themselves.

This study has been on my mind for the better part of a week since I first read about it. I worry that I yell too much and that when I scream things like, “if you don’t stop bickering, then I’m taking away your videogames for the rest of the week!” am I hurting my kids?

I worry about when they can hear me saying, “what the fuck is this!?” when I encounter some breathtaking disaster like when my daughter found my expensive red lipstick and painted the bathroom walls with it. The color stained the wall and never came out. I lost my cool.

This study has me thinking long and hard about how I view myself in relation to my kids. I assume that because I am the adult that I am the one who should be directing and disciplining at all times. This thinking now seems pretty old school and like a set up for failure. Because the more I think about it, the more I realize that my kids need me to listen to them and work with them to see why we follow specific rules in our home. They need me to hear their feelings, no matter how frustrating I might find them at that moment, and we need to learn together as a family how to communicate our way through the challenging moments.

How will I teach my kids how to manage their feelings if I am not working on my own when I yell?

That’s the biggest question I am left asking myself. I’m currently reading a book called, No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., and Tima Payne Bryson, Ph.D. This New York Times bestselling book is the perfect answer to the questions raised by Wang and Kenny’s research on the harmful effects of yelling at kids.

The book does a great job at breaking down how a child’s brain works from the inside out so that parents can see why kids act the way they do in the first place.

My middle child overreacts to everything. EVERYthing. It is exhausting to parent him some days. And for a long time, I took his overreaction personally and wondered if he was manipulative. Someone once told me that the way to train a child is to never bend when they start crying because I’ll just be teaching them that when they cry and I give in to what they want, I’m just teaching them to cry when they want something.

No-Drama Discipline is teaching me something very different. The reason why my middle child has intense emotional outburst is not because he is trying to manipulate a situation; it is because his feelings are bigger than he is, and I never taught him how to manage them.

Talk about a sucker punch of guilt.

The book has a few key sections:

  1. Rethinking discipline
  2. How the brain handles discipline
  3. Actionable strategies to calm tense moments
  4. Actionable strategies for parents to deal with their own big feelings

None of the advice in this book is going to be an overnight success for anyone. It will take some trial and error in my house to figure out how to implement the advice given in this handbook. But I will say that there is a lot less yelling in my home after only a few days of trying. I can now see how damaging yelling is, and my family and I commit to changing how we deal with our feelings, reactions, and one another.

I still yell to get my kids to stop beating the snot out of each other, though. That won’t likely change any time soon.

Essay Hustler | Book Writer | Rep’d by Folio Literary Management — Sign up for my newsletter here https://bit.ly/30f2dxc

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