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Scream at Your Own Risk (and Your Children’s)

Mom-yell-boy-ears-300x204By BONNIE ROTHMAN MORRIS

Published: November 9, 2004

The thing about children is that sometimes they misbehave.

They disobey. They talk back. They ignore their chores and fight with their siblings.

Even the most patient parent can end up hollering. Indeed, yelling at children is so common in American households that most parents view it as an inevitable part of childrearing.

But in some cases, researchers say, yelling can become a form of emotional abuse. And children whose parents consistently raise their voices or combine yelling with insults, criticism, ridicule or humiliation may suffer from depression, dips in self-esteem or demonstrate more aggression themselves.

While physical abuse of children has been widely studied, child development specialists have in recent years begun to focus more attention on emotional abuse, which studies suggest can be equally harmful. In 2002, the American Academy of Pediatrics urged pediatricians to be aware of the risk factors of psychological maltreatment of children.

The academy’s report, based on numerous studies, said that “a chronic pattern of psychological maltreatment destroys a child’s sense of self and personal safety.”

Almost every parent yells at one time or another. A 2003 study by Dr. Murray A. Straus and Carolyn J. Field, published in The Journal of Marriage and Family, found that 88 percent of the 991 families interviewed reported shouting, yelling or screaming at their children in the previous year. Of the families with 7-year-old children, 98 percent reported having yelled.

In another study, not yet published, Dr. George Holden at the University of Texas and his colleagues followed 132 parents and their newborn infants over four years. Thirty-five percent of the parents reported yelling at their children before they were 1. By the time the children were 4, 93 percent said they had.

Not all children suffer as a result. Researchers say that content and context matter. The tone, what is said and the frequency can mitigate or exacerbate its effects.

“The difference comes in how the yelling is used,” said Bonnie Harris, a parent educator in Peterborough, N.H., and author of “When Your Kids Push Your Buttons: And What You Can Do About It.” “Is it blaming and shaming?” she asked. “If the child is being held responsible for the parent’s feelings and behavior, then the yelling can have a deleterious effect.

“But not if the parent is just venting without blame, saying, ‘I am really angry, I can’t stand this anymore,’ ” Mrs. Harris said. “You have just as much right to your emotions as your children do.”

Researchers are trying to codify the definition of emotional abuse while, at the same time, understanding more about its effects. A study in the July 2001 issue of The American Journal of Psychiatry that compared 49 subjects with depersonalization disorder with 26 emotionally healthy subjects, found that emotional abuse was the most significant predictor of mental illness, more so than sexual and physical abuse.

Dr. Straus, director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, said yelling could set a bad example for children that affects the way they handle social interactions later on.

“Yelling sets the tone for family relationships that carry over for dating relationships where you get a lot of psychological aggression,” Dr. Straus said.

Still, in the context of a supportive family environment, raised voices do not necessarily signal trouble, a study published last summer in The Journal of Emotional Abuse says.

“Other familial factors (particularly, having an emotionally warm and close relationship with at least one parent) appear to ameliorate the potential negative effects and also, to play a greater role in long-term psychological outcomes than yelling or other forms of aggressive acts,” Dr. Anupama Sharma, assistant professor of psychology at Eastern Illinois University and a co-author of the study, said in an e-mail message.

Some experts even say that yelling can be useful, teaching children about failures in a safe environment.

“Children have to understand that we as parents are not perfect and every once in a while we lose it,” said Dr. Bennett Leventhal, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Chicago. “It’s far better to understand at home that sometimes people get beyond their limit.”

But as most parents can testify, screaming at children is often not effective.

“Yelling overpowers children, it makes them feel frustrated and angry, and what can happen is that after a while kids become immune to being yelled at. They tune it out,” said Dr. Myrna B. Shure, a professor of psychology at Drexel University, who conducted a five-year study, financed by the National Institute of Mental Health, of children from kindergarten to fourth grade.

The yelling can also make parents feel worse.

Jen Sayre, a mother of three from Rockingham County, N.H., said she hated yelling at her children.

“I feel so sad and out of control when I’m yelling and I’m mad at myself,” she said.

Mrs. Sayre does not yell often, she said, because she and her husband took workshops with Mrs. Harris to help them be more effective parents.

That was four years ago. Today, on the rare occasion that Mrs. Harris raises her voice, a child pipes up and puts her in her place.

“My kids will look at me now and say, ‘Mommy, this is your issue, you need to work on that,” Mrs. Sayre said. “I try everything I can do not to yell, but when I do yell, I apologize.”


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10 Things to Do to Stop Yelling at Your Kids

Constantly screaming and yelling at your kids is abusive, useless and stupid (if it was useful, you wouldn’t have to do it more than once). Most parents scream because they are frustrated; their buttons have been pushed and they feel like they don’t have any other options. However, the minute you lose it, you lose all the power.

You would think that screaming would make your kids fear you. It doesn’t.  As a matter of fact, it does just the opposite.  Kids lose respect for you when you start screaming and yelling because you’ve lost control. They know that the yelling will pass, or they become so frustrated and angry that after a while, they become immune to it and don’t take you seriously.

Now, just as all kids misbehave, disobey, talk back, ignore chores and fight with siblings, all parents are going to holler every now and then. However, you need to pay close attention to how you’re yelling. Blaming and shaming – “You’re a loser,” “You’re useless,” “You’re the reason I’m upset” – are very destructive, especially if the child is being told that he or she is responsible for the parent’s problem. According to The American Journal of Psychiatry, emotional abuse is the most significant predictor of mental health, even more than sexual or physical abuse.


Here are 10 things you can do to stop yelling at your kids:

  1. Set clear boundaries. 
    Kids are not psychic – you have to make the rules clear.  If the rules aren’t clear, kids have trouble following them.  You may assume that your child heard and remembers something you said to them in passing, but they may not. So, you need to be really clear. Instead of saying, “Don’t come in the house with wet shoes,” say, “When you come in the house, I want you to take your shoes off and leave them by the front door – whether they are wet or not. That way, we won’t bring the trash and germs from outside into the house.” Now that’s clear.  Or, if you want your child to pick up their room, physically go in there and show them what you mean (when I was a kid, throwing everything into my closet and closing the door was my idea of cleaning my room).
  2. Set simple consequences. 
    Many parents threaten consequences and then don’t follow through on them.  However, empty threats don’t work.
  3. Speak to your child on his or her level.
    Bend down so that you’re eye-to-eye.  Getting face-to-face makes it easier for them to hear you, listen to you and pay attention.
  4. Be sure your child understands what you are asking.
    After you’ve instructed your child to do something, have them repeat it back to you. That way, you’ll know if they’ve actually heard it.
  5. Respond every time a rule is broken.
    Be consistent. Each and every time a rule is broken, calmly impose the consequence.
  6. Remind your child of the rule only ONE time. 
    Your child gets one reminder. After that, they get a consequence.
  7. Immediately deliver the consequence.
  8. Ask someone to remind you when you’re yelling.
    Pick someone who knows you well (a spouse, parent, friend, etc.) and ask them to give you a signal when they see you yelling.
  9. Respond kindly when your child yells at you.
    Instead of shouting back when your child is screaming at you, just calmly say, “I know you’re mad at me right now, but please talk to me like I’m someone you love.” That stops everyone in their tracks.
  10. Take a “parent” time-out.
    Sometimes even parents need a time-out. It doesn’t mean you have to go sit in the corner, it just means that you need to take a break. Take a shower. Have a cup of tea or a glass of wine. Revisit the situation later when you’re not feeling so angry. In fact, walking out of the room inspires fear far more than yelling does.