A psychologist explains why we shout at our kids, whether it will cause irreparable damage and strategies we can take to stop shouting at them.
I’m sorry I shouted at you yesterday.
I lost it when you started banging the sharp tips of your new coloured pencils on the hard tabletop.
I had told you numerous times to be gentle with your things and that pencils are for paper and not anywhere else—not that that’s a good reason to shout at you.
I know the real reason for your behaviour: You wanted me to pay attention to you, to play with you. But instead, both Mummy and Daddy were trying to work from home, looking at their computer screens and not at you.
I forget you’re only three and still learning about independent play. And that’s particularly hard when Mummy and Daddy are in the same room as you. Why would we be interested in anything else but you?
And so when the nice asking, the pleading and the whinging didn’t work, you thought banging the pencils might.
It caught my attention, but I’m sure it wasn’t in the way you had expected.
I took your pencils away and I shouted at you. Towering over you, as tears streamed down your face, I shouted at you.
I'm sorry you have the sad “privilege” of having a shouty mum.
It’s never what I wanted to be, never what I thought I would be. I’m not a shouty person. Even when your dad and I disagree, we may speak animatedly, but we’ve never shouted at each other. I’m not even the type of person who would assertively tell someone to go to the back if they jumped in front of me in a queue.
Yet, I shout at you. My precious, precious child. My love, my light.
And I see myself in you. I see that you’ve learned to shout when you’re angry because your friend has snatched your toy, when you’re frustrated because your blocks aren’t stacking up the way you want them to, when you’re upset because Mummy and Daddy aren’t listening to you.
You shout. Because you’ve seen me shout.
I try to teach you to handle your anger, but I know I’m a hypocrite. I am your first teacher and I’ve taught you how to shout.
I’m sorry I’m a shouty mum. I certainly don’t deserve the flowers you picked for me while you were on a walk with Daddy later that afternoon. It’s why I burst into tears when you handed them to me, and why I cried even more when you tried to hold me in your tiny arms—the way I do when you’re sad.
When I apologised for shouting, you accepted it and forgave me wholeheartedly. You have so much love and good in you.
I’m sorry I shouted at you yesterday.
Today is a new day and I will try better.
The effects of yelling at your kids
Yelling at children—especially younger kids—appears to be effective. They stop whatever they’re (not meant to be) doing and start obeying you.
As Collett Smart, Mums At The Table’s resident psychologist observes, “Mums are human and there will be days we will find ourselves exhausted or overwhelmed and our emotions can be a little frayed. Then, when little people don’t follow an instruction or a request, we can snap at them in the hope that it jolts them into action.”
Even then, why are experts recommending we reserve yelling only for when we need to protect them from impending harm or threat (such as when they’re about to run into oncoming traffic)?
1. It’s a short-term solution
While yelling may indeed produce an immediate result, it doesn’t actually address the behavioural problem. In fact, a study on 13-year-olds discovered that the yelling resulted in increased levels of bad behaviour the following year.
2. They stop listening
Imagine someone twice your size, face contorted in anger and speaking to you in a loud voice. Surely the only thing you want to do is run away and hide. Even worse, it simply teaches the child to fear you.
3. They yell back
Dr Laura Markham is a clinical psychologist and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. “Yelling scares kids. It makes them harden their hearts to us. And when we yell, kids go into fight, flight or freeze, so they stop learning whatever we're trying to teach. What's more, when we yell, it trains kids not to listen to us until we raise our voice. And it trains them to yell back,” she writes on her website.
The silver lining
In my desperation to assure myself I haven’t done my son irreparable damage, I came across an interview with Dr Kyle Pruet, a child psychiatrist. One thing he said gave me hope:
“[Thinking you may have done long-lasting damage by yelling at your kid is] a somewhat narcissistic view of parenting. Because there are tons of other forces at work including their own neural-developmental progress.”
Collett agrees, pointing out that “kids don’t need a perfect mother. Trying to be perfect can cause our children to believe that making mistakes means you are a failure. Rather, making mistakes means an opportunity to learn and grow and change—even for adults.”
While we really shouldn’t be yelling at our kids, it’s what we do after we do (because let’s face it, we probably will at one point or another) that matters.
“If we can model apologising when we have done the wrong thing and tell our children the steps we will take to improve and change our behaviour the next time, they learn about growth,” says Collett.
It would seem like the saving grace with shouting at him is the fact I have always apologised to him after, explaining to him my reasons for doing so. Armed with my own determination to stop being a shouty mum and Collett’s suggestions below, however, I hope I won’t have to ask for forgiveness again any time soon.
8 ways to stop yelling at your kids
L R Knost, award-winning author of many gentle parenting books, says, “When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it's our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.” This isn’t always simple, easy or something we might always do, but it could be something we work toward.
Collett’s strategies include:
1. Know your triggers
This can come in the form of being late, feeling tired, or a noisy or messy environment. Recognising what triggers you to shout can often help you plan how you could do something different the next time.
2. Remember they are only being children
Keep reminding yourself that your children are not purposely trying to annoy you. Check appropriate developmental behaviours to be sure that you are not expecting more than a child is capable of doing. They are being children and still learning to control themselves and their emotions. Remember that children can become quite afraid and shaken by their own outbursts.
3. Find a better time
Trying to talk to a child who is having a meltdown can cause stress to rise in mums too. So waiting until your child has settled can be a better time to talk, make a request or give an instruction.
4. Take a break
If you need some space and need to go into a bathroom, your bedroom or the garden to breathe and give yourself a few minutes before responding, that’s okay too.
5. Ignore the judgements
If your child melts down in public, remind yourself that many mothers are standing in silent solidarity with you, thinking, It’s OK mum, I’ve been there. Ignore the thoughts and judgements in your own head about being a bad parent, because those can cause your own stress levels to escalate.
6. Do more good than bad
For every tricky moment with your child, try to do two loving and caring gestures or activities. Remind yourself that you are doing a good job by writing these times down somewhere, to remember them.
7. Make a note
Write down the times you do well in handling something that triggered frustration in you and how you did that. Then keep trying to replicate more of that.
8. Talk to someone
Find a friend you can call or vent to or bounce parenting strategies off of. Sometimes hearing ourselves think out loud can help us work out what our child needs from us.
How to get your kid to listen to you
Often, the reason why we yell is because we find that our child isn’t listening to us. Collett has some suggestions on how we can get a child to really listen.
- Getting down to your child’s level
- Touching them quietly on the arm
- Looking at them in the eyes
- Asking them to look at you
- Speaking in a low calm voice
- Switching off any device that is an added distraction
- Sitting near your child (so they know they are safe) but not intervening until they have begun to settle
- Giving your child some space. If you know they are safe but they (and you) settle better on their own, you could walk out of the room and say, “I’ll be just here next door when you are ready.”
- Always hug and make things right as soon as your child is ready
Son, I’m sorry I shouted at you yesterday, but I’m trying to do better.
I now have strategies to do better and you'll know just how much I love you.
And, I’m sorry I shouted at you yesterday.