Research suggests that shouting can be ineffective and – worse – damaging, but don’t fret over an occasional raised voice.
Do you shout at your child? Have you ever shouted at your child? If the answer is no, you have our sincerest admiration. Wonderful as they are, kids occasionally seem like they are sent to try us. Very few parents go through life without raising their voices from time to time.
Which is why a spate of headlines over the last few years have seemed so alarming. The case against shouting has been gradually building, to the point where some experts claim yelling at your kids can be as damaging as hitting them.
Severe verbal discipline
Much of this was sparked by research from the Universities of Pittsburgh and Michigan in the US, which found that “severe verbal discipline” can have a similar effect on kids as corporal punishment. It was particularly true for tweens and teens, who were more likely to experience behavioural issues (including vandalism and violence) if their parents used yelling as a common method of discipline.
It isn’t the only research to link frequent shouting with negative consequence. Research published in the Journal of Marriage and Family in 2003 linked semi-regular shouting incidents (more than two a month on average) with lower self esteem and higher rates of depression.
So should we stop shouting at our kids? And if we can’t correct errant behaviour with a raised voice, what can we do?
Shouting doesn’t work
Parenting coach Anita Cleare – co-founder of the Positive Parenting Project – admits that there probably isn’t a parent in the world who hasn’t resorted to shouting at one time or other, but says that, regardless of anything else, it is a counter productive parenting strategy.
“Habitual shouting teaches children that you don’t really mean it unless you are shouting,” she explains. “Children quickly learn to ignore parents unless they are shouting, meaning that you have to shout more and more to get your children to cooperate.
“Shouting tends to go hand in hand with anger so there is also a danger that parents will get heated and find it hard to control themselves. Once you’ve got angry and started shouting and they still ignore you, where do you go from there?”
Parenting expert Oona Alexander, a pioneer of a ‘radically loving’ approach to parenting, agrees that, practically speaking, shouting is something of a waste of breath.
“Although children tend to pay attention when parents shout, it’s in fact the opposite of what’s needed,” she says.
“Children don’t listen when shouted at because they feel disconnected from what’s being said. So, what’s needed is to connect.”
It can be damaging (sometimes)
Raising your voice once in a blue moon is probably harmless, but both experts agree that habitually using shouting to stop bad behaviour or punish it could be damaging.
“Shouting makes children doubt that they’re loved, which over time damages both the parent-child relationship and children’s self-image,” says Oona.
Anita adds that persistent shouting has been linked to lower self-esteem and more frequent behavioural problems. What’s more, it damages relationships and can be frightening for small children.
“Nobody likes being shouted at and for children, who are so much smaller and less powerful than us, it can be truly scary,” she says.
Let’s not scaremonger
If, after all this, you’ve started worrying that your occasional losses of temper have irrevocably damaged your child, you probably shouldn’t. Most of the research around shouting is focused on persistent or habitual shouting, when an angry raised voice is the first resort rather than the last.
In fact Amanda, a former mental health counselor and author of Messy Motherhood, has another take on shouting. Sometimes shouting can be a sign of caring parenthood rather than the opposite, she believes.
“You see, good parents try,” she writes. “They want to do better. They have expectations for their children. They’re worn down because they work all day to take care of their families. They try hard to make sure that their children have everything that they need. They feel bad that they can’t do enough, or that they just aren’t enough for their children. So it’s not surprising that we lose it every once in a while. Bad parents don’t feel those things. Bad parents don’t try.”
If you shout at your children a lot, the research suggest it would be best for everyone if you try to shout less. If you lose it in rare moments and feel guilty afterwards, it’s probably not something to beat yourself up about.
What’s the alternative?
So what if the children aren’t listening and the situation is getting out of hand. You’re tired and stressed. You’re not good at discipline at the best of times. If not shouting, what can you do?
“A much better strategy than shouting is to step in early while you are still calm, give a clear instruction and then follow through straight away with a suitable consequence (like removing an activity) if children don’t cooperate,” says Anita.
But what if you’ve passed the point of rational calm? What if you’re on the point of losing your temper?
“A good tip to avoid shouting is to get up close to your child, within an arm’s length, and get down on their level,” Anita adds. “We instinctively don’t shout in people’s faces so your voice is likely to drop in volume automatically. And when our volume goes down, our emotions usually follow.”
Oona agrees, and recommends a three step approach to dealing with anger before the situation degenerates into yelling.
- Pause – and dare to believe that this is not an emergency.
- Take a deep, slow breath. This activates the prefrontal cortex – and so will help you to behave rationally.
- Connect with your child by going up close and talking about things from their point of view. For example, “I guess you wish you could play Lego all morning…”
“By empathising with your child, you help them feel connected and understood,” she says. “It’s a great way of getting their attention. Then you can invite them, with a smile, to do what you have in mind!”