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Yelling at Your Kids

My dad is a good man. But, growing up, he was a yeller. He was one of those quick-to-anger, quick-to-calm guys. Those childhood moments during the pendulum swing were epic. His boom made his presence seem so much bigger than it actually was; I often felt overshadowed, surrounded, smothered by the loudness of his voice. 
My dad never exerted corporal punishment for my wrongdoings, but recent studies show the impact of his tirades could have the same long-lasting effects. 
According to a 2013 University of Pittsburgh study, “the use of harsh verbal discipline  defined as shouting, cursing or using insults – may be just as detrimental to the long-term well-being of adolescents” as physical discipline.  
“Depending on the personality of the child, parents can erode the self-esteem of their child if the majority of their communication consists of yelling,” says Dana McCall, Ph.D., LMFT, a Lewisville therapist. “Most of the statements that are yelled at children could easily be ended with a negative word such as stupid. It is clearly inferred that the child is inadequate in some way that is frustrating their parent.” 
Depression. Aggression. Developmental challenges. Antisocial behavior. These are the potential scars left long after the shouts have died down. And, agree experts, yelling can be a learned coping strategy that children carry with them into adulthood, thus continuing the cycle. 
Once I became a parent, I promised myself that I would discipline differently, that I would not roar at my son as my dad had done. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t fallen short of this promise.  
“If a parent lacks or has run out of the skills to motivate or inspire her child to obey or comply, she most often resorts to yelling,” says McCall. “Just like speaking to someone who cannot hear you, you instinctively raise your voice to make certain they will; we do the same with our children. This ineffective parenting tool [yelling] quickly becomes a habit.” 
An informal poll of local moms shows that almost all of us, even those most mindful of its impact, do in fact yell at our children on occasion. 
“I’m a believer that things can be handled without yelling, so I feel like I’ve failed or hurt the mother/child bond when I yell,” says Amy Hendricks, Little Elm mom to Hayden, 11, Miller, 7, and Callie, 4. “I typically go back and do a ‘Mike Brady’ sit-down to talk about why I yelled to make sure they understand what happened and how we can try to avoid it next time.” 
Chelle Cates, McKinney mom of Carter, 6, says yelling is an ongoing point of contention and confusion in her home. “I grew up in a house where yelling was never acceptable. My husband, on the other hand, did not. I hardly ever yell, but my husband doesn’t see anything wrong with it.” 

Cates admits the painful impact of yelling is immediately visible on her son’s face. “Carter is very, very sensitive, so he falls apart [when I yell]. We are so close and it's rare when I yell, so he really doesn't understand and I know it's devastating to him. I can always see it in his eyes,” she says. 
I asked my son, Cooper, 6, how it made him feel when I yelled at him. In his sweet, first-grade dialect, he said, “I dunno, Mommy. Maybe it makes me nervous, kinda upset.” 
When he was born, I was adamant that my husband and I would not spank Cooper. I wanted us to teach him the consequences of his actions through thoughtful reinforcement rather than aggression. The hands-off approach has allowed me to remind my often strong-willed, high-octane son that I don’t lash out, physically, in anger and neither should he. 
I didn’t realize that my infrequent outbursts were doing as much damage to his little spirit as if I had taken a hand to his behind. 
“Yelling hurts your relationship with your child,” says McCall. “Just like adults, when someone yells at you, you instinctively back away from her. Yelling at a child causes him to put distance – physically and emotionally – between himself and his parent.”  
After my conversation with Cooper, I decided to rein in my rages. My goal was to dedicate three days to a truly peaceful approach to discipline in an effort to identify my shouting triggers. During my experiment, Cooper pushed my patience to the brink of oblivion; he is every bit a 6-year-old boy. What I realized during the storm-free calm, however, was that regardless of my son’s behavior, the better I felt mentally and physically, the less quickly I felt the urge to yell.  
“I’m by nature a very patient person,” says Hendricks, “but I have my limits and buttons that cause me to yell.”   
McCall explains that there is an important distinction between raising your voice and yelling. “If done respectfully, raising your voice can be effective in getting a point across. But, it should be done sparingly,” she says. 
“If you constantly yell or raise your voice, you are teaching your child that he does not have to listen or obey until your voice reaches that special tone or volume level,” offers McCall. “Only then, when you’re really upset, will he obey.” 
Now that I’ve identified when I’m at my most vulnerable for outbursts (when taxed by a migraine, for example, or stressed by a deadline), I am working to employ better coping strategies [see sidebar]. That way I’m able to respond to the situation in the best, most effective way for my son. 
“Parents must remember that they are teaching life skills to their child,” says McCall. “Show him, through active parenting, that he needs to do as asked when asked. “Ask once, and then go to him and show him [what needs to be done], in case he doesn’t know. This will show your child that you expect compliance very quickly and that you love him enough to teach him to be an awesome adult.” 

Published April 2014