What Happens When You Yell at Your Kids

So, will yelling at the kids turn them into serial killers?  

Every parent reaches that moment when they’re already overwhelmed and pushed to the wall, then their child gives the situation another push. A whine, a defiant “no”, more nonstop begging, repeated misbehavior—and the shouting starts.    

Kids have bad days, and so do parents. But what happens next? Is shouting at children something that needs to be offset quickly so they won’t be scarred for life, or can everybody just move on?

A Harsh Tone Hurts Like This

Children understand a lot, and we are inclined to count on this. If we apologize and say we were having a bad day, too, they’ll understand it. They even forgive us.

Some families seem to shout at each other frequently and no one is crying. It’s just their style, right?  Children in loudly vocal families learn to understand that style and seem to accept it. As they grow, they mimic that same verbal aggression and turn into shouters, too.

They understand.

But understanding may not be enough.

Two researchers, Ming-Te Wang and Sarah Kenny, studied the children in 976 two-parent families. The families were ethnically and socioeconomically diverse so they could document a good range of styles and family conditions. The children were aged 13 at the time Wang and Kenny asked about harsh verbal discipline. Within the next year, children who were shouted at had more disciplinary problems and more signs of depression than children who were not shouted at.

It did not matter whether the shouting came from a mother or a father. More surprising, it did not make the situation better if the parent who shouted had a normally “warm” relationship with the child.   

Style Matters

You may recall that your own parents yelled, and you may have heard stories about your parents “getting the belt” or the razor strap that your grandparents wielded.

Recent research has verified that US parents are much less likely to spank children now compared to 20 years ago. And today’s parents are far less likely to use corporal punishment than their grandparents did. Parents are less likely to yell at children as well, but there’s still plenty of it going around.

Yelling hardly seems as aggressive or hurtful as spanking. So are children just more sensitive these days? Could we be overreacting if we try to stop yelling as well?

There’s research on that question, too.

It turns out from a survey of discipline in six different countries, that a style of discipline might cause more problems in one country than in another. The disciplines in the study ranged from teaching children right from wrong to making them apologize at the low-key end to revoking privileges, shouting, and threatening to withdraw love at the more extreme end.

It makes a difference what is “normative” where the child lives. In countries where a harsher style, like yelling, is what everyone experiences, it is less likely to cause future disciplinary problems, rebellion or depression. If the child experiences yelling parents in places where that is not the norm, then the effect is more harmful.

Children have a strong sense of fairness. That’s something every parent who has heard, “but that’s not fair!” can attest. Getting punished in ways that other kids who act the same do not suffer seems unfair. And unfair is a problem.

How Your Child Thinks—Punishment versus Discipline

Wang and Kenny’s study upheld the findings of dozens of earlier studies on children of various ages: A child will most likely feel harsh verbal discipline as rejection or contempt for them. Kids take it personally.

That’s why, there’s a good chance that frequent yelling can lead to a hostile parent-child relationship over time. We adults know that most parents are simply frazzled. They aren’t rejecting their children or holding them in contempt when they yell. But the children are highly emotional and feel it that way nonetheless. 

The study by Wang and Kenny’s study also suggests that even quiet verbal discipline is as troublesome as actual shouting when it the words are demeaning. Telling a child, “you’re lazy,” or “you’re stupid” does as much damage as yelling or physically punishing them.

This study focused on depression and behavioral problems, however it is already well established that spanking leads to brain changes, some of them permanent, including shrinkage. In 2019, a University of Montreal study determined that yelling causes the same kind of brain changes as spanking.

Children do need direction, though. The distinction the parent needs to guide his or her handling of a child’s misbehavior is to think about whether or not fear is an element. Fear is probably the reason that a habit of shouting at children actually affects and changes their brain development.

Punishment involves fear—fear of rejection or fear physical harm. Discipline does not. Discipline is your right as a parent. Punishment in the form of belittling or scaring the kids is not.

The Relaxed Way to Discipline

 Stop first: As a parent, you’re not immune to losing your patience. Understandable!

Without threatening future ugliness (such as “just wait until your father gets home!”), take a time out when you are feeling too hot tempered. Put the child in a time-out situation as well and take a break yourself. After which you can come back and discipline your child with a clearer head.

Use positive reinforcement: Praising your child for a simple job well done can go a long way. This makes them feel loved and attended, which are the things your child needs and wants. When it’s time for discipline, your relationship will be sound enough to handle the situation. Often when there are times that call for discipline there are also positives in the situation—“I know you wanted to help the man and that’s great thing I love about you, but it’s not OK to take money from my wallet.”

Expectations vs. Reality: You might expect so much from your child at a certain age that it causes a misalignment. Boys who grow tall faster than their peers often complain that they are treated as if they were several years older—even as adults—when others their age were handled more fairly. Before disciplining, take a moment to review… do your expectations also fit the reality of your child’s age and development?    

Limitations and consistency: You are the parent and you are the adult. You are entitled to make the decisions and you will trust yourself more when you know you are acting with reason and firmness. The rules and limits you set should be clearly stated to your child, and should be met with consistency. In other words, no means no and yes means yes. Your no cannot mean not now, and yes later because your child will almost certainly do something wrong with such fluid definitions. Wobbly guidance is the same as no guidance at all.   

Action, reaction: Let it be known to your child that actions have consequences. When the actions are wrong, the consequence will be discipline. It shouldn’t be something extreme or critical. It can be something your child doesn’t like; extra chores or timeouts can work.  

What to Do If You’ve Shouted At Your Child

You may be the super dad or the wonder-mom your child looks up to most days. But everyone slips sometimes.

Address it. Apologize if it’s called for—if your child were an adult that you would apologize to, then don’t skip the apology because you think children don’t need one or it would cause them to see your imperfections and disrespect you. They won’t. But they will register unfairness.

If you feel like you’ve hurt your child in any way, there’s nothing else to do, but to own up to it. Also ask for forgiveness from your child for your action. Talk it out and explain how your action was incorrect and how you can improve yourself for the better, and take into account your child’s feelings as well. 

The good news is that all parents everywhere in every age have slipped up a time or a few and still raised healthy kids and kept loving relationships. Fortunately being a good parent doesn’t require being perfect.