Does yelling dam­age chil­dren?

Yelling at chil­dren says more about us than them. But is it re­ally ‘the new slap­ping’?

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Sheila Way­man

‘I’ll talk to you when you’re speak­ing in a nor­mal voice . . . ” That, I have to con­fess, was a teenage son re­spond­ing to me on one oc­ca­sion. It worked. My amuse­ment at the par­ent-child role re­ver­sal in­stantly de­fused the rant. While hardly one of my finest par­ent­ing mo­ments, at least there was the con­so­la­tion he had learnt that shout­ing to make a point doesn’t get you any­where. But what par­ent hasn’t got into the iron­i­cal po­si­tion of shout­ing “stop shout­ing” at a loudly protest­ing child? We all yell at our chil­dren some­times, don’t we?

Mind you, Grow­ing Up in Ire­land re­search in 2009 found 7 per cent of moth­ers of nine-year-olds said they “never” yelled or shouted at their chil­dren, while 52 per cent con­ceded they did “now and again” and 17 per cent ad­mit­ted they did it reg­u­larly.

Of course, in a dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion, yelling can be an ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse. But for ev­ery gen­uinely needed shouted “watch out”, there may be dozens more “don’t”, “hurry up” and “come here, now” of the most triv­ial and repet­i­tive kind.

Yelling in a cri­sis is dif­fer­ent from yelling as a habit, says Gal­way-based par­ent­ing coach Val Mul­lally ( who runs an on­line boot­camp for par­ents ti­tled “Stop Yelling: Nine Steps to Calmer, Hap­pier Par­ent­ing” and has also writ­ten an e-book on the sub­ject.

It’s most likely to be­come a habit when there’s too much go­ing on in par­ents’ lives, she sug­gests. “Then the child’s sup­posed mis­be­haviour can be the last trig­ger that pushes the par­ent over the edge.”

We tend to let off our anger at those who are least pow­er­ful, she points out. “We might, for in­stance, feel like yelling at the boss but know we mustn’t so it’s the least pow­er­ful one in the line, which is of­ten the child, who ends up get­ting the roar when we’re over stressed.”

While par­ents who fre­quently ex­press their anger in this way might never dream of lift­ing a fin­ger to their chil­dren, Mul­lally be­lieves in some cases it has be­come a sub­sti­tute for slap­ping. Quite rightly, cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment has been banned by the State, she says, yet there has been no roll-out of pol­icy on what par­ents should do dif­fer­ently. “They have not been given other strate­gies.”

Tanya Ward, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Chil­dren’s Rights Al­liance, made the same point re­cently after a 46-year-old fa­ther in Cork faced as­sault charges for al­legedly slap­ping his three-year-old daugh­ter on two oc­ca­sions in a su­per­mar­ket.

“We do need a pub­lic-aware­ness cam­paign for par­ents and peo­ple car­ing for chil­dren to know that the law has changed and there are al­ter­na­tive ways to do dis­ci­pline when it’s needed. And that dis­ci­pline is part of par­ent­ing and car­ing and set­ting bound­aries.”

She refers to the afore­men­tioned Grow­ing Up in Ire­land re­search, in which 58 per cent of moth­ers re­ported they never used smack­ing but 11 per cent said they did “now and again”. It also found that boys were more likely to re­port be­ing smacked “al­ways” (6 per cent) or “some­times” (37 per cent) by their fa­thers, whereas girls were more likely to re­port never be­ing smacked by him (65 per cent).

Three years after the 2015 out­law­ing of slap­ping by par­ents, Ward won­ders what sim­i­lar re­search on dis­ci­plinary meth­ods in the home would find. Mean­while, emo­tional abuse is one of the cat­e­gories for re­port­ing con­cerns un­der Chil­dren First leg­is­la­tion.

“I think that it’s im­por­tant that par­ents get the sup­port that they need and un­der­stand the im­pact shout­ing and emo­tional abuse has on their chil­dren,” she says.

Par­ents who hit their chil­dren usu­ally do it when they lose con­trol of a sit­u­a­tion, Ward points out. “I think they could po­ten­tially re­sort to shout­ing abuse at a child in the same way. It does the same kind of dam­age to a child in terms of self-es­teem and it teaches them the wrong mes­sage – that this is the way you re­solve your prob­lems when un­der pres­sure.”

The char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion of yelling as “the new slap­ping” prob­a­bly has its roots in a piece of US re­search pub­lished in 2013. A Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh study not only in­di­cated that harsh ver­bal dis­ci­pline from par­ents could be dam­ag­ing to ado­les­cents but also that the neg­a­tive ef­fects within two years were com­pa­ra­ble to the ef­fects shown over the same pe­riod of time in other stud­ies that fo­cused on phys­i­cal dis­ci­pline.

The leader of the re­search, Ming-Te Wang, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy in ed­u­ca­tion, was at pains to stress that most of the 967 ado­les­cents and their par­ents they sur­veyed were from mid­dle-class fam­i­lies.

“There was noth­ing ex­treme or bro­ken about th­ese homes,” Wang said when the find­ings were pub­lished in the jour­nal Child De­vel­op­ment. “Th­ese were not ‘high-risk’ fam­i­lies. We can as­sume there are a lot of fam­i­lies like this – there’s an okay re­la­tion­ship be­tween par­ents and kids, and the par­ents care about their kids and don’t want them to en­gage in prob­lem be­hav­iours.”

Best in­ten­tions

Mul­lally agrees that yelling can come from the best in­ten­tions. “Par­ents want to be good par­ents and they know chil­dren need lim­its but they haven’t been given any al­ter­na­tives as to how do you ef­fec­tively set lim­its.” But not only is yelling un­help­ful, it is, she be­lieves, also harm­ful.

“I think yelling at any­one lessens the con­nec­tion be­tween you,” she ex­plains. “I also be­lieve it dam­ages a child’s self-es­teem, their sense of self-worth.”

The child will think they de­serve such treat­ment. “They won’t be think­ing ‘this is be­cause Mum or Dad is frus­trated’, they will be think­ing ‘this is be­cause I am not okay’.”

Col­man Noc­tor, a child and ado­les­cent psy­chother­a­pist with St Pa­trick’s Men­tal Health Services, re­jects the equat­ing of yelling with slap­ping: “Any par­ent who is hu­man will raise their voice at their chil­dren from time to time,” he points out.

“If you come in and see a four-year-old with a crayon draw­ing on your newly painted walls, it seems very hu­man to go ‘what are you do­ing?’,” he says with a mock

I think yelling at any­one lessens the con­nec­tion be­tween you. I also be­lieve it dam­ages a child’s self-es­teem, their sense of self-worth


He would hate peo­ple to think “Oh my God I raised my voice, I am such a bad par­ent”. There’s too much ex­pec­ta­tion among par­ents, he be­lieves, that they should be per­fect and pleas­ant all the time.

“Chil­dren need to be able to know and tol­er­ate some­body who is frus­trated with them.” How­ever, he be­lieves there is a spec­trum for yelling and shout­ing. We have all been in the sit­u­a­tion where some­body is roar­ing ob­scen­i­ties at a small child and it is trau­ma­tis­ing even to wit­ness that and I am not con­don­ing that level.”

What a par­ent says and the tone used would be more of a con­cern to him “rather than if you raise your voice over a cer­tain deci­bel that your child will be trau­ma­tised, that I don’t sub­scribe to”.

Even if it’s not harm­ful, re­peated yelling has no ef­fect in term of dis­ci­pline or learn­ing. “It be­comes white noise; they just see that’s how Mammy and Daddy com­mu­ni­cate, through roar­ing and shout­ing,” Noc­tor says.

He agrees that “ide­ally we should all strive not to be yelling par­ents” and that we should use other strate­gies to try to get our mes­sage across. But he’s a re­al­ist.

Calm con­sis­tency

While we as­pire to calm con­sis­tency in our par­ent­ing, he ad­mits he, for in­stance, may be more likely to raise his voice “on a Thurs­day night when I’m re­ally stressed and tired, than I might do on a Sat­ur­day af­ter­noon when I am re­laxed. We should strive for con­sis­tency but be­ing hu­mans there will be times when the shout or the yell is more a mea­sure of our own in­ter­nal stress level than a child’s be­hav­iour.”

For many par­ents, it’s get­ting the whole fam­ily out of the house in the morn­ing on time is when those good in­ten­tions of be­ing calm and ca­pa­ble go com­pletely pear-shaped. The tod­dler melt­down over choice of clothes, the lost school jumper, the teenager’s 10 min­utes in the shower – just one of those is enough to spark loud ex­pres­sions of frus­tra­tion.

The com­ing to­gether of the fam­ily in the evening then presents an­other flash­point to ne­go­ti­ate – bed­time. And the guilt of par­ents about not spend­ing enough time with their chil­dren is com­pounded when what lit­tle time they have too of­ten de­scends into bad-tem­pered ex­changes.

It’s a sce­nario Aoife Lee of Par­ent Sup­port (par­entsup­ hears about fre­quently. The day be­fore we talk, she had done a se­ries of one-to-one ses­sions with par­ents work­ing for a Cork-based com­pany and half of them spoke about guilt at hav­ing too lit­tle time with their chil­dren and then, when they were with them, hav­ing rows.

“Chil­dren love at­ten­tion, whether it is neg­a­tive or pos­i­tive,” she points out. In the evenings, after the fam­ily has been sep­a­rated all day, is of­ten when they want it most from par­ents. Yet adults are likely to be com­ing in still buzzing from work­place stress and pre­oc­cu­pied with the ne­ces­sity of cook­ing din­ner, get­ting chil­dren to bed, pre­par­ing clothes for the morn­ing etc.

“The mad­ness of the evening can cre­ate all kinds of con­flict be­cause of time pres­sure,” Lee says.

From morn­ing to night, we are telling chil­dren to hurry up, agrees Noc­tor. “They are grow­ing up in that hur­ried cul­ture. That is where we are at and we need to be able to man­age it a lit­tle bit bet­ter” – but with­out, he sug­gests, al­ways giv­ing our­selves a hard time over it.

Mul­lally sees time as a key el­e­ment in the stress-yelling equa­tion. She re­calls re­cently ob­serv­ing an en­counter be­tween a par­ent and tod­dler, which would nor­mally have ended in a tantrum. But the par­ent was not in a hurry and, within 10 to 15 min­utes, the sit­u­a­tion went from near melt­down to the tod­dler be­ing co-oper­a­tive be­cause the par­ent was be­ing pa­tient and giv­ing choices.

“It re­ally struck me that so of­ten the melt­down, par­tic­u­larly with tod­dlers, is that we are try­ing to move them at an adult pace, not build­ing in enough time.”

Some­times there are un­avoid­able fac­tors, such as hav­ing to go out to work, which cre­ate time pres­sures, she ac­knowl­edges. But “some­times it is just the pace of life we have got caught up in, in­stead of think­ing, ‘is this re­ally a big deal, do we re­ally have to be out the door in five min­utes’, or can we just stop, catch our breath and think about what re­ally mat­ters here?”.

Los­ing it

As soon as the anger that fu­els an out­burst abates, few par­ents are proud after­wards about los­ing it with their chil­dren. Mul­lally sees re­gret as a help­ful trig­ger for change.

“Guilt can help us stop and think, ‘hang on that is not how I want to be’. Then I can in a sense re­cal­i­brate.”

She be­lieves that gen­er­ally chil­dren want to co-op­er­ate with their par­ents. “When they’re not co-op­er­at­ing, it is say­ing some­thing about how we’ve got out of step with each other and we the par­ents have to fig­ure out how to get back into step. It’s not about push­ing for com­pli­ance, it’s about how do we get back to co-op­er­a­tion?”

While it is not help­ful if we treat chil­dren as mini-adults, she adds, we can treat them with equal re­spect.

Lee says par­ents need to be aware that younger chil­dren have great dif­fi­culty self-reg­u­lat­ing or calm­ing them­selves. When they are an­gry or frus­trated they act out the be­hav­iour – go­ing into fight-or-flight mode.

“The dif­fer­ence be­tween adults and chil­dren is that adults can gen­er­ally iden­tify what’s go­ing on and what they need to do to be able to calm down – whether it’s breath­ing, hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion or go­ing for a run. Chil­dren can’t reg­u­late their emo­tions if they are up to high doh and it’s up to us to help them calm.”

That can be eas­ier said than done, she ac­knowl­edges, but there are re­sources, with a lot more aware­ness now of the value of chil­dren do­ing things like yoga, mind­ful­ness and med­i­ta­tion.

“If your child is los­ing it and so are you,” she adds, “it is up to you as the adult to ‘ground’ the sit­u­a­tion.”

When it comes to older chil­dren, es­pe­cially teenagers, I would ar­gue that a very oc­ca­sional, heart­felt rant has its uses. Noc­tor doesn’t dis­agree.

“If ev­ery­thing is calm and dul­cet and ne­go­ti­ated, how does the child know to what de­gree their be­hav­iour is up­set­ting you if you’re never up­set?

“We learn how to be­have when we see the im­pact of our be­hav­iour on oth­ers, that’s how we develop moral­ity, a sense of con­science,” he adds. “For chil­dren to see that their be­hav­iour is up­set­ting some­body else pro­por­tion­ately – and the re­sponse is pro­por­tion­ate to the up­set – that is ac­tu­ally a learn­ing curve, which is not nec­es­sar­ily trau­matic.”

If ev­ery­thing is calm and dul­cet and ne­go­ti­ated, how does the child know to what de­gree their be­hav­iour is up­set­ting you if you’re never up­set?


■ Top: Child psy­chother­a­pist Col­man Noc­tor with his chil­dren, Odhran; Above: Tanya Ward, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Chil­dren’s Rights Al­liance.

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