The long-lasting effects of yelling at your children

By Ronelle Swagerty, CEO of New Beginnings Family Academy

Mornings are the worst. Trying to get everyone up, fed and out of the house in time for school and work is not a task for the faint of heart. On a recent morning in the Swagerty household, my 17-year-old missed her school bus. We live in Bridgeport and she attends a New Haven high school so when she misses the bus, THAT’S A PROBLEM! I was already doing everything humanly possible to get myself and my 5th grader out on time and now I had to make an unscheduled stop to drop her off at the train station. And so it began.  

I tried to maintain my composure by speaking through clenched teeth at first. Before long, I was vomiting words on my child, downloading toxicity into her brain and jacking up her day. Actually, I didn’t just ruin her day. Although she was the target of my wrath, my words and the shrill tone I used to convey them were also heard by my son, resulting in an off day for him, too.  In that moment, my anger seemed to motivate everyone to get in the car, but we were all on edge. As I drove, a voice in my head kept repeating, “How did you get here? You know better!” 

 That voice was reminding me of all the scientific evidence I’ve read about the negative, long-term effects of yelling. It can damage children’s brains. It can lead to depression. It makes children feel unsafe in their own home.  Households with regular shouting incidents tend to have children with lower self-esteem and higher rates of depression. A 2014 study in The Journal of Child Development demonstrated that yelling produces results similar to physical punishment: higher levels of anxiety, stress and depression along with an increase in behavioral problems. It can cause deep psychological issues that carry well into adulthood. 

Stephen Marche, a novelist and the host of a parenting podcast available on Audible, writes in a New York Times article that yelling does not make you look strong to your children. “It doesn’t make you look authoritative. It makes you look out of control to your kids. It makes you look weak. And you’re yelling, let’s be honest, because you are weak. Yelling, even more than spanking, is the response of a person who doesn’t know what else to do.”  

Knowledge of this data contributed to NBFA becoming an emotionally responsive school where children feel safe enough to take intellectual risks because they are confident no one in the school is going to come unglued on them.   

So what do we parents do in the heat of the moment so that we don’t send our kids to school stressed out? Here are some pointers I wish I had followed: 

  1. Don’t say a word. Just breathe for a few seconds. We are a lot less likely to use our mouths as a weapon against our kids when we remain calm.   
  1. Do a positive reappraisal of the situation. In other words, look at the bright side.  
  1. Come up with a Plan B and articulate it as peacefully as possible.  

Alan Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale promotes a program called the ABCs, which often helps manage the most challenging and defiant children. ABC stands for antecedents, behaviors and consequences. The Antecedent is the setup, where you tell your children exactly what you want them to do before you want them to do it. Behaviors are where the desired action is defined and modeled by the parent.  The Consequence can be an expression of celebration when that behavior is performed or something logical when it is not. You can find more on the ABCs at Dr. Kazdin’s website, complete with free training here

Rather than yelling, I should have said, “Ok. Since you missed your school bus, I’m going to have to drop you off at the train station. (Antecedent). I need everyone in the car, buckled up for safety and ready to go in 4 minutes. (Behavior). In my case, everyone was late that morning, despite our best efforts and all my unnecessary yelling. (Consequence). Had I not lost my cool and began shouting, I might have made my teenaged daughter go to bed earlier that night or get up 10 minutes earlier in the morning. I did neither because I had already assaulted her with my tongue and felt she had been punished enough. 

Parenting is hard. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t. The good news is that if we are willing to learn and change our habits, our children will have far more pleasant than unpleasant mornings. Then, they will grow up to be healthy, happy, well-adjusted adults.     

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