Yelling at Children May Be More Harmful Than You Think

by Minnie Hawkins

We hear it in homes, grocery stores, and in school hallways. Sometimes we even hear it in churches. What is this spectacle? It’s yelling at children! Is it necessary? Is it an effective form of discipline or is it damaging to children?

Research shows that yelling is one of the most harmful actions adults can do to children. Consider adult-to-adult behavior for a moment. When one grownup makes a request of another grownup and he does not comply, does yelling bring about obedience? Not only does it not stimulate conformity, but it actually sets up an attitude of resistance. Children respond the same way and here are several negative effects of constant exposure to yelling.

First, yelling at children attacks their humanity and self-esteems, the beliefs and feelings they have about themselves. Children need all the help they can get to maintain healthy self-esteems. Those who develop low confidences have trouble handling anxiety and finding solutions to common problems. They are easily frustrated, passive, withdrawn, and often suffer from depression. Since children’s brains are still developing, it is hard for them to put labels on what they feel. They just know they hurt. On the other hand, children with healthy self-images handle conflicts well, resist negative pressures, smile a lot, and have optimistic outlooks on life.

Second, yelling desensitizes children to normal voice levels. Children should be expected to respond to conversational tones. However, when yelling is what they normally hear, commands, requests, questions, and the like, spoken in casual levels blend in with common environmental sounds. Many children have auditory processing deficiencies and sounds are distorted to them. Yelling makes processing even more difficult because the muffled sounds are loud and the children’s brains do not know what to do with them.

Incidentally, to communicate effectively with a child who is desensitized to a normal voice level by being yelled at, get in close contact. Tap him on the shoulder to establish eye contact. Then speak into his right ear in a conversational level voice, state the request, and ask the child to repeat it. If he cannot do so, restate the request and ask him again to repeat it back. If he can repeat it, wait until he complies.

Third, yelling sets a harmful model for the way children interact with other children and adults, including authority figures. When children display the learned, yelling behavior, it puts them in difficult situations that can result in social isolation as well as receiving disciplinary actions. Children become confused as to why they are punished for showing the same behavior modeled by adults.

The last negative effect of yelling at children is that it challenges or destroys their sense of safety. Children have an inherent right to feel that there are emotional and physical places where they can go and harm will not follow them. When children do not feel safe, they perceive they have no power over what happens to them. Many times they cannot put words to what they feel.

Some sources take a position that constantly yelling at children is mental child abuse and is as toxic as physical child abuse. Often times, the sting of words and tones last a lifetime. Abuse that occurs during early child development can cause the child to grow into an adult with self-destructive behavior and abusive traits. It is well documented that without effective intervention, children who are abused go on to become abusers.

One more critical factor that research shows is that adults who constantly yell as a form of discipline oftentimes feel bad about it but do not have effective skills they can use. They are overwhelmed.

Even the most patient adult can reach a limit and occasionally raise the decibel of the voice. This behavior must not become commonplace. It is far more effective when working with children to have a standard of raising the voice when it is a matter of safety and adults need children’s immediate attention and action. When grownups yell, “Stop,” “Come back,” or “Put that down,” for example, children will know a critical situation exists maybe even a matter of life or death.

Adults who yell as a method of discipline must consider the harm it does and actively seek effective, non-threatening parenting skills. They should not let pride keep them from getting professional help. Many parenting classes are free and readily available.

The destiny of our country depends on producing healthy children who have bright outlooks on life. Each grownup is obligated to do what is necessary to influence them in a positive manner. That means being equipped with effective discipline tools. Yelling is not one of them.

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