Shouting at your children has to be one of the least attractive character traits that a parent can ever exhibit. But is it always wrong – and how do you stop shouting at your kids?
Many of us have a highly idealised vision of the kinds of people we see ourselves being in the future. Maybe we think that we’ll be very confident and effortlessly successful. Perhaps we have a picture of the strong, patient spouse that we will become. I could never have imagined myself as the sort of person who would end up shouting at my children.
I have long anticipated becoming a patient, kind and gentle father. This perception was heightened when my first child was born. When you hold a beautiful newborn baby in your arms, it’s almost unthinkable that one day you will become so wound up that you find yourself shouting at a child.
The truth, of course, is that most parents end up shouting at their children. None of us are the people that we want to be, and we often fail to achieve the best version of ourselves.
In this article we’ll be considering the issue of shouting at your children. Firstly we’ll consider why we shout at our children, then look at the harm that this can cause (spoiler: it can cause serious harm to your children – and to you) and finally consider some ways to help you stop shouting at your children.
Whilst this is an article for all parents, it’s particularly intended to speak to dads. Whilst it should be a cause for concern if anybody habitually shouts at their kids, research has consistently demonstrated that there is something particularly damaging about a verbally abusive father. It can literally change the brain structure of a child. The image of a powerful, adult male shouting angrily at young children is a shocking and terrifying one. If you’re a dad and you find yourself shouting at your children, we hope that this is the wake-up call (and a practical resource) to help you stop.
Why do we Shout at our Children?
One of the great paradoxes of life – and love – is that we often treat the people we love the worst.
In relationships people sometimes talk about the honeymoon period being over. It’s true that there comes a point in every relationship where we can find ourselves at risk of defaulting to mistreating our nearest and dearest.
The same principle applies in our parenting. Not many people would dream of shouting at a newborn, but as the months and years go by, and tiredness and frustration seep in, we can find ourselves slipping into behaviour patterns that are completely at odds with the love that we have for our children.
Parents shout at their children because they are angry and frustrated. Because parents get really, really tired. Because raising children is a demanding, all-consuming sacrifice. Because children staunchly refuse to do what we ask them to do. Because our children shout at us.
I know from my experience that I’m more likely to shout at my kids when I’m tired, which is something I generally can’t control (I work as a corporate lawyer and I live with two small people who often wake me up during the night). However, there are other external factors that influence the quality of my parenting that I can control. For me, these tend to be hunger, dehydration or running late for something. We’ll consider some of the solutions to shouting at your children later on, but for some of us there are some remarkably simple causes for the defects in our parenting.
Is it Okay to Shout at Your Children?
If you’ve made if this far you’ll have realised that the key message of this article is that it’s not okay to shout at your children.
Why is this? Here are 4 reasons why shouting at your kids is a bad idea.
1. Shouting at your Kids doesn’t work
Most of us shout at our children because they are not doing what we ask of them, or because we are unable to get to them to behave in the way that we want them to. The truth, of course, is that shouting is a highly ineffective way of communicating with anybody, let alone an infant. It’s well established that shouting at your children actually makes them listen to you less – and increases discipline problems. The more you shout, the less likely they are to understand you. When we shout at children, they harden and disengage. We see this in practice: shouting at my children doesn’t elicit any better a response than my previous requests or instructions.
2. Shouting at Children can be Emotional Abuse
Let me be clear: shouting at your children is not the same thing as abusing them. There are times when it is appropriate or even necessary to shout, perhaps because the child is in immediate danger or because they are harming another person. However, there is blurred line between shouting and emotional abuse, particularly as we are likely to say and do things in our anger that are disproportionate and unkind.
3. It can lead to Anxiety, Low Self-Esteem, Depression and more…
One of the reasons that having children is such a responsibility is that parenting is permanent. You’re ‘always on’, and you can’t undo the things that you say and to do your kids. Shouting at your children – particularly if it becomes a habit – can have a devastating effect on their development, leading to anxiety, low self-esteem and a range of mental health and wellbeing issues later in life. In fact, shouting at children “significantly and permanently [damages] their brains“. It can have as negatively an impact as physically disciplining your children.
4. You’re Teaching your Children to Shout Their Way through Life
One of the biggest problems with shouting at your children is that you are modelling a means of communication that they are likely to emulate. If you shout, they will shout. If you are aggressive, they are likely to copy you.Not only will this backfire spectacularly for you as your children grow up (try picturing that angry toddler when he is a strapping teenager towering over you) but there is a risk that your children will lack the emotional maturity to handle conflict or disagreement. If you’re shouting at your children, you’re doing them a massive disservice because you’re teaching them something that society simply will not tolerate when they grow up.
How to Stop Shouting at Your Children
Many parents will be caught in a difficult cycle whereby they don’t think it’s okay to shout at their children – but equally they don’t know how to stop.
Each of us is different, and the most important principle is that each of us must take responsibility for becoming the very best parent we can be. For many this will involve learning to manage anger, and ultimately finding ways to stop shouting at your children.
The following list of suggestions is largely borne out of personal experience.
i. The root cause of parents shouting at their kids is often that the parents feel as though they have ceded control to the children. It can be easy to feel powerless in this situation – and lash out. Instead, it can be helpful to remember that you are the adult, and you have more endurance than your children. We all know that patience is an important trait in a good parent, but this is easier said than done.
ii. Identify your personal risk areas and take practical steps to help you shout less. For example, if you are more prone to anger and frustration when you are hungry, try and avoid situations where you haven’t had enough to eat. If you have a stressful job and sometimes end it up taking it out on your children (or your partner), try and find ways to leave your profession at work and have a clear separation with your home life. If you’re tired, try and get some more sl… okay, so that one might not work.
iii. Try and have a healthy sense of perspective/context. I know that one of the most frustrating experiences I have as a parent is in trying to leave the house. I’ve had to learn that an obsession with being ‘on time’ – particularly for things that really don’t matter (like going to the supermarket) – can have a really detrimental impact on my parenting. I’m much less likely to become angry and shout if I remind myself that it’s okay that we’re taking a bit longer than usual to get out the house, and try instead to enjoy being present in the moment with my children.
iv. Try and improve your communication skills. Often in life we get frustrated that people aren’t listening to us. Usually we can help the situation by getting better at communicating. With young children this will often involve making eye contact, staying calm and making sure that they have fully understood what you want them to do and why.
v. Find more effective ways of disciplining your children. Ultimately, shouting alone is a very ineffective way to raise disciplined, well-behaved children.
vi. If all else fails, imagine your boss/parent/friend seeing you at your very worst. How does that make you feel? Now think how your children are going to perceive you if you spend their childhood yelling at them.
When is Shouting at Your Children Okay?
There are some arguments, of course, that shouting at your children is okay.
For starters, I don’t think any of us would dispute the fact that shouting is the correct way to respond when our children are in physical danger or are about to harm another person.
It goes a bit deeper than that though. We are all human, and none of us gets it right every day. This article from the Guardian in 2001 tells of a woman who was so horrified the first time that she shouted at her toddler that she immediately went round to the health visitor to confess. The health visitor laughed at her and told her to get used to it.
The danger is that in our guilt at shouting at our children we react in an opposite and (potentially) equally harmful way.
Some families experience huge, lasting conflicts as a result of conflict avoiding behaviour. Parents who never confront their children’s harmful behaviour risk might not verbally abuse their children, but they may (in a less obvious way) be creating a kind of emotional neglect. Many successful families are loud, boisterous environments where everybody – parents and children alike – airs their views and holds their own. Volatility doesn’t necessary lead to violence.
There is also a world of difference between a very young child, who won’t be able to understand why you are shouting at them, and a teenager (who will).
In the long run, though, there is much to be gained by learning to control your emotions and striving to parent in a controlled and balanced manner. We’ll all have our moments, and it’s important to apologise to our children when we overstep the mark.
Stop shouting at your children? On balance, we think so.