Your child has decided to use your living room as an extension to their colouring book. Squiggles are everywhere. It’s already been A Day™ – work has been stressful, the house looks like a bomb’s hit it, and now this.
It’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back and you shout. Your child is stunned into silence, their little eyes well up and then everything erupts – all at once you feel like the worst person in the world.
Sometimes, as parents, we shout at our kids. In some instances this is only natural: they might run out into the road or be reaching for something dangerous and you need to shout to alert them to the seriousness of the situation.
At other times, you might shout at them for being naughty because everything’s become a bit too much and this is the thing that’s tipped the scales. Some parents might simply become shouters out of habit – or because that’s how they were treated as children. But does shouting actually work to alter your child’s behaviour?
“Of course it doesn’t work,” says psychotherapist Laura Colquhoun. “Shouting scares them – they don’t really hear what you’re saying, they just feel really threatened and worried.”
Counsellor Daniel Browne agrees: “Shouting, particularly if it happens again and again, can lead to anxiety or the child growing up experiencing low self-esteem – or even becoming aggressive themselves as they grow up and using that not just as a form of punishment, but a way of communicating with others.”
There are two ways people learn to value themselves: internally and externally, says Colquhoun, who is a member of Counselling Directory. “Most of our external valuation – how we validate ourselves as children – comes from our primary caregivers, whether that’s mum or dad,” she says.
As their primary caregiver, you are like a god to your child, the therapist explains – their world revolves around you. If you’ve had a bad day, and you shout at your kid because you’ve lost control, your child isn’t going to be able to grasp the context surrounding that. They will simply process the shouting as meaning they are a bad child. “So ultimately, if a parent loses control and starts shouting at their child, it’s going to damage their [children’s] development,” she explains.
There have been some studies conducted on the impact of shouting at kids. One piece of research, published in the journal of Child Development, suggested verbal discipline – defined as shouting, cursing or using insults – had the same effect on teens as physical punishment.
Interestingly, verbal discipline didn’t work to reduce problem behaviour at all – rather, it aggravated it. What’s more, teens who were on the receiving end of verbal discipline suffered from increased levels of depressive symptoms.
Another international study involving kids aged eight to 12 years old found parental yelling or scolding were associated with increased child aggression and anxiety.
If shouting has become your go-to method – you might be trapped in a vicious behavioural cycle. “When you start off yelling at a child for doing something, your yelling is probably going to get worse over time,” says Colquhoun. “And the more you yell at the child, the more their bad behaviour’s probably going to increase, which means you’re going to have to yell more.”
Some parents shout occasionally and then proceed to beat themselves up about it afterwards – if this sounds relatable, please don’t stress. Parenting is complicated enough without sitting with this kind of guilt. “It’s horrible. Of course you feel incredibly guilty,” says Colquhoun, “you feel like the worst person in the world because you can see your child doesn’t understand what it’s all about.
“Life is hard – it’s particularly hard at the moment – and people do lose their temper. There’s a difference between occasionally losing your temper because you’re a human being and excessively screaming at your child all the time. All you have to do is distinguish between what’s abuse – and everybody knows where the boundaries are, it’s just whether you can live within them.”
If you do find yourself accidentally in a shouty situation, one of the best things you can do afterwards, suggests the therapist, is apologise and own it to repair the rupture. “It’s really important because you’re teaching them responsibility, accountability and you’re helping them understand,” she adds.
So, for example, you could say something along the lines of: ‘I’m very sorry. Mummy/Daddy has had a difficult day but that doesn’t excuse my behaviour. I really shouldn’t talk to you like that.’
“I would make them understand that I too, as an adult, am accountable for my actions because that’s the lesson I want my child to take away with them,” says Colquhoun.
On the whole though experts agree it’s best to save the shouting for when you need to express imminent danger to your kid. “If they’re used to you shouting and they start to cross the road and hear you shouting, they’re just going to think: ‘Oh mummy and daddy are being shouty again.’ They’re not going to realise that it indicates real danger,” says Colquhoun.
“You lose that ability to communicate real danger when it needs to be communicated.”
So – the big question then – what can parents be doing instead if their kids are playing up? Well, there are a few options. Having a candid chat is usually a good place to start. As adults we can easily forget that children do not automatically know what is right and wrong – we have to guide them on this.
“I think it’s better to help a child understand why what they’re doing is wrong,” says counsellor Daniel Browne. “And I think shouting is not going to get that message across.” Instead, he recommends having a calm discussion about why the behaviour is wrong, how it can be improved upon and to help the child reflect on what they’re doing. “I think the child will get more out of that,” he adds.
Colquhoun is a fan of the naughty step for when things get out of hand. “It’s an oldie but a goodie,” she says. But Browne notes some kids will respond better to this than others – “that’s for parents to make a judgment call on what they feel is best really,” he says. “Perhaps it’s about the way they do it as well – so they’re not shouting while they’re doing it and making it a traumatic experience, but explaining why this is a form of punishment and what they need to do to rectify their behaviour.”
Star charts can be useful for monitoring behaviour – and just as you can add stars, remember if they’ve misbehaved, stars can be taken away. “But you can’t just do stick, you have to do carrot as well,” says Colquhoun. “Let them earn the star back [by doing something good].”
The psychotherapist, who is a mother herself, suggests that sometimes it can be helpful to get your child to draw a picture to say sorry – or get them to tidy up if they’ve made a mess. If they’ve ripped up some paper or a book, you could get them involved in planting a tree in the garden to make up for it.
If a child has done something naughty and emotions are high in that moment, it might be better to wait until later to explain what the problem was. Engage in an activity that your child enjoys and use that time, when the child is enjoying themselves, to talk about what wasn’t great about their behaviour previously, suggests Colquhoun.
She’s a big believer in teaching a child something and making it enjoyable at the same time to reinforce healthy, positive changes in their behaviour. Doing it in a calm environment isn’t going to hurt, either. A study from the National University of Singapore suggests that when our voices are filled with emotion, what we say doesn’t necessarily stick in the brains of others, whereas if our voices are neutral, people are more likely to remember what was said.
“It’s gently reinforcing the concept of accountability, of what it means to be disruptive, and then doing that in a loving way so your kid doesn’t fear retribution,” concludes Colquhoun. “Because all that will do is make them act out more.”