Is shouting an acceptable form of discipline? Do your kids push your buttons until you feel compelled to yell at them? Here’s why shouting does more harm than good, and some ways to help you deal more effectively with the frustrations of parenting.
Some parents deal with unacceptable behaviour by shouting at their children. They see it as a form of discipline. However, effective discipline is calm and delivered with a nurturing tone, so shouting actually falls under the category of punishment. Discipline is a form of teaching, through communication, which behaviours are acceptable and which are not. Discipline recognises that mistakes are an important way of learning. Yelling at a child will not stop unacceptable behaviour because no teaching has occurred.
Shouting at a child to startle them or catch their attention in the event of danger is of course perfectly acceptable and not harmful to the child. Children are professional button-pushers and at some point, most parents have raised their voices in anger. Occasional shouting won’t affect a relationship permanently; but if you yell at your child on a frequent basis, you need to be aware that the stakes are higher than you may realise.
What kind of damage is done?
Shouting at a child is especially damaging if the content of the shouting involves threats, comparisons with other children, negative labelling (eg, You are so useless!), blaming, undermining (eg, Get out of the way, I’ll do it, you’re too slow!), personal criticism, discouraging (eg, You always get it wrong!). Given that a person is rarely yelled at for doing good things, children who are consistently yelled at usually are exposed to these type of messages. It is also particularly important to remember that children judge themselves by their parents’ opinion of them.
Is it acceptable?
Consider also the fact that although most adults don’t often yell at other adults, many think it is acceptable to yell at children. This is a view that needs to be changed, as yelling is a form of emotional abuse which damages emotional and intellectual development. In fact, research suggests that emotional abuse is more predictive of mental health issues than physical abuse. Shouting at a child is insulting, demeaning and degrading. It is a form of attack, particularly as children are captive victims who are unable to leave their environment independently.
We need to surround our children with positivity, nurturing support, encouragement and mutual respect. Children need to feel loved, secure, safe, worthwhile, successful, helpful and to have boundaries and opportunities. They should not have to endure this type of assault on their self-esteem. Often children will not remember exactly what is said, but they will certainly remember how they were made to feel. It is crucial that we monitor how our messages are packaged.
The effects of shouting
Shouting causes kids to feel shame, belittlement and worthlessness. In the short term, it scares them, they lose trust in the adult, they don’t feel safe – and they learn to shout back. In the long term, it scars them with poor self-esteem and self-image, lack of self-control, impulsivity, temperament issues, lack of patience and mental health problems. It can also lead to physical and verbal aggression, social withdrawal and a lack of pro-social behaviours such as sharing and empathy. Children who experience yelling may have difficulty controlling their own anger, or alternatively will become timid and withdrawn and often struggle with friendships. Furthermore, they can have difficulty in school as they find it hard to respond to more positive forms of discipline and can experience difficulty concentrating, as they have learnt to tune out.
Why shouting doesn’t work
If shouting worked, we would only have to do it once, but what tends to occur is that it becomes a negative parenting pattern. Children quickly become immune to shouting and won’t do anything until you yell at them, as they have learnt that you only mean what you say when you yell. Therefore when you speak normally, they deem it to be unimportant. Adults typically shout to show children who is boss. Yet in some children, shouting can cause them to become more defiant and to power play with the adult. The message these children are internalising is: “If I’m worthless, I may as well misbehave.”
Shouting isn’t the only option – here are some alternatives
- Voice clear expectations and use consequences that have been made known to the child prior to the misbehaviour. Follow through with consequences consistently. This sends the message that you love your child enough to be truthful about what would happen. It is vital to follow up all behaviours with either positive reinforcement or a consequence. This is how we learn.
- Use a problem-solving approach which encourages children to think about the effect of their behaviours.
- Know and accept the developmental ability of your child. For instance, if you have a 2-year-old who wants to touch everything, analyse the environment (home and away) and do what you need to do to keep your child out of trouble by removing breakables, placing unsafe things out of reach, etc.
- Tell a child what to do, not what not to do, and refrain from using words like Don’t or Stop. Instead, rephrase your message so you are telling your child what they should do. For example, “Stop running inside!” should be rephrased as “Walk when you are inside, please.”
- Take time out for yourself and walk away. This models good anger management. You can say something like: “I am very angry at you. When I have calmed down, I will come back and we will talk.” This buys you some time to cool off and, as an added bonus, it is likely the child will stew while you are away and consequently reflect on their behaviour.
- Listen to yourself. Is this the reflection of yourself you want to portray?
- Whisper. Ironically, it is much more likely that you will be listened to.
- Have a humorous key phrase that you use to give your child time to amend their behaviour. For example, “Big trouble brewing in little mummy … how you gonna to stop it?”.
- Get support or seek outside intervention to assist you in preparing a discipline plan. Asking for help shows strength of character, not weakness.
Paula Galey (M Ed Psych (hons) Hdip Tchg) is a teacher who specialised in working with students with learning and behaviour difficulties. She currently writes educational resources while raising her three children.