What Yelling Does to A Child (and How to Stop It)



We’ve all been there. At one point or another, our frustration levels peak high on (or off!) the charts. Sometimes it’s a gradual climb to that place. At other times, it’s a rapid spike. Why? After all, at heart, we don’t want to yell. We don’t feel good about yelling, at least not afterward. And yelling rarely accomplishes what we wanted in the first place. So why do we do it? And what are the consequences of our yelling?

Well, if you’ve got kids, are a kid or used to be one – yes, that’s all of us – you probably know all too well that the result of a parent yelling can vary wildly from the original intent. The sad reality is that a parent’s yelling can lead to detrimental effects in their child, both in present day as well as into the future. From a logical standpoint, that doesn’t make much sense, does it? Why would we do something that we know isn’t likely to achieve our desired result, or in fact ends up having the exact OPPOSITE effect from what we wanted? The answer lies not in fact or logic, but rather in emotion. Read on to discover why we let our emotions take over, how the yelling can have negative consequences on children (especially adolescents and teens), how not to yell and what to do instead.

Why Do We Yell?

shutterstock_614382644Let’s start with the “why” of this unfortunate cycle, the source of the negativity and frustration. Why do people shout in anger? Why do we yell at one another? What’s the point of yelling to get our point across (especially when we already know it probably won’t help get our point across, and might even hurt)?

Yelling is something that races back to the primal days of humankind. Its source is in our amygdala, the “lizard brain” of days gone by. Yelling is the symptom of being in a heightened state of emotions. It is triggered by emotions such as:

  • Frustration
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

The last two are more than just emotions, of course, but actual (and often intertwined) psychological and emotional conditions. All of these are natural feelings to have. Life isn’t perfect, after all, and things are bound to happen that will make us feel… less than positive. How we react to those feelings, however, especially in regard to the people around us, will go far towards determining the kind of life we’ll end up leading. It’s not that “happy” or “successful” people don’t experience negative emotions; they’re just more likely to have the ability (taught by parents or otherwise acquired) to cope with these emotions and express themselves in more constructive ways. This is a form of effective communication. The other end of the spectrum, yelling and acting out in anger and frustration, results in poor communication. It’s quite likely that “yellers” acquired this behaviour in their childhood, by parent(s) and/or other influential adults in their lives. People in this category are far more likely to be leading a less-than-ideal lifestyle, one filled with the day-to-day of negative emotions and communication difficulties with other people.

shutterstock_627663749We can break communication down into two forms: verbal and nonverbal. Most communication, in fact, is nonverbal. Turns out that it’s not so much what we say (although that has impact, and the words can be beautiful or deadly) but how we say it. The tone behind the words, accompanied by facial expressions, body language and gestures, ultimately has more impact. If that tone is yelling or shouting, the impact could be exponentially worse than the communicator intended. Anger expressed in the form of yelling at someone, while a natural phenomenon, is something we must strive to avoid.

It’s not that everyone does this on a regular basis. But we all have, at one point or another. Some people are perhaps more “wired” for shouting, while others seems prone to patience. Are these genetic or acquired traits? For our purposes, it’s not a debate (genetics vs. environment) that we need to get into here. We can probably agree, though, that whatever a person’s “natural disposition” might or mightn’t be, growing up in an environment where adults (parents) are constantly expressing their frustration and anger in the form of yelling can be a highly negative experience. It’s made all the worse when that anger is directed towards the child, when the parent constantly yells at their son or daughter, and combines the harsh and negative tones with words that reflect a similar level of negativity. These words, even if not truly intended for the recipient, will most likely be taken to heart.

What Are the Consequences of Yelling at a Child? Who Gets Hurt?

shutterstock_243712939Yelling is a lose-lose proposition. In reality, despite what our true intentions may be (“getting my point across” is the usual suspect), chances are high that the recipient of the anger and shouting not only won’t accept the speaker’s (yeller’s) point of view, he or she will feel hurt by the words and tone being aimed. Over time, this leads to emotional wounds. The person who is the recipient again and again often begins to tune out the yelling. They won’t listen to what’s being said. They’ll just wait for the yelling to be over, at which point they can go back about their day. This is a form of “avoidance and disengagement,” as cited in a study by the University of Southern California. For children, especially for adolescents and teenagers, this is not good news, as it means that otherwise valid instructions or advice are being ignored. It means that the job of parenting is made much more challenging, and certain goals are not being accomplished. And, worst of all, this may be the best-case scenario.

The alternative to a child or teenager tuning out the yelling is taking the words (and the associated anger) to heart. This scenario has potentially far more dire consequences. It can take the form of:

  1. The child hearing what’s being said (yelled), believing it to be true, and suffering effects such as trauma, low self-esteem, and even extremes such as
  2. The child hears the yelling, becomes angry himself/herself, and fights back or resists

Neither of these are desirable. And while they’re not mutually exclusive, let’s tackle one at a time.

Untitled designVictims of yelling become troubled. When a child hears harmful words and a negative, harsh tone of voice from his or her parent(s), the results are far-reaching. First, there are immediate effects. The yelled-at child can suffer drops in self-esteem, which can end up causing him or to do worse in school, sports, etc. He or she could become disengaged, sad, even clinically depressed. Longer-term effects cover a range of behavioural and emotional difficulties, as the child goes through the teenage years and into adulthood. Lying, stealing and fighting could be some of the earlier symptoms. If left unchecked (and worse, if the yelling continues), these issues could blow up in adulthood. An adult who was yelled at as a child is likely to suffer from similar self-esteem issues, but the ramifications could be far more severe: relationship challenges, difficulties holding a job, even running into trouble with the law.

What happens when a child hears the shouting and forms resistance? This, by the way, is not mutually exclusive from the above self-esteem issues. A child could form low self-esteem and suffer depression and anxiety as a result of the yelling, but also develop the “fight” side of the “fight or flight” mentality. A son or daughter could yell back, go storming off to their room, even swing out violently in anger. This is escalation, and it’s a dangerous cycle if continued. What’s likely to happen when a parent yells, and the child or teen yells or hits back? That parent will probably yell some more, maybe louder and more forcefully this time. More swearing, more profanity, more hurtful word. Even worse, they could turn to physical violence. None of this benefits anybody. The child(ren) will end up being scarred, emotionally and maybe physically. And the parent won’t feel good about themselves in the long run, either. The vicious circle of yelling is truly a lose-lose scenario.

What Can We Do Differently? How Do We Not Yell? What’s the Alternative to Yelling?

shutterstock_350542424The obvious alternative to yelling is talking. Easier said than done, right? How are we supposed to “just talk” when the other person isn’t listening?

Well, maybe not so fast. Maybe instead of yelling, we can listen more as well.

Okay, we’ll get to that last one in just a second. First, the talking. How do we calm down, or stay calm? This is an age-old question, with an infinite number of answers. The bottom line is, find what works for you. Some suggestions include:

  • Catching yourself when you have the impulse to yell, and force yourself not to yell
  • Count down from 10 in silence, before you say another word
  • Ask yourself, “what did I hear or feel right before I had that urge to shout?”
  • Take a break; go outside, get some exercise, write in your journal, listen to some music… anything to distract you from the emotions that made you want to yell
  • Meditation – this is a longer-term approach, one that could work short-term as well… meditation is a practice, something that calms you and helps you get “centered” over time (and thus less likely to yell), but it can also be a welcome distraction the next time you feel the urge to scream
  • Find other ways to vent your anger… sports are good… even yelling into a pillow, or finding a place where nobody will hear you (e.g. the middle of the woods) and go scream there
  • Once you’ve gained a calm centre, it’s also a good idea to LISTEN to what the other person is saying

There’s a multitude of options. The important thing is to cut yourself off midstream, when you realize the urge to yell or shout, and exercise restraint before the shouting begins (and so that it doesn’t happen).

How Can Ottawa Youth Counselling Help You Find Ways of Not Yelling at Your Child or Teenager?

Our trained counsellors know all about anger, and have helped many Ottawa families find better ways to communicate better, without the yelling, screaming or shouting. For more information on how to foster a less angry, more positive environment in your family, we invite you to get in touch with Ottawa Youth Counselling.