I don't think there's any parent who can confidently say they've never yelled at their child. I certainly have (and do I feel guilty about it immediately afterwards? Yes, yes I do). Turns out, your toddler is processing a lot when you yell at them, and as you might expect, pretty much none of what they're processing is positive.
In an interview with Romper, Dr. Kathryn Smerling, a psychotherapist in New York City specializing in family systems, writes, "When a child hears a parent yelling, they feel terrible and don't understand what it is that they did, or they don't necessarily know that it's wrong. Yelling is a learned behavior, and a child who gets yelled at will learn and most likely also yell at people."
Of course, in the moment, it's easy to lose your cool. Every parent, whether they like it or not, has yelled at their child. Out of fear, out of frustration, out of anger — but that doesn't mean your child is destined to a life of feeling like you don't care about them or love them. It's absolutely worth taking a deep breath and rethinking the situation. As Smerling also suggests, "There is a way to let a child know that what they've done was wrong without yelling at them."
Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh discovered after two years of studying children who are yelled at consistently by their parents that “harsh verbal discipline” — cursing, insults, and shouting — can be just as harmful to kids as hitting or spanking. (Remember, that's consistently yelled at. Not happening once a week when you've already wiped up a spilled cup of milk that morning and now there's another because nobody listens about running in the kitchen.)
Meghan Leahy, a mother of three and parenting expert for The Washington Post, writes that when a parent yells, “You’re either growing aggression or growing shame. Those are not characteristics that any parents want in their kids. If you yell at your child, you either create somebody who yells back at you or somebody who is shamed and retreats."
Now, while I want to take a look at what children are feeling when a parent yells at them, I also want to stress that we are all human. It's important to keep all of this in mind and practice techniques to decrease yelling, but also to give yourself a break if it happens. We are all flawed humans, but luckily the resiliency of children means there is always another chance to be better. If nothing else, take a look at the parenting style of the Innuit living in the Arctic Circle. They do not believe in anger, as reported by NPR, saying that anger has no purpose and just "wastes time" (I see their point). They believe in storytelling as an approach to discipline, making yelling unnecessary. Kids whose parents don't take alternative approaches to yelling, on the other hand, often have the following thoughts when they're the innocent bystander of a parent's temper.
1. They feel insecure.
Yelling, no matter what context, is an expression of anger. And as a result, it can scare children and make them feel insecure. Psychology Today highlighted a recent study published in Journal of Child Development which discovered children raised in an environment where yelling is common are more likely to develop psychological issues and conditions such as anxiety, depression, stress and behavioral problems.
2. They can lose confidence with consistent yelling.
In a report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, researchers discovered that "a chronic pattern of psychological maltreatment destroys a child's sense of self and personal safety." In other words, a child's confidence and trust in you grows weaker and weaker the more yelling is used as a mode of communication. Think about tone and volume when you are correcting your child's behavior, and there are ways to effectively nurture your child as you discipline them, according to Very Well Family. You don't want them worried about telling you something or making a mistake.
3. I don't understand.
Research has shown that your child is less likely to be able to process what you're saying when you've lost your temper and are yelling at them. Essentially, your tone of voice matters in getting your point across, according to Dr. Brian Gersho, a clinical psychologist. Additionally, motivation for change skews. A child will do what you say to do, not because they understand their mistake and why you're yelling, but because they simply want the yelling to stop. Instead of yelling, try a deeper tone to indicate you are unhappy and the need for discipline.
4. I can yell, too!
We all know children are like little sponges from day one. According to Psychology Today, a Brown University study found that by age 9, most children have learned habits and routines that they will take with them into adult life. So that means if you are yelling at your child consistently, they're thinking to themselves, "I can yell, too!" The phrase "teach by example" has never been more true, and it's one you should remember when the urge to yell arises.
This post has been updated.