Last fall, the journal Child Development published research findings stating that yelling at your kids can be just as bad as spanking and could cause behaviour problems and emotional development issues. According to the study, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor determined that severe verbal discipline from parents is particularly destructive to tweens and teens. Adolescents whose parents had been using yelling as a discipline method were more likely to have behavioral issues and to act out (including with vandalism and violence). The effects of frequent verbal discipline and insults were comparable to those of physical discipline (like spanking and hitting) over the course of the two-year study.
This topic has long been explored by child psychologists. A study published back in 2003 in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that in families where there’s 25 or more yelling incidents in 12 months, children can end up with lowered self-esteem, an increase in aggression toward others, and higher rates of depression. From what I have seen in my psychology practice, yelling increases anxiety in children as well. Considering how often parents can lose their temper, these findings are good reason to stop yelling, particularly doing it in a condescending manner.
Here are some powerful, effective tips from my book 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child to help you avoid the yelling trap with your child or teen.
1. Be an active listener.
If you are in a conflict, draw your child out to see how he genuinely feels. Avoid being overly judgmental, which leaves your child feeling criticized and will cause him to become defensive. One of my clients, Ken, shared with me how he found it helpful to say to his 12-year-old son, Troy: “Please help me understand why you seem upset.” Just that simple statement helped Ken remember to listen to rather than lecture his son. Even if Troy did not give Ken an immediate answer, Ken realized that by asking this question he left the door open for Troy to share this thoughts and feelings later on. This question also helped prevent Ken from going into what Troy referred to as “lecture mode.”
2. Use understanding to slow yourself down.
Listening as described above helps you to dig deeper and understand what's really going on with your defiant child. This is perhaps the best antidote to yelling. While understanding alone may not stop you from yelling, it will help. Try to analyze what it is that you'd like your child to change, and then rationally explain it to him. For example, in the case of a messy bedroom, ask yourself what is okay and what you'd like him to stop doing. Kayla, the mother of 131-year-old Gordon, realized that she could live with some clothes on the floor but not with two-week-old potato chips in the corner. As another example, is it possible that your son refused to get ready for school because he has a test he is not ready for? Or is your daughter scared of being rejected by her new group of friends and is taking it out on you? Stay mindful that understanding what is going on with your child will help slow you down emotionally. The more you slow down, the less emotionally reactive you will be, and the less likely you are to yell.
3. Don’t take it all so personally.
In his book The Four Agreements, Miguel Ruiz writes, “Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you…” This is valuable wisdom to keep in mind. If you stop and think about it, most of the time you yell at your defiant child, it’s because you are taking her behaviors too personally. Realize that your defiant child, even if trying to provoke you, is really behaving in this manner because of his or her own struggles, not yours. Remembering this will help you not get so frustrated and your risk of yelling will be much lower.
Dr Jeffrey Bernstein is a psychologist, personal and executive coach, and motivational coach in the greater Philadelphia area. He has been on the Today Show, Radio, and has written four popular books, including 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child.