By Jenn Sturiale
Hey parents: Raise your hand if you've ever yelled at your kids (this is the Internet; no one's looking). After you've made your ten-trillionth request to "please stop torturing your little sister," it's easy for enlightened parenting techniques to evaporate in a cloud of overwhelmed frustration. Result: yelling.
The problem is, yelling never feels good, for anyone. When was the last time you felt better after someone yelled at you, or you yelled at them? New research suggests that yelling at kids can be just as harmful as hitting them; in the two-year study, effects from harsh physical and verbal discipline were found to be frighteningly similar. A child who is yelled at is more likely to exhibit problem behavior, thereby eliciting more yelling. It's a sad cycle.
If you're a parent who frequently yells at your kids, see if any of these excuses resonate:
But... my kids don't listen if I don't yell. "Kids are actually going to listen less when you yell at them," says Joseph Shrand, Ph.D., instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Outsmarting Anger: 7 Strategies for Defusing Our Most Dangerous Emotion. "As soon as you begin to raise your voice, you activate their limbic system, which is an ancient part of the brain that's responsible for, among other things, the fight-or-flight response." The result may be the opposite of what you're hoping for, as your kids will freeze up, fight back or run away. Try communicating a request instead of a command, and see if you notice the difference.
But... shouting is the only way I get respect from my kids. It may seem like shouting garners respect, but it actually does more harm than good. "You're basically saying, 'You have no value to me,'" says Shrand, "and a human being, in their heart of hearts, simply wants to feel valued by another human being."
But... if I don't yell, they won't take me seriously. Yelling generates fear, not respect, so yelling at your child may actually be a form of bullying. Instead, try Shrand's "Stop, Look and Listen" method: Stop what you're doing. Make eye contact with your kids, showing them they're valuable. Then listen to what they're saying, talking with them, not at them. "It's much cooler to discover who your kid is than to try to mold them into who you want them to be," he observes.
But... I can't help it! I just lose my temper sometimes. You can help it, though. Don't believe me? Ask yourself this: If you were in the middle of screaming at your kids and someone you really respected (your boss, the president of your co-op board, Michelle Obama) suddenly knocked on your door, wouldn't you immediately stop the yell-fest? Blowing your top makes kids feel alienated, devalued and distant. Instead, take a deep breath and consider what you want to see happen. Approaching the situation from a calmer angle will create better results without causing emotional damage.
But... I don't have time to reason with them. Talking with kids doesn't take more (or less) time than yelling at them. Remaining calm conserves energy, giving us emotional resources to work with our kids instead of against them.
But... if I don't yell, I might spank them. "For parents who have hit their children," says Shrand, "it's important to step back and recognize that the way to get anyone to do anything is through respect and communication. When someone feels trusting, they will want to do things for you in a way that you'd never be able to get them to do through force."
But... the damage is done; I've been yelling for years! "The brain is remarkably fluid," says Shrand. "It's maturing, it's evolving, it's creating new connections... this is called 'neuroplasticity.'" In other words, it's never too late to change your approach. Remember: Showing your kids respect can rekindle their sense of self-worth. "When is the last time you got angry with someone who was treating you with respect?" asks Shrand. "Respect leads to trust, and trust allows us all to unleash our unlimited human potential."