Shouting at your children could have the same effects as smacking, according to study

Come down for dinner! Don’t ride the dog!  Stop hitting your brother! We all know that shouting at our children is counterproductive. But is it realistic to be zen when you've asked your children to put on their shoes 75 times in a morning? Amanda Cassidy admits she's loud, but not proud.


"I just walk around closing the windows of my house before I roar at them - my poor neighbours," Angie admits she shouts at her children a little too much. The mother of three is not alone, as I discovered when the topic of yelling came up recently. "I shout until we leave the house, then warn them to be quiet in the driveway and then I pick it up again in the car," another mum admits.

I thought I was the only shouter in the village. I am generally a calm person and patient mother but there are times when I find myself raising my voice a little too easily. Now we live in a largely smack-free society, has shouting become the next parenting no-no? There is no limit to the research that points to shouting at our children being damaging. A 2014 study in the Journal of Child Development demonstrated that regular shouting not only leads to higher rates of depression and lowers your child’s self-esteem, but it also produces results similar to physical punishment in children.

One more recent study shows that in families where there’s 25 or more shouting incidents per year, children can suffer lower self-esteem, increased aggression and depression.

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How’s that for an extra dollop of guilt?

Related: Peaceful parenting: Who has time for that? 

I am mother, hear me roar

It is said that shouting at your children to control them is like using the horn to steer your car - we know it doesn't work. But let's get real for a second, we don't shout at our kids because, after careful consideration, we deem it the most effective strategy; we shout at them because we've lost our rag.

Child psychologist and father of three, Dr Coleman Noctor says we shouldn't feel too guilty if we resort to yelling. "Let's stop and acknowledge that we can't be expected to keep calm 24/7 – especially with small unruly children to herd through the day. First of all, shouting is a very broad term. Is it simply raising your voice? It depends if it is used to correct a mistake or if you are exposing your children to a constant barrage of yelling. It is unrealistic to imagine that if you see your three-year-old painting on the wall that you will be calm and unreactive.

There is a lot of parental guilt over this. If you were to read some studies you would think that by raising your voice to get your child’s attention or to communicate your sense of urgency, you are traumatising your child for life. I’m not so sure. Of course, if you are threatening or lose complete control it is a different circumstance entirely, and that has a very negative effect on young minds.”

Zen, schmen

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I’ve always believed that child development is about experiencing the positive as well as the negative in life. If I end up shouting in frustration, I try to explain to my child afterwards why I was so upset, I apologise and assure them that I am trying to do better. I want my kids to realise that we all make mistakes and we are all working on doing better.

Managing calm in all situations is my ultimate parenting dream, but it doesn’t always work out like that when it is 9 pm and they get out of bed for the 40th time with another elaborate excuse (I heard a chicken in my room). Equally, I have a friend who manages to resist the urge to scream and maintains an eerie sense of zen.  That is self-control at its finest and something I strive towards. (But surely the frustration leaks out somewhere?)  I also recognise that as a grown adult, I should know better than to intimidate or frighten a child with such behaviour. But sometimes what we know and what we do isn't always the same thing.

Dr Noctor says that the risk of being a ‘shouty mum’ all of the time is that the children will start tuning you out completely. He says it is better to not to let the situation escalate in the first place. “If you shout at your children for not eating their nuggets AND for nearly running out in front of a car, you risk losing the seriousness of the situation. Your children won’t learn to differentiate between the various levels of your guidance.”

Perhaps it is just a form of parental ignorance? Maybe shouting is to today’s parenthood that smacking was 50 years ago. Mostly everyone I know still shouts at their children sometimes – even those who know it doesn’t work, yet I don't know any who would slap a child (or admit slapping a child). Maybe our loss of control when it comes to using our voice is just a more acceptable parenting fail?

But what we supposed to do instead? Alan Kazdin is a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale. He believes that shouting (in general) is not a strategy, it’s a release. Speaking to the New York Times, Dr Kazdin said it is better to have an actual strategy that simply an emotive response. He refers to a program called the ABCs – antecedents, behaviours and consequences. In short, you set up the situation for the child and explain what you want them to do.

You define the behaviour, model it yourself and the consequence is the expression of approval when the behaviour is performed. “ So instead of yelling at your kid every night for the shoes strewn across the floor, ask him in the morning if he can put his shoes away when he comes home. Make sure when you come home that you put your own shoes away. And if your child puts his shoes away, or even puts them closer to where they’re supposed to be, tell him that he did a great job and then hug him.”

'Failing better'

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That's all very well in theory, but in practice, my son would look at me blankly and go back to his LEGO. What about a more realistic, not-from-the-book method that frustrated parents (who are also in the middle of making the dinner) can actually practice? Dr Noctor advises parents to develop a ‘look’ or gesture that indicates ‘Mummy is serious and we better not cross that line'. “My own mother used to rattle the drawer where the wooden spoon was kept.

She never once used it, but we associated that with the fact that you needed to pull back your behaviour. At the end of the day, a parent and child want to have a strong relationship. Come up with a signal that your child will recognise as your limit and work on showing them how not to cross it.”

For me, I hold up my finger and count one. My children know that by three I'm dangerously close to peak annoyed. They usually push it to two before they acquiesce. It works for us. I try not to go from zero to a hundred (but I do get up to eighty most days). To suggest I should never raise my voice throughout these tough parenting years isn’t helpful or realistic. I know I shouldn't shout at my children to "STOP SHOUTING'.

As the centre of my own household,  I am very aware that I am accountable for the tone that is set in our home. If I’m calm, the house is calm. If I’m losing it, everything is chaos. That is a big responsibility. I am not a perfect parent. I'd like to think I am good enough. I am working on remaining calm and we are muddling through it all together. The point is that I'm trying. There is always a better way - it is just about finding it.

Image via Unsplash.com

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