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What Am I Doing to My Kid When I Yell?

Delaware Fatherhood and Family Coalition - Thursday, July 11, 2019

What Am I Doing to My Kid When I Yell?

Short answer: You're setting yourself up for a lifetime of shouting matches.

By Jonathan Stern fatherly.com Updated Jul 09 2019, 4:34 PM


Yelling at kids often occurs unconsciously. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel effective. After all, yelling often feels like the best technique for getting a kid’s attention, punishing them, or simply expressing feelings of anger. But all of the shouting, screaming, and yelling at kids is deeply unhelpful to parenting.

According to Dr. Laura Markham, founder of Aha! Parenting and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting, yelling is clearly a parenting “technique” we can do without. But she’s also a realist. You get three hours of sleep a night, you’re going to lose it. The good news is that the psychological and emotional damage to a kid is minimal when parents yell (assuming it’s not true verbal abuse). The bad news is that those who are doing it constantly are setting up more shouting matches later in life.


Grown-Ups Are Scary When They Yell

The power parents hold over young kids is absolute. To them, their folks are humans twice their size who provide things they need to live: Food, shelter, love — Nick Jr. When the person they trust most frightens them, it rocks their sense of security. And yes, it’s truly frightening for a child. “They’ve done studies where people were filmed yelling. When it was played back to the subjects, they couldn’t believe how twisted their faces got,” says Dr. Markham. A 3-year-old may appear to push buttons and give off an attitude like an adult, but they still don’t have the emotional maturity to be treated like one.


Yelling at Kids Is Never Communicating

Nobody (except for a small percentage of sadists) enjoys being yelled at. So, why would kids? “When parents yell, kids acquiesce on the outside, but the child isn’t more open to your influence, they’re less so,” says Dr. Markham. Younger kids may bawl; older kids will get a glazed-over look — but both are shutting down instead of listening. That’s not communication.


Yelling Makes Kids Fight, Flight, or Freeze

Dr. Markham says that while parents who shout aren’t ruining their kids’ brains, per se, they are changing them. “Let’s say during a soothing experience [the brain’s] neurotransmitters respond by sending out soothing biochemicals that we’re safe. That’s when a child is building neural pathways to calm down.”

When a toddler with underdeveloped prefrontal cortex and not much in the way of the executive function gets screamed at, the opposite happens. “The kid releases biochemicals that say fight, flight, or freeze. They may hit you. They may run away. Or they freeze and look like a deer in headlights. None of those are good for brain formation,” she says. If that action happens repeatedly, the behavior becomes ingrained.


How to Keep From Yelling at Kids

  • Remember that the younger children are, the less likely their button-pushing behavior is intentional. Give them the benefit of the doubt.
  • Consider that yelling teaches children that adversity can only be met with a raised and angry voice.
  • Use humor to help a kid disengage from problematic behavior. Laughter is better than yelling and tears.
  • Train yourself to raise your voice only in crucial situations where a child might get hurt. Then lower your voice to communicate.
  • Focus on engaging in a calm dialogue. Yelling shuts down all forms of communication between you and the child and often prevents lessons from being learned through discipline.

Parents Who Yell Train Kids to Yell

“Normalize” is a word that gets thrown about a lot these days in politics, but it’s also applicable to a child’s environment. Parents who constantly yell in the house make that behavior normal for a kid, and they’ll adapt to it. Dr. Markham notes that if a child doesn’t bat an eye when they’re being scolded, there’s too much scolding going on. Instead, parents need to first and foremost be models of self-regulation. In essence, to really get a kid to behave, grown-ups have to first.


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About DFFC

The Delaware Fatherhood & Family Coalition is an extension of the Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program and the Responsible Fatherhood Initiative created specifically to give a voice to fathers and the importance of their involvement for the well-being of their children.


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