Parents raise their voices more than they raise their hands to their kids. But some words yelled in anger can have as harmful an impact as spanking.
With four rambunctious boys ages 4 to 12, single mother Jennifer Gallagher often finds herself yelling her throat raw. "You feel like if you just talk to them, they don't hear you," says Gallagher, who lives in northeastern Pennsylvania.
So she yells when the boys fight, yells when they don't do their homework, yells when she has to tell them something five times. By the sixth time, the request comes out louder than an opera singer's aria. "Sometimes I yell so much, I worry that they're waiting for me to yell before they'll even move, they're so used to it."
Gallagher hates that she yells so much, and feels pretty bad once she calms down, but what she does is no different from what thousands of other parents do every day. Today, there's an entire generation of parents who grew up in an era of school paddlings, trips to the woodshed, and learning to flinch any time Dad removed his belt.
This generation has sworn they wouldn't hit their kids. The problem is, the same anger and frustration that fueled the old model of corporal punishment didn't magically vanish merely because a generation of well-meaning parents wanted it to. Instead of letting anger lead to hitting, it now often leads to shouting. But that simple act of raising our voice, depending on what we say and how often we do it, can hold the potential for long-term harm, says Murray A. Straus, a sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire.
According to a study by Straus published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, 74 percent of parents surveyed reported yelling or screaming at their kids. And not just once or twice. Most yelled or screamed at their children at least 25 times during the past year. That number might be higher, says Straus, because this study relied on parents to report their own behavior, which they probably weren't proud of or might occur so often that it was forgotten or taken for granted.
To be sure, raised voices are a normal part of many households. Yelling for a child who is outdoors or three rooms away probably isn't going to cause any lasting damage. Shouting at a child who is about to do something dangerous may be startling, but it's not intended to be harmful -- just the opposite. And if a family is naturally loud and gregarious, shouting may almost be the norm.
But when a parent is face to face with a child and shouting at her in clear anger or frustration, then experts like Straus worry about the impact such an instance of psychological aggression can have. In those moments, some parents can lose control and while they may not strike out physically, the words they throw at the child -- especially if those words include insults or threats -- can cause lasting harm.
Straus, a pioneer in the field of family interactions, is a parent himself, with two grown children. He understands how difficult it is not to yell at kids after you've told them for the 20th time to clean their room, or when they've trashed the basement, finger painted all over the kitchen wall, or taken the car without asking.
But then he asks an interesting question: Do you yell at a bumbling coworker? Do you yell at the grocery clerk who puts the canned soup in the same bag as the loaf of bread? Do you yell at your child's teacher when you think she's being unfair? Not usually. So why do we feel it's okay to yell at our kids?
"Part of the answer is that there are implicit cultural norms that say it's acceptable to yell at children, whereas the opposite is true at work," says Straus. Changing this cultural view means recognizing that yelling at your kids is just as wrong as yelling at your office mates. "If we can just get that point of view across, then people will be keen to use alternatives because they'll know that what they're doing is wrong."
Some parents have already figured it out. Pat Curry, a writer from Watkinsville, Georgia, says she has made a point of not yelling at her two teenagers. "When someone is yelling at me, I stop listening. I try to remember that." Even when her kids yell at her (as teenagers are wont to do), Curry stays cool. "I'm the grown-up and I need to remember to set the example of being in control -- even when I'm really mad."
While all the parents interviewed for this article agree that yelling at your kids isn't a good idea, many take issue with Straus' assertion that parents should never shout as a means to correct or control misbehavior (everyone agrees raising your voice is okay to get the attention of a child who is about to do something dangerous).
"Sometimes there is that rare occasion when yelling catches a child's attention in a way that polite discussion does not," says Amy Rea, who lives in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, with her two sons, 10 and 8. But by yelling, Rea means raised voice, not demeaning language. "Insulting and degrading kids is never okay," she says.
And that's the key, says Lisa Pion-Berlin, president and chief executive officer of Parents Anonymous, Inc., the nation's oldest program for the prevention of child abuse and neglect and for strengthening families. "No, yelling all the time is not great," she says. "But the context of what you're saying is most important. If you're saying to your kid, 'You're worthless,' that's different than yelling at your kid to get his clothes on."
In other words, it's when you attack a child's core values, his self-esteem, with statements like "I don't love you anymore" or "I wish I'd never had you" that the damage occurs, says Pion-Berlin.
Although there are short-term tricks to keep from yelling, parents need to address the problem with a long-term solution, she says. That means creating a support network, formal or informal, that you can turn to when your frustration builds. It could be a neighbor who agrees to take your kids for a couple of hours when you've used up your last drop of patience, or a formal support network like Parents Anonymous. Even having a group of friends with children the same age makes a big difference, because you can compare notes and share advice. Say your teenager breaks curfew. Don't yell at her the minute she walks in. Instead, calmly say, "We'll discuss this later." The next day, contact friends who have teens for advice and devise a strategy.
It's also important to be aware of your child's developmental ability, says Carolyn Cass Lorente, professor of human development at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "If you know your 1-year-old is going to put things in her mouth, you can't yell at her, because that's how she's learning about her world." If you know that a 2-year-old is going to touch everything, get the breakable bowl off the table instead of constantly yelling at him to leave it alone. And if you know that adolescents have a strong need for independence, you should make an effort to be more understanding when your teen tells you she's not interested in going away with you for the weekend.
Also keep in mind that yelling at kids is ubiquitous, cutting across all cultures to varying degree, according to Straus. "But people are getting more educated about yelling and its effects," says Straus. His advice: Consistency and persistence, saying the same things over and over. "It's what's necessary with children," he says.
Here are some other strategies that parents use when they feel the screaming begin to bubble up.
Defuse with humor. Attempt the most out-of-character thing you can think of. One parent began laughing as she felt the urge to yell at her 7-year-old daughter. Not just giggles, either, but raucous guffaws. This same mother also once grabbed a can of whipped cream and began spraying it at her son instead of yelling at him.
Sing. Even though you really want to begin screaming, start singing, particularly a song your kid hates. The worse your voice, the louder you should sing.
Send your kid outside. Don't do this with little ones or if you live in an unsafe area, but if you have school-age children and they've just pressed your last button, calmly walk to the front door, open it, and tell your child to step outside and get some fresh air for a specific number of minutes. This outdoor time-out will be enough to silence them, and the silence will give enough time for you to cool down.
Whisper. The madder you get, the lower your voice gets until you're whispering. Your child will have to listen in order to actually hear what you're saying.
Invade your child's space. If your child isn't listening and you're ready to yell, get nose to nose with your child and gently put one hand on either side of your child's head, forcing him to look directly into your eyes. Then tell him what he needs to hear -- without shouting.
Insist once, act immediately. Without yelling, tell your child that if she doesn't do as you say immediately, X (a time-out or the loss of some privilege, such as watching TV) will occur. Count to three, and if she doesn't do it, implement X. Then walk away and refuse to listen to any arguing. Do not give more than one warning.
Put yourself in time-out. When you feel the yell building, leave the room. Go to your bedroom, close the door, and lie on the bed with a cold washcloth over your face.
Create a key phrase. One mom's key phrase -- uh ohhhh -- uttered with grave severity and a stern look, is all that's needed for her daughter to know she's doing something wrong. Another mother combines several tips. She takes a deep breath, gives her kids "the look," then says, quietly, "You are in big, big trouble. If I were you, I would do what it takes to get out of trouble right away, otherwise...," and outlines what the specific punishment will be. She makes sure to follow through.
Create a no-yelling rule -- for both parent and child. There's nothing like having to face being berated by your 6-year-old to keep your tongue in check.
Parents Anonymous, Inc. The nation's oldest program for the prevention of child abuse and neglect and for strengthening families. 909-621-6184 www.parentsanonymous.org
Parent Resources for the 21st Century Strives to help families meet the formidable challenges of raising a child by addressing topics that include school violence, child development, homeschooling, organized sports, child abuse, and the juvenile justice system. www.parentingresources.ncjrs.org
Originally published in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, August 2004.