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Is Yelling at Kids as Harmful as Spanking? Experts Weigh In

Is Yelling at Kids as Harmful as Spanking? Experts Weigh In

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Updated on Jan 24, 2014

In the grand scheme of parenting, spanking has gone the way of the dinosaur. While a quick swat on the behind was once common, parenting experts and mental health professionals alike have long expounded on the perils of corporal punishment as a parenting method.

Not spanking your child is a step in the right direction—but if you default to yelling instead, you might be doing more harm than you think.

Is Yelling at Kids Normal?

Statistically speaking, raising your voice is a normal parenting behavior. When polled in a 2003 University of New Hampshire study, 75 percent of parents copped to yelling at their children at least 25 times per year. Whether it's to gain control of a situation, to vent aggressive feelings, or just to feel heard, raising your voice can make you feel better.

But that doesn’t mean yelling isn’t causing harm, according to a study about yelling in a 2013 issue of Child Development. The findings were astounding: Harsh verbal discipline—including cursing, yelling, and insults—led to an uptick in adolescent depression and adversely affected adolescent conduct. So while you might feel like a little yelling is harmless, you could be doing more damage than you think.

What You Can Do

While it may not physically hurt your kid like spanking, raising your voice too often can put impressionable kids in a world of hurt. Here are some steps to ditch your yelling in favor of more effective, less damaging discipline the next time your child behaves badly.

  • Take ten to maintain your cool. When you feel yourself getting heated, walk away from the situation before you snap. "Yelling is a loss of control, much in the same way that hitting is a loss of control," says clinical psychologist Linda Smith. "When a child grows up in a home where people lose control frequently, they have much fewer opportunities to learn how to stay in control themselves." If you can avoid exploding at an ear-splitting volume, it’s important to understand that you’re modeling that behavior as an appropriate response to anger. The next time your child comes home with a failed test, let him know that you'll talk about it later and go calm down before you discuss the topic.
  • Consider the outcome. What do you hope to achieve by yelling? Identifying the source of your child’s behavior is key to figuring out how to effectively deal with it. Instead of bellowing, take a few deep breaths and talk to your kid in a calm manner, asking questions that get to the root of the problem. "When parents learn how to effectively help their children learn to get what they want responsibly and respectfully, there is no need for spanking or yelling," says developmental psychologist Nancy Buck.
  • Turn the tables. Before you yell at your own child, consider how you'd react if you were on the receiving end of the lecture. When your boss or spouse starts yelling, you probably stop listening—or question your ability to be an effective employee or partner. "Yelling articulates hostility and anger,” warns licensed profession counselor Shannon Battle. “It communicates language that penetrates the confidence and feelings of your child.” If the message of your aggressive boss gets lost in his shouting, how can you expect your child to hear your message when you’re doing the yelling?
  • Go for firm—not loud. While volume might seem like the best way to get your point across, aim for a firm—not loud—tone of voice. Being firm without screaming is the best way to show your child you mean business without causing him unnecessary stress. "If yelling is chronic and parents have difficulty managing their anger, children can become hypervigilant and develop anxieties that can also create other problems in their lives," says psychologist Robert W. Banks.
  • Consider the context. Everyone loses their temper and raises their voice every so often. But when it comes to yelling, context is everything. Yelling and insulting your child because of his grades will have a deeper negative impact than say, yelling about a messy room. Make sure that you're not saying anything you wish you could take back.
  • Set a good example. If your child screamed at—or worse, hit—his pals during a playdate, you would be mortified. However, that’s exactly the behavior you’re encouraging when you yell. "Both yelling and spanking are destructive disciplinary tactics that promote violence in your child,” says Battle. “Children that get yelled at by their parents tend to communicate in the same manner with others.”
  • Avoid setting a precedent. If you resort to yelling to get your child’s room clean or homework done, you could be laying the groundwork for long-term, harmful discipline methods. Licensed marriage and family therapist Lisa Bahar notes that yelling could condition your kids. "Conditioning occurs at parenting; therefore, yelling will become most likely the norm to consequences, meaning the behavior change may or may not occur unless yelling is part of the process."

Hey, even peaceful parents can lose it occasionally. The trick to disciplining your children isn't about spanking and yelling, but by making sure they really listen. By retooling the way you deliver your message, you can ensure that you're heard loud and clear without ever having to raise your voice.

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