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Yelling in the family - effects on children

Yelling; shouting; emotional; abuse; child; noise; child abuse; anger; angry ;

If yelling harms children's feelings about themselves, makes them afraid or so worried that they are unable to play or learn freely it can be very damaging. So it is important to think about how often you shout at children, what you say, and what else is happening in their lives.


Many parents worry if yelling at children can hurt them. This varies in different families and different children and with what is said.

Children's needs

Children need:

  • to feel loved
  • to feel secure
  • to feel safe
  • to feel that they are worthwhile
  • to feel caring limits
  • to feel that they can succeed at some things
  • to feel that they can contribute - be helpful
  • to have opportunities to explore and try new things.

Talking to them in a way that endangers any of the above needs is likely to damage their emotional development.

Family influences

  • Some families are loud. It is a pattern in the family to speak loudly or shout and children who are brought up in this atmosphere get used to the noise and are not likely to be harmed by it - unless the yelling is putdowns or scary. Sometimes children from these families have trouble at school because they have not learned to respond to directions when they are given more softly.
  • If parents shout at children when they are angry the child can feel the parents' anger and it can make children fearful.
  • If parents shout at each other, young children may not understand that they are safe and it can be terrifying, especially if one of the parents leaves or gets upset so the children no longer feel safe in the care of the people they trust to look after them.
  • If parents often criticise each other in front of the child it can endanger the child's security and damage their confidence in themselves - because each parent is part of them as well.
  • If a family is always used to shouting and competing for 'air-space' the children may not learn to be good listeners and to allow others a chance to talk.

The child

  • Children differ in their ability to cope with noise and shouting.
  • Some children seem not to notice it very much, others will wince when they hear loud voices and are obviously upset by them. These children can be made fearful if there is a lot of yelling.
  • Many babies and very young children can be frightened by shouting, particularly by men who have loud deep voices.
  • It is important to watch the child's response and not to continue with behaviour that makes a child fearful or insecure.

What is said

As well as the noise and angry feelings that sometimes go along with shouting, the most important effects on children are from what is said.

  • Anything which harms a child's self esteem in any kind of regular way can be damaging.
  • Sometimes, especially when parents are under pressure, they have to say something to express their frustration.

It may be helpful to think in advance about what to say to relieve feelings so whatever is said does not damage the child. For example: "I have had a terrible day and I need a break" is far less damaging to a child than "You little so-and-so you always ruin my day".

Children, especially young children, judge themselves by their parents' opinions of them so words that are critical of the child himself, or that compare him unfavourably with others, will be damaging.

  • Words that threaten the child's sense of security and safety are also damaging.

Some damaging things to say to children:

  • Threats - "If you do that again I'll leave you…"
  • Things that say that life would be better if they did not exist - "If it wasn't for the children we could have had a new car…", "I can't stand you for another minute…"
  • Comparing - "Why can't you be tidy like your sister?"
  • Labelling -  "You are… messy, untidy, lazy, naughty, stupid, a nuisance, a sissy, a bully, clumsy, fat, a little pig, shy, hopeless…."
  • Blaming - "You make me sick, tired, cross…", "You give me…a headache, a pain…"
  • Undermining - "I'll do it, you're too slow…", "I love you but I don't like you".
  • Discouraging - "Why do you always get it wrong?"

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse is defined by the Child Protection Act (South Australia) as when a child has suffered or is likely to suffer psychological injury detrimental to the child's well-being, or the child's psychological development is in jeopardy.

Getting in first

Shouting can be the result of not being able to set a limit early enough before the child has crossed the line where you can't put up with it anymore.

  • It is important to be able to recognise when you need to stop what is happening before you get to this line.
  • As soon as you feel that this is happening you need to stop whatever you are doing and the children are doing, and do something that will help change the pace eg:
    • sit everyone down and make a drink
    • watch a video
    • read a favourite story or play it on a tape
    • play a favourite, not-too-exciting game
    • get outside, eg take everyone for a walk.

Other things parents can do

  • Let children know often that you love them and that you like them and you are proud of them, to make up for the occasional times when you may say damaging things.
  • Let children know that mistakes are important because they are a way of learning.
  • Encourage children to try.
  • Let children know that you value their help.
  • If you are naturally loud and yell a lot explain to your children that that is the way you talk and you are not angry with them.
  • If you are angry with your partner try to sort it out away from the children.
  • If you are angry with the children take a few minutes or as long as you need before you tell them - have a cup of coffee, play some music, go for a walk or whatever helps you to calm down.
  • If you do shout, try to make sure you do not say things that are harmful to children or put them down.
  • If you do shout a lot, your children are likely to shout too. They are copying you, not trying to "get at" you.
  • Talk about what you would like rather than blame or threaten - eg "I want you to help me pick up the toys". (See the topic 'Discipline - what is discipline?).

Listen to yourself - to what you say and to how you say it.

  • If things are getting on top of you and you are feeling angry a lot of the time, get some support, either from your partner or a good friend or a counsellor.
  • Remember that what you do occasionally is not what harms children, it is what goes on most of the time. If most of the time your relationship is good, that is what will count.


South Australia

Books for parents

Steve Biddulph http://www.stevebiddulph.com/  

  • Complete secrets of happy children
  • Raising girls
  • Raising boys

Michael Carr-Gregg http://michaelcarrgregg.com/ 

Books for children

  • There are many books about feelings, such as sadness, fear and anger, written for children. You could talk to the librarian in your local library, then read the books first to be sure they fit your child and your family.
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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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