“I’ll talk to you when you’re speaking in a normal voice . . . ” That, I have to confess, was a teenage son responding to me on one occasion.
It worked. My amusement at the parent-child role reversal instantly defused the rant. While hardly one of my finest parenting moments, at least there was the consolation he had learnt that shouting to make a point doesn’t get you anywhere. But what parent hasn’t got into the ironical position of shouting “stop shouting” at a loudly protesting child? We all yell at our children sometimes, don’t we?
Mind you, Growing Up in Ireland research in 2009 found 7 per cent of mothers of nine-year-olds said they “never” yelled or shouted at their children, while 52 per cent conceded they did “now and again” and 17 per cent admitted they did it regularly.
Of course, in a dangerous situation, yelling can be an appropriate response. But for every genuinely needed shouted “watch out”, there may be dozens more “don’t”, “hurry up” and “come here, now” of the most trivial and repetitive kind.
Yelling in a crisis is different from yelling as a habit, says Galway-based parenting coach Val Mullally (koemba.com) who runs an online bootcamp for parents entitled “Stop Yelling: Nine Steps to Calmer, Happier Parenting” and has also written an e-book on the subject.
It’s most likely to become a habit when there’s too much going on in parents’ lives, she suggests. “Then the child’s supposed misbehaviour can be the last trigger that pushes the parent over the edge.”
We tend to let off our anger at those who are least powerful, she points out. “We might, for instance, feel like yelling at the boss but know we mustn’t so it’s the least powerful one in the line, which is often the child, who ends up getting the roar when we’re over stressed.”
While parents who frequently express their anger in this way might never dream of lifting a finger to their children, Mullally believes in some cases it has become a substitute for slapping. Quite rightly, corporal punishment has been banned by the State, she says, yet there has been no roll-out of policy on what parents should do differently. “They have not been given other strategies.”
Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance, made the same point recently after a 46-year-old father in Cork faced assault charges for allegedly slapping his three-year-old daughter on two occasions in a supermarket.
“We do need a public-awareness campaign for parents and people caring for children to know that the law has changed and there are alternative ways to do discipline when it’s needed. And that discipline is part of parenting and caring and setting boundaries.”
She refers to the aforementioned Growing Up in Ireland research, in which 58 per cent of mothers reported they never used smacking but 11 per cent said they did “now and again”. It also found that boys were more likely to report being smacked “always” (6 per cent) or “sometimes” (37 per cent) by their fathers, whereas girls were more likely to report never being smacked by him (65 per cent).
Three years after the 2015 outlawing of slapping by parents, Ward wonders what similar research on disciplinary methods in the home would find. Meanwhile, emotional abuse is one of the categories for reporting concerns under Children First legislation.
“I think that it’s important that parents get the support that they need and understand the impact shouting and emotional abuse has on their children,” she says.
Parents who hit their children usually do it when they lose control of a situation, Ward points out. “I think they could potentially resort to shouting abuse at a child in the same way. It does the same kind of damage to a child in terms of self-esteem and it teaches them the wrong message – that this is the way you resolve your problems when under pressure.”
The characterisation of yelling as “the new slapping” probably has its roots in a piece of US research published in 2013. A University of Pittsburgh study not only indicated that harsh verbal discipline from parents could be damaging to adolescents but also that the negative effects within two years were comparable to the effects shown over the same period of time in other studies that focused on physical discipline.
The leader of the research, Ming-Te Wang, assistant professor of psychology in education, was at pains to stress that most of the 967 adolescents and their parents they surveyed were from middle-class families.
“There was nothing extreme or broken about these homes,” Wang said when the findings were published in the journal Child Development. “These were not ‘high-risk’ families. We can assume there are a lot of families like this – there’s an okay relationship between parents and kids, and the parents care about their kids and don’t want them to engage in problem behaviours.”
Mullally agrees that yelling can come from the best intentions. “Parents want to be good parents and they know children need limits but they haven’t been given any alternatives as to how do you effectively set limits.” But not only is yelling unhelpful, it is, she believes, also harmful.
“I think yelling at anyone lessens the connection between you,” she explains. “I also believe it damages a child’s self-esteem, their sense of self-worth.”
The child will think they deserve such treatment. “They won’t be thinking ‘this is because Mum or Dad is frustrated’, they will be thinking ‘this is because I am not okay’.”
Colman Noctor, a child and adolescent psychotherapist with St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, rejects the equating of yelling with slapping: “Any parent who is human will raise their voice at their children from time to time,” he points out.
“If you come in and see a four-year-old with a crayon drawing on your newly painted walls, it seems very human to go ‘what are you doing?’,” he says with a mock scream.
He would hate people to think “Oh my God I raised my voice, I am such a bad parent”. There’s too much expectation among parents, he believes, that they should be perfect and pleasant all the time.
Child psychotherapist Colman Noctor with his children, Odhran, Harry and Layla: “Any parent who is human will raise their voice at their children from time to time.” Photograph: Aidan Crawley
“Children need to be able to know and tolerate somebody who is frustrated with them.” However, he believes there is a spectrum for yelling and shouting. We have all been in the situation where somebody is roaring obscenities at a small child and it is traumatising even to witness that and I am not condoning that level.”
What a parent says and the tone used would be more of a concern to him “rather than if you raise your voice over a certain decibel that your child will be traumatised, that I don’t subscribe to”.
The madness of the evening can create all kinds of conflict because of time pressure
Even if it’s not harmful, repeated yelling has no effect in term of discipline or learning. “It becomes white noise; they just see that’s how Mammy and Daddy communicate, through roaring and shouting,” Noctor says.
He agrees that “ideally we should all strive not to be yelling parents” and that we should use other strategies to try to get our message across. But he’s a realist.
While we aspire to calm consistency in our parenting, he admits he, for instance, may be more likely to raise his voice “on a Thursday night when I’m really stressed and tired, than I might do on a Saturday afternoon when I am relaxed. We should strive for consistency but being humans there will be times when the shout or the yell is more a measure of our own internal stress level than a child’s behaviour.”
For many parents, it’s getting the whole family out of the house in the morning on time is when those good intentions of being calm and capable go completely pear-shaped. The toddler meltdown over choice of clothes, the lost school jumper, the teenager’s 10 minutes in the shower – just one of those is enough to spark loud expressions of frustration.
The coming together of the family in the evening then presents another flashpoint to negotiate – bedtime. And the guilt of parents about not spending enough time with their children is compounded when what little time they have too often descends into bad-tempered exchanges.
It’s a scenario Aoife Lee of Parent Support hears about frequently. The day before we talk, she had done a series of one-to-one sessions with parents working for a Cork-based company and half of them spoke about guilt at having too little time with their children and then, when they were with them, having rows.
“Children love attention, whether it is negative or positive,” she points out. In the evenings, after the family has been separated all day, is often when they want it most from parents. Yet adults are likely to be coming in still buzzing from workplace stress and preoccupied with the necessity of cooking dinner, getting children to bed, preparing clothes for the morning etc.
“The madness of the evening can create all kinds of conflict because of time pressure,” Lee says.
Guilt can help us stop and think, ‘hang on, that is not how I want to be’. Then I can in a sense recalibrate
From morning to night, we are telling children to hurry up, agrees Noctor. “They are growing up in that hurried culture. That is where we are at and we need to be able to manage it a little bit better” – but without, he suggests, always giving ourselves a hard time over it.
Mullally sees time as a key element in the stress-yelling equation. She recalls recently observing an encounter between a parent and toddler, which would normally have ended in a tantrum. But the parent was not in a hurry and, within 10 to 15 minutes, the situation went from near meltdown to the toddler being co-operative because the parent was being patient and giving choices.
“It really struck me that so often the meltdown, particularly with toddlers, is that we are trying to move them at an adult pace, not building in enough time.”
Sometimes there are unavoidable factors, such as having to go out to work, which create time pressures, she acknowledges. But “sometimes it is just the pace of life we have got caught up in, instead of thinking, ‘is this really a big deal, do we really have to be out the door in five minutes’, or can we just stop, catch our breath and think about what really matters here?”.
As soon as the anger that fuels an outburst abates, few parents are proud afterwards about losing it with their children. Mullally sees regret as a helpful trigger for change.
“Guilt can help us stop and think, ‘hang on that is not how I want to be’. Then I can in a sense recalibrate.”
She believes that generally children want to co-operate with their parents. “When they’re not co-operating, it is saying something about how we’ve got out of step with each other and we the parents have to figure out how to get back into step. It’s not about pushing for compliance, it’s about how do we get back to co-operation?”
While it is not helpful if we treat children as mini-adults, she adds, we can treat them with equal respect.
Lee says parents need to be aware that younger children have great difficulty self-regulating or calming themselves. When they are angry or frustrated they act out the behaviour – going into fight-or-flight mode.
We learn how to behave when we see the impact of our behaviour on others, that’s how we develop morality
“The difference between adults and children is that adults can generally identify what’s going on and what they need to do to be able to calm down – whether it’s breathing, having a conversation or going for a run. Children can’t regulate their emotions if they are up to high doh and it’s up to us to help them calm.”
That can be easier said than done, she acknowledges, but there are resources, with a lot more awareness now of the value of children doing things like yoga, mindfulness and meditation.
“If your child is losing it and so are you,” she adds, “it is up to you as the adult to ‘ground’ the situation.”
When it comes to older children, especially teenagers, I would argue that a very occasional, heartfelt rant has its uses. Noctor doesn’t disagree.
“If everything is calm and dulcet and negotiated, how does the child know to what degree their behaviour is upsetting you if you’re never upset?
“We learn how to behave when we see the impact of our behaviour on others, that’s how we develop morality, a sense of conscience,” he adds. “For children to see that their behaviour is upsetting somebody else proportionately – and the response is proportionate to the upset – that is actually a learning curve, which is not necessarily traumatic.”
Want to tone down? Here are some tips on how to avoid yelling at your children, based on advice from parenting experts Val Mullally and Aoife Lee:
1) Ask yourself has yelling become a habit? If so it will be hard to stop – you need to replace it with an alternative strategy.
2) Breathe: it’s a cliché but a couple of seconds can be all the difference between “reacting” – jumping in without thinking – and “responding”, where we take a moment to think what really matters here.
3) Accept that time out can, on occasions, be more appropriate for the parent than for the child.
4) Recognise situations most likely to trigger your outbursts and see if you can adjust some element – for instance, get up earlier so you have more time in the morning; see what reasonable responsibilities you can give children so there’s less for you to do.
5) Try to have one-on-one time with each child: the recommended 20 minutes a day might seem impossible during the week, but could you make the bedtime routine a little more leisurely? Or carve out extra time at the weekend and try to let them choose the activity you’ll do together?
6) Remember your child’s brain is still under construction and, whatever their behaviour, they are probably doing their best to cope with what life is throwing at them. Could there be something going on that you’re missing?
7) Stop yelling at yourself – that silent scream of “bad parent”. You too are doing the best you can.