Yelling happens. But verbal discipline is a slippery slope that can have lasting negative effects on you and your child. Experts share why it won't get you the behavior you want and how you can react instead.

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Nobody likes to be yelled at. It's demeaning, embarrassing, and can be a frightening experience—especially for children. While most parents are guilty of raising our voices louder and more often than we sometimes mean to, unpacking why we yell and how yelling affects our children may be helpful information to have the next time your 3-year-old throws his plate of food across the kitchen.

"People yell because it's their go-to response when they're angry," says Joseph Shrand, M.D., an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Outsmarting Anger: 7 Steps for Defusing our Most Dangerous Emotion. Dr. Shrand also notes that there's nothing wrong with feeling anger. "It's what we do with that anger that matters," he says.

Anger, after all, is a common emotion felt whenever we wish things were different. "We feel anger because we wish our child would stop doing something or start doing something," says Dr. Shrand. For example, "I wish my daughter wouldn't slug her little sister," or "I wish my son would tell me the truth about where he was last night." These are behaviors that parents wish they could change in their kids that might lead to an angry outburst.

But some efforts to change behavior are more effective than others, and parents who recognize the counter-productivity of yelling are more likely to pursue a better course of action. Here's what really happens when we yell at our children and why it backfires. Plus, what to do instead.

Kids can't learn in "fight-or-flight mode."

"Yelling is about releasing anger; it's not an effective way to change behavior," says Laura Markham, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. Dr. Markham says that when a child is scared, they go into fight-or-flight mode and the learning centers of their brain shuts down. The fight-or-flight response is a physiological reaction that occurs when we experience something our brain perceives as threatening. As such, your child cannot learn when you're yelling at them because their brain tells them this big person yelling down at them is a threat and effectively shuts down the other parts of the brain not dedicated to protection and defense. On the other hand: "Peaceful and calm communication helps a child feel safe and makes them more receptive to the lesson we're teaching," says Dr. Markham.

Yelling makes our children feel devalued.

"The common thread that binds all people together is wanting to feel valued," says Dr. Shrand. For most of us, feeling valued by others is how we measure our self-worth and how we determine whether we matter to the world around us. When we're yelled at, we see ourselves as inadequate and question our capabilities. "Yelling is one of the fastest ways to make someone feel they don't have value," says Dr. Shrand.

Dr. Markham's observations are similar: "When we're angry and start yelling, we're seeing ourselves as a hammer and everyone around us a nail," she says. In such a state, our children look like the enemy and not like human beings who we value and love. "Our children should never feel like the enemy," says Dr. Markham.

An image of a boy that is upset on a couch.
Credit: Getty Images.

Yelling fuels anxiety, depression, and lower self esteem.

Studies have found that children who are yelled at are prone to anxiety and have increased levels of depression. Dr.  Markham teaches that children pick up anxiety from their parents, and that the matter in which mom or dad reacts to any mistakes they make "either soothes the child or stimulates their anxieties." Yelling, of course, is never a soothing experience.

What's more, Neil Bernstein, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of There When He Needs You: How to Be an Available, Involved, and Emotionally Connected Father to Your Son, explains that negativity is the fuel anxiety and depression need to exist and that being yelled at creates an "explosion of negativity that lingers for a long time."

Bonds are broken by yelling.

"Yelling breaks your connection with your child and puts your relationship bank account in the red," explains Dr. Markham. Yelling doesn't generate empathy. It puts you and your child at odds with one another and makes them feel like you're not on their team. Invariably, children leave interactions where they've been yelled at feeling defiant, defensive, and disconnected from you; not open to change, receptive, and more deeply connected.

"In my 40 years as a psychologist, I've seen thousands of kids and have never had one tell me they felt closer to their parent after being yelled at," says Dr. Bernstein.

Yelling causes harm.

Multiple studies have illustrated how yelling harms children. One study includes "yelling or screaming" as one measurement of "harsh discipline" in the home and concludes that children who are disciplined this way have "poor school achievements, behavioral problems...and delinquent behaviors." Another study demonstrated that yelling has a similar effect on children as physical punishment; and a study in the National Library of Medicine deduced that verbal abuse and being yelled at frequently can even change the way a child's brain develops.

Yellers model poor communication skills.

"Children have a hard time learning to regulate their own emotions if their parents don't show them how," says Dr. Markham, and parents who fly off the handle every time they're upset teach their children to similarly overreact when they encounter frustrating situations of their own. In other words, yellers raise yellers.

Dr. Shrand explains that this happens, in part, because when we yell at our children, we activate their "mirror neurons"—the part of the brain that mirrors the behavior of the others—causing them to respond in kind. "Anger begets anger," he says, and "yelling at our children makes them want to yell back at us." The good news is, mirror neurons can also have the opposite effect—in children and adults. "When was the last time you got angry at someone treating you with respect?" asks Dr. Shrand.

What to Do with Your Anger Instead of Yelling

The first step to diffusing anger is to recognize it. "The moment you recognize your anger, you activate your prefrontal cortex and interrupt your spiraling emotions," says Dr. Shrand. It's about taking your brain from its feeling mode to its thinking mode.

There are several ways to do this, according to the experts:

  • Take deep breaths
  • Count backwards
  • Run in place
  • Shake out your hands
  • Say as little as possible until you calm down
  • Think uplifting thoughts that walk you back from the brink of yelling (i.e. "My child needs my help right now.")
  • Put your hands under running water
  • Even forcing a smile or a laugh can send a message to your brain that the situation isn't an emergency.

After you've calmed yourself down, you're ready to diffuse the situation instead of aggravating it further, explains Dr. Markham. This means approaching the situation that caused you to be upset in the first place calmly and mindfully by saying something like, "Let's try a do-over" advises Dr. Markham.

Not yelling takes work, of course, and for most of us it takes a lot of time and practice to finally put an end to the unproductive and harmful behavior. But Dr. Markham teaches that it's a lot easier not to yell when you have a strong connection with your child. Working on your bond when you're not in the middle of an aggravating situation is a great place to begin.

After all, enjoying and appreciating our children for who they already are makes parenting more fulfilling for mom and dad too, says Dr. Shrand. "It's much more rewarding to be amazed at who your child is than disappointed for who they are not."