Lisa Witepski asks if shouting at your kids is a form of discipline, or if it does more harm than good.
There’s an amusing meme doing the rounds at the moment: “My mom voice is so loud even my neighbours brush their teeth and go to bed.”
It’s something with which Christine, mom of Jaime and Jessica, can definitely identify. “The first time one of my friends heard my ‘mom voice’, she asked me how I actually made that demonic sound. Which is funny, except that I hate speaking to my kids like that – and it doesn’t make them listen anyway.”
Samantha, mom of Josie, agrees. She says she regularly raises her voice to her daughter, and the shouting that ensues is a quick way to spoil a day. “There was one occasion when my four-year-old daughter grabbed my phone – which she knows she isn’t supposed to touch – and dropped it. It broke and I screamed so much that she burst into tears and told me I was scaring her.”
Discipline or disaster?
Samantha describes this moment as a real eye-opener. “I felt ashamed and embarrassed that I lost control to the extent that my child, who should see me as her safety net, was now experiencing me as a monster. And it’s not as if my outburst made an impact – she still reaches for my phone whenever she sees it.”
Anne Cawood, author of Children Need Boundaries, isn’t surprised that this moment became highly charged. She explains that as a school counsellor, she would often ask children what they found stressfuI, and the overwhelming majority would say they felt stressed when their parents shouted at them, or at each other. “An uncontrolled adult aggressive reaction leads to an emotionally unstable and unpredictable atmosphere,” she explains, adding that such explosions can cause anxiety for children. “Shouting leads to resentment, passive-agressive behaviour, and avoidance. It also dents self-esteem, as the child feels shamed and scared.”
Joan Tindale, principal of Greenpark Nursery School, agrees that although different children respond to different discipline techniques, shouting almost never achieves its aims. “There are two kinds of shouting. The first leaves your mouth, unprompted and in a panic, when you sense your child is putting herself in a dangerous situation.” For example, when you shout, “Don’t touch that!” if she’s getting too close to a hot stove. “But the other, emotional, kind isn’t well received – feisty children go into fight mode, while the more sensitive ones go into flight,” she explains. In other words, your child will either fight back, or internalise what you’ve just spewed at them. Either way, it’s not the result you want.
Another problem with shouting, Joan continues, is that one of our jobs as parents is to teach children to freely express their emotions, rather than masking them – shouting doesn’t offer the space children need to do this.
Let it all out
If yelling has so many negative consequences, why do we do it? Joan notes that, often, the things that we shout about are those we haven’t yet mastered. For example, if your child’s habit of leaving her toys lying around her room makes you see red, your strong reaction is probably due to the fact that you haven’t yet managed to teach her the importance of cleaning up after herself. “Generally, shouting is our go-to response when we feel out of control,” she observes. This is also why we react by screaming when children do something we have repeatedly asked them not to – we feel that they don’t respect our rules.
Is there ever a time when it’s OK to shout? For instance, when Christine’s daughter overheard her raising her voice, she reassured her that it wasn’t the end of the world and explained that adults experience a spectrum of emotions and anger is one of them. “As an adult, my child will encounter people who will feel angry with her. Because I’m her safe haven, if she understands that I also feel angry sometimes, she leans how to deal with such situations in a space that’s not threatening,” says Christine.
Although Joan agrees that children need to see their parents as human beings with a range of emotions, she doesn’t agree with this argument. “It’s disturbing for a child to see her parent losing it – her first reaction is to ask what she did wrong. It also becomes difficult to regain your position of authority. We often feel the need to say sorry after a shouting match, but apologising excessively to your child creates a mixed message. Chances are, despite your promises not to shout again, you will, and this affects your child’s trust.”
It also affects your ability to implement discipline properly. “It becomes a case of, ‘Oh, Mom’s just shouting again,’” says Joan.
Getting it right
Samantha says that she simply couldn’t supress her urge to shout when her phone wouldn’t turn on. And, if we’re honest, many of us have felt that way. Can we stop the yelling habit?
- Joan and Anne insist that the answer is yes – but they agree that this means adjusting your attitude to parenting and your family long before an issue that might result in a screaming match even occurs. “One of the reasons that we shout is because children do things that we’ve repeatedly asked them not to – and they do this because we haven’t presented consequences that are strong enough to deter them,” Joan says. She, therefore, recommends making it clear that rules can’t be breached. To be on the safe side, keep the number of house rules to a minimum, so they’re easy to enforce.
- She also says that we generally know when a day is going to be a bad one – the kind when things start going wrong from the moment breakfast is too lumpy (or too smooth). If you’re aware that you’re feeling short-tempered, bring in the troops. Set up a play date, or ask a relative or nanny to babysit for an hour so you can have a bit of space.
- “Have people in your life who hold you accountable,” Joan advises. “Everyone needs a friend who tells them the truth, who says things like, ‘Yes, today was tough, but this too shall pass,’ rather than agreeing that they would have lost it too.”
- Enlist the help of your husband. “He should partner with you when you decide on the house rules. This makes you accountable to each other when things start to slide – if he sees you losing your temper, he can bring you in line, and vice versa,” she explains.
- Remember that you’re not just a mom. “Although parenting is special, it’s also hard. Don’t be the martyr mother. Put up boundaries and don’t always say yes. Keep your identity, because your life isn’t only about your kids,” Joan continues.
- It is, however, about knowing your choices. Anne says that we all feel pressured and have a breaking point, but we have a choice when it comes to how we express ourselves. “It’s not about shielding your child from your displeasure, anger or frustration (she needs to learn that these are all part of communication), but she also needs to know that there are positive ways of expressing these emotions by being non-judgemental, assertive and firm, without aggression or harshness.”
- Using “I” language may help. For example, say in a strong, firm voice, “I feel upset that the toys have not been put away.”
- “Remember that your yelling will be imitated by your children. They will believe this is an acceptable way to express negative feelings,” says Anne.
- “Our children don’t force us to yell and shout. They do push our tolerance levels – but in the end it is up to us to choose more positive, effective methods to express ourselves,” she concludes.
Released the banshee? Here’s what to do
Try as you might to control your temper, the reality is that when there are little people refusing to listen, throwing tantrums or behaving badly, a shouting session is often inevitable. Here’s some expert advice for when you do lose your temper:
- Experts often recommend that you count to five, in your head, as an anger management technique. However, as Joan points out, you’re not really in a state to start counting calmly in the heat of the moment. If you give in to rage, accept that it’s happened, and move on to damage control. Forgive yourself.
- Apologise for losing your temper, but qualify your apology by explaining why you felt so angry.
- Anne suggests that you treat this as a personal growth goal. After all, mastering your emotions is a useful skill, applicable to many situations.
In her 16 years as journalist, Lisa Witepski’s work has appeared in most of South Africa’s leading publications, including the Mail & Guardian, Sunday Times, Entrepreneur and Financial Mail. She has written for a number of women’s magazines, including Living & Loving, Essentials and many others, across topics from lifestyle to travel, wellness, business and finance. She is a former acting Johannesburg Bureau Chief for Cosmopolitan, and former Features Editor at Travel News Weekly, but, above all, a besotted mom to Leya and Jessica. Lisa blogs at whydoialwayscravecake.blogspot.com and lisa.witepski.blogspot.com, and tweets at @LisaWitepski.