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Sunday, December 10, 2023

‘My son-in-law yells at his children. What can I do?’

Advice by Meghan Leahy

Question: Is it disruptive to a child’s emotional/mental health to have a parent who yells, often at top volume, as a frequent behaviour-management strategy?

I’m the grandmother in this scenario and my son-in-law, from a different culture, equates establishing authority with yelling.

I never yelled at my two children, and as a primary school teacher, I found it more effective not to raise my voice.

I find it tough to be around the yelling – it squashes my soul. I can’t imagine the kids, ages 6, 3 and 6 months, enjoy it either.

It does not seem to have any effect on their behaviour; they continue with whatever he is yelling at them to stop.

So, to return to my initial question: How will being raised in this type of environment impact these children? My daughter is not a yeller and has asked him to control this tendency, but to no avail.

Answer: Hello, thank you for writing in. With the exception of a couple of amazingly patient cultures (look into how the Inuit do it), parents everywhere lose their patience and yell at their children.

In my personal and professional experience, there is a direct correlation between the amount of support a parent has and the yelling in the house (more support = less yelling).

There are also important cultural forces at play here. Whether it is as small as your own family culture or as big as an entire culture (your country), the volume of parenting voices varies from human to human.

You have an essential question for me: Is it disruptive to a child’s emotional/mental health to have a parent who yells?

Allow me to answer it with a bit more context, because I like to see these issues in terms of effectiveness vs. ineffectiveness.

To begin, every human is born with an alarm system.

As mammals, this alarm is meant to keep us alive, alert us to danger and, above all, keep us emotionally and physically safe.

When a child starts to toddle toward the street and we scream, “Justin!” in a panicked voice, our child’s alarm system is activated, they stop and look up at us.

Some children may instinctively run toward us, some may freeze and some may startle and cry. In any case, the alarm system has done its job. Your child is safe.

As parents, we sometimes push on this alarm button a little too much.

If you have ever told a young child, “If you don’t come with me, I am leaving you in this park . . . alone,” causing the child to panic and run to you, you have seen the power of alarm in humans.

And it is effective! The child, fearing separation above all things, will run to your side. We have panicked the child into coming with us, and they do.

But over time (a short time), the child will stop responding to this panic.

You will begin to see them drag their feet or completely ignore you, and now you are really out of luck.

You have exhausted the alarm lever – what threats do you have left? No technology? No treats?

There is nothing more important to a young child than their relationship with you, so once you exhaust that, you are really up a creek.

Another by-product of a parent who yells too much is that one of the children (of the three) will become “the good one.”

It is often, but not always, the eldest child who will scamper around, trying to please the yelling parent, leading to over-management of the younger children.

It is also common for one, two or all of the children to yell at each other for both small and large issues because positive communication and problem solving skills are not being modelled or taught.

Children want to be good for their parents, but in the absence of loving boundaries, they will often revert to what the parents are doing the most – in this case, yelling.

You have mentioned that the father’s yelling makes no difference on the children’s behaviour, and this is the one of the dynamics that I have just described.

The first, second, third and fourth time he yelled, the children probably listened, but now? They tune him out.

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This is a dangerous game because if a parent doesn’t have any other tools at their disposal, they may up the ante to verbal, emotional or physical abuse.

I have a tremendous amount of empathy for parents who yell; I know that they don’t wake up and choose only one way to communicate and hold boundaries with their children (loudly and ineffectively).

From a combination of how they grew up, environmental factors and their own mental health, many parents don’t have the patience and support to lovingly hold boundaries with their children.

Yelling isn’t effective, but they don’t know what else to do.


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