Can anybody speak baby language?

I DON’T remember what the yelling was all about — it was many years and many moves ago. I only remember that it was All. The. Time.

There was considerable distance — and bushland — between our houses. But the loud screaming still carried from their living room to ours on most days. It was shrill. It was angry. It seemed to me that it was constant. But I can’t believe for a moment that it was ever really deserved.

WHY DO WE YELL?

Yelling is a habit. Our ‘shouty’ neighbour had probably developed the habit of yelling because it got her a quick result. While I will never know the reason this mother yelled at her children, she seemed to flare up at the slightest provocation. She was my model ‘puffer-fish’ parent, using her size and power to intimidate her children for every infraction, or whenever she felt challenged or threatened.

Research tells us that parents dislike yelling. Surveyed parents indicate that they see yelling, along with spanking, as being the least acceptable disciplinary techniques, but those same parents also acknowledge that they yell as much as they use time-out (which is used at a surprisingly high rate — especially for something that is generally ineffective). Despite the fact that we don’t like yelling, we do it — and we do it a lot.

The question is ‘why’? Why are we so quick to yell at our children at home? We seem capable of controlling our volume (and aggression) in public — it is rare that we see a parent start shouting at his children in public, and it is rarer still to see an adult shout at another adult.

If you worked in an office where the boss summonsed you to her office by shouting out your name, you’d probably look for ways to avoid her, even if you weren’t in trouble. And if you were shouted at when you were in trouble, you’d probably start looking for a new employer.

WHY WON’T THEY LISTEN?

Many parents tell me, it’s as if their children are deaf: ‘I ask them and ask them and they either ignore me, or it’s like they’re deaf — they only listen when I yell.’

Of course, most typically developing children are in no way hard of hearing — watch what happens when your children are in earshot and you ask them quietly whether they would like a bowl of ice-cream … or 20 dollars … or just whisper the word ‘chocolate’. Rest assured, they will hear you. Unless a child has a genuine physical hearing problem, he or she is choosing not to listen — perhaps for very good reasons.

I do not believe that children are being disobedient when they don’t listen. So are they being rebellious? Troublemakers? Ratbags? Why are they ignoring us?

Well, perhaps our children choose not to respond to us because we have trained them to wait until we yell before they act — we ask them to do something in a nice, respectful way, but they choose not to act immediately, and notice that nothing happens. So we ask again, nicely, and still don’t get a response. Then, finally, we yell.

There may also be a second reason our children are not responding — because of the way we speak to them. Think about it. When you’re in the middle of doing something that matters to you, and someone asks you to stop doing it and pay attention to them, how do you feel? Are you inclined to respond immediately and willingly?

Furthermore, what is the main reason we usually speak to our children? Most children will say when we call their name it means one of two things: I’m in trouble, or I’m going to be asked to do chores. So our children stop responding to us because our communication with them is typically only to correct or direct.

So the issue isn’t really about getting our children to listen. They can hear us just fine — they just don’t want to hear what we are constantly nagging them about. The issue is more about finding a way to invite our children to comply with basic requests in a timely manner — and keeping the volume down while we do it.

THE EFFECTS OF YELLING

You may be surprised at the damage that can be done to your children when you yell.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Michigan in the US conducted a two-year study and found that ‘severe verbal discipline’ may have a profoundly negative impact on children’s wellbeing. They found that tweens and teens whose parents yelled for discipline experienced increased behavioural issues (including being violent or being vandals), and that the impact of being yelled at regularly was as serious as if the children were being hit.

Watching a parent get in her child’s face and scream at her while nose to nose is severe, especially when it is accompanied by name calling and other insults or threats.

Other research has shown that yelling at least 25 times in a 12-month period can have a negative impact on children’s self-esteem, increase the likelihood of depression and promoting aggression in children.

TRY TRACKING YOUR YELLING

Not sure you yell at your children that much? It’s a good idea to track how often you raise your voice at your children, and what the reasons for yelling are. If you were to monitor yourself and record it in a spreadsheet, perhaps it might look like this:

Example of a spreadsheet you can use to track your yelling.

There is power in creating a spreadsheet like this, regardless of the behaviour you wish to eliminate. Firstly, it helps to identify how often you act in a certain way, as well as the circumstances surrounding that behaviour. But the power comes in the fourth and fifth columns, as you consider the impact of your behaviour and look for alternative strategies to employ in the future.

This cognitive rehearsal strengthens the foundations of your new habit and helps to literally rewire your brain and establish new, more positive behaviour or thinking patterns.

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