Teachable Moments

Parent’s Anger – Yelling and the Acoustics of Fear

Negative emotions have gotten a bad reputation. Such is the case for the powerfully purifying emotion, anger.  Anger is an especially tricky emotion for caregivers to feel. Even more so, when that anger is sparked by a child. Rather than learning how to deal with anger, we are taught to mask these emotions from others with the façade of “I’m fine.” We continue this cycle of concealment by teaching and modeling this to our children.

The suppression of negative emotions affects the brain. It tips the brain’s balance towards negative emotions, decreasing your ability to experience positive emotions. It enrages the amygdala, sending it into over-activation.

The spectrum of human emotion demands to be felt and honored. When we recognize our emotions and consciously allow them to resound into our actions, we create the possibility for openness and lightheartedness. When we respect the flow of feelings and invite them to act as inspiration for empowered interactions, we create healing. When we do not acknowledge our emotions we begin to feel tightness, constriction, or numbness.

Acknowledging Anger 

It is absolutely acceptable and healthy to feel angry about your child’s behavior. When you do feel angry, there are more effective communication and discipline strategies than yelling. You can learn how to deal with anger in a constructive way.

You can recognize your emotions and take responsibility for how you react to them. This will empower authentic actions that are made consciously. This will help to prevent you from blowing up at your child.

Your anger can provide you with information about yourself and the situation at hand. You can reflect on your anger and try to identify the behavior that caused you to flip your lid. This will help you identify your triggers in order to more effectively learn how to deal with anger. You can analyze your anger to notice the signs of building tension. Were your muscles constricting? Did you begin to clench your jaw? Did your heart and breathing rate speed up? Reflecting on your emotions in this way will help you more readily recognize the signs of building anger in the future.

Common reasons caregivers yell at a child

  • Flipped his or her lid (lost control)
  • Attempt to control a child’s behavior
  • Offer discipline
  • Gain attention of a child
  • Assert power
  • Demand respect
  • Make a child feel a certain way

These justifications allow for anger to be ignored. Often, the true reason a caregiver is yelling is because they are angry and have let anger build over time. In such a situation the caregiver has chosen to express that anger without taking the time to cool down first. The caregiver reacted without consciously considering the erupting emotions.

Everyone has the choice to nurture an awareness of emotions to cultivate the ability to deal with anger.  With this awareness, emotions can be used as a tool to empower authenticity and inspired interactions.

The Effects of Yelling on the Brain

Some claim that they yell at children because it is an effective form of discipline. This idea is not backed by neuroscience or any other research on child development. In fact, the opposite is true, studies show that yelling is ineffective as discipline.

Scientists have found that a yell elicits the fear response in the human brain more effectively than other sounds. David Poeppel, a neuroscience professor at New York University, asserts that screams have an acoustic quality known as roughness. Roughness describes rapid sound changes in volume. No other sound is comparable for levels of roughness. Interestingly, yells are also unique in that they trigger activation of the amygdala, which scans the environment for danger. Yelling activates the amygdala and spins the brain into a fear response, sending stress levels soaring and increasing cortisol in the bloodstream. Rough sounds, such as yelling, awaken neural circuits involved in fear/danger processing. This means that when you yell at a child, an evolutionary neural response to danger is stimulated in the brain.

You do not want to send your child into a fear response. It can lead to lifelong physical and mental health problems.

The release of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, that result from the amygdala’s activation are detrimental to healthy child development. These hormones affect the ability of the prefrontal cortex to regulate thought, emotions, and actions. They impair the brain’s ability to send new information to memory centers. Neuroimaging visualization has proven that when a child’s amygdala is over-activated no new learning can occur and no storage of new information can take place.

When a message of discipline is yelled at a child, the child’s brain is unable to process the new information. The behavior may stop in the moment due to the fight, flight, or freeze/fall asleep response but the child will not have learned anything that can positively contribute to development. The child will, more likely than not, continue to repeat the same behavior because they are not able to process the information being provided.

What does yelling really communicate to children?

  • I will receive attention if I misbehave *this sets children up to misbehave in the future to receive attention, even if it is negative attention
  • Since it is okay for you to yell at me, it is okay for me to yell at you (or others)
  • My caregiver is mad at me
  • My caregiver has power and I do not
  • I am not worth talking to in a respectful way
  • I deserve to be yelled at

Parenting is a Practice

I am not advocating for perfection, remember, parenting is a practice. Our feelings, especially powerful ones such as anger, have a tendency of bubbling out of control fast. Cultivating an awareness of your emotions and consciously acting with authenticity will take practice. As you work on this skill it will become easier until you are able to unconsciously and automatically know how to deal with anger effectively.

There are times when yelling is necessary as a safety protocol. For example, if your child is about to run across the street and you are not within arm’s reach.

A Guide for Effective Discipline in the Face of Anger 

Step 1: Voice your feelings and label the emotion.

“I am feeling angry right now.”

Step 2: Take the time you need to move into a place where you can act with intention.

Step 3: Offer guidance/discipline that is just (this means that it makes sense based on the child’s behavior) and can be followed through on. *Never use discipline that you cannot be consistent with. You have to follow through.

Step 4: Take time to talk with your child about the situation.

A powerful shift comes with voicing to children that you are angry with their actions not who they are as a person.