By Meg Meeker, M.D.
Kids who are yelled at by their parents are more likely to have depression and behavior problems, a new study in Child Development finds. This is no surprise, so why do a study? I think we need studies like this so that academics can remind us parents to take our jobs seriously. I know that I do.
Words cut deeply—particularly the words that flow from a parent’s mouth to a child—whether that child is 6 or 66.
We listen to what our parents say to us because this is how we figure out who we are. We are wired this way from birth. As young children we scour our parents’ faces to figure out if they like what we are wearing, if they think the picture we colored is good enough, or if they like how fast we run on the soccer field. If they communicate that they like what they see, then we believe we are good. If they never pay attention to or berate us, then we believe we are no good. That’s how simple life is for a child. Even as adults, we never stop listening to our parents, because we are connected to them by a need-based love.
So when a parent screams at a child, the pain cuts deeply. Some parenting experts say that kids don’t hear parents scream because they tune them out. I completely disagree. Kids hear alright; they just pretend not to hear because they simply don’t know what to do with the hurt.
Parents yell at their kids for two reasons.
First, they do so in an attempt to get their kids to listen. If children are strong-willed, defiant, or have bad attention issues and never listen, parents amp up the volume to make them hear. Since they feel that nothing else gets their kids’ attention, they resort to yelling.
Second, many parents yell because they can’t control their own anger. When we are tired, irritated, and overwhelmed, yelling comes easily. We don’t yell at coworkers, our boss, or even other adults. We take it out on the easiest targets: kids who know they shouldn’t yell back. And that’s just not fair.
I frequently hear adults complain about how kids talk. Teenagers swear at school and berate their teachers to their faces. Even young children will mouth off at adults. I recently had a 15-year-old girl from a private school come up to me after a lecture I gave and insist that I didn’t know what I was talking about. We all interface with rude kids frequently. They may not raise their voices, but they know how to use words to jab when they want to. So we need to do something about this.
We parents need to get hold of our tongues. When we say things like, “You’re lazy, worthless, or won’t amount to anything” to kids, they become mean and depressed. Some of us aren’t that blatant but cut our kids down in more subtle ways. We yell at them to do their chores, use a tone that communicates we believe they’re lazy or maybe we swear at them. When it comes to being nasty, we can get mighty creative.
James tells us that if we get control of the way we talk, then we acquire control over our entire bodies.
This is extraordinary. I love that he compares us to horses. Put a bit in their mouths, and you control the whole beast. I know that I can be a beast.
He goes on to say in chapter 3:5, “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.”
Could it be that we can start fires in our children by saying mean things or yelling at them? I believe so. Words are that strong. And if that is true, so is the converse. If we are respectful, firm, and kind to our kids, we can put fires out in their hearts. Could it be that many of the problems we experience with our kids stem from the way we talk to them? I think so.
So let’s listen to our pal, James. This week, try an experiment. Refuse to yell in your home—at your kids, your spouse, or another loved one. Use only a respectful tone and refuse to say mean things to anyone in your family. Watch to see what happens to your kids’ moods and to yours, as well. I bet you’ll be surprised.