What effect does yelling have on your child?

It's something we prefer to keep quiet about, but most parents shout at their kids from time to time. Here's why experts believe you should think twice before you raise your voice

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There's no such thing as the perfect kid. They all talk back, ignore their chores and fight with their siblings, which means even the most patient parent can end up hollering.

A recent survey by the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children (DFWC) found that a quarter of children are shouted at in a violent and frightening manner at home. Eight per cent of children said this happened often.

"I think we have to pay attention to what we say to our children," says Aisha Al Midfa, DFWC's head of programmes and research. "We think that saying things with words might not be abusive, that since we are not hitting them it's not creating damage. But maybe it is creating psychological damage."

Indeed, Dr Deema Sihweil, a clinical psychologist at the Human Relations Institute (www.hridubai.com), is certain that repeated bouts of screaming and shouting at children can have a major detrimental effect on their psychological health.

Shouting confuses children

Children perceive shouting as a threat to their sense of security, safety and confidence. "Children fundamentally feel responsible for a parent's anger towards them," explains Sihweil. Children are innately egocentric so they think: "When I do something good, Mummy smiles. When I do something bad, Mummy screams." Younger children simply can't understand alternative explanations for anger such as bad news at work or a flat tyre on the road.

"Long-term exposure to shouting can result in fear, stress, anxiety, insomnia, developmental delays, behavioural problems, academic problems, social difficulties, emotional issues and thwarted coping skills," Sihweil says.

Shouting is a form of emotional abuse

Raising your voice might not seem like an act that could constitute abuse but the experts believe it is. "Yelling is as bad, and sometimes even worse, than physical abuse," Sihweil says.

What comes hand-in-hand with the shouting compounds the problem. "Messages are only about 10 per cent verbal," says Maria Chatila, a family coach (www.bpacoach.com). "It is not just the loud voice that has an impact. It is also your body language and the actual words you use, whether you're critical, insulting or sarcastic."

Shouting doesn't work

Hollering is usually a last resort, and it's largely ineffective. "Shouting doesn't get the message across to children, young or old, because children are too busy defending themselves from a perceived or real danger and totally miss the point," Sihweil says. Plus, some kids who are yelled at frequently start to tune out whenever there is an emotional outburst.

Don't beat yourself up

Everyone has bad days. Parents shouldn't be too hard on themselves if they scream at their children from time to time. "Parenting is the most challenging role you can take on in life and most of us have no prior experience or knowledge," says Chatila.

The good news is that if you slip up you can fix it. "Occasional shouting won't have major long-term effects, especially when parents make a point of apologising and correcting their response to whatever the child may have done to provoke them," Sihweil says.

If good parents shout from time to time, it can actually help their children develop thick skins so they can cope effectively with difficult situations, teaching them to stand up for themselves and fight back if they need to.

It's OK at the right time

"Shouting is like a human fire alarm," Chatila says. "Use with caution and only as a signal of danger." And while it might be tempting to shout after the event, it's better to restrain yourself.

"It's understandable that a parent might get angry with their child for running into the road, but yelling at him afterwards can do more harm than good," Sihweil says. "If you want to develop strength and vigilance in your offspring you should use a firm, calm and compassionate tone, which will allow for your child's brain to remain open and learn. When there is adrenalin as a result of fear from being shouted at, there is limited thinking capacity," Sihweil says.

How to ditch shouting for good

Most parents give little thought to their parenting style, often replicating that of their own parents. "Parents often use old-fashioned methods such as shouting because that is what they know. When parents learn new methods, they are more effective at raising their kids," says the family coach Maria Chatila. By laying down some simple family rules, parents may be less tempted to yell at their kids.

• Let children know what you expect with simple statements: "Please put away your toys right now."

• Give warnings and reminders without threats: "When you put away your toys, then you can go outside with your friends."

• Tell a child what to do rather than what not to do: "Please use a soft voice," instead of "Stop yelling!"

• Follow through with praise for following instructions or consequences for disobeying.