Is Yelling at Your Children Verbal Abuse?

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I was asked to contribute to the new Jeremy Vine TV Show on Channel 5 about whether yelling or shouting at children is verbal abuse.

We all lose the plot at times & lose our temper & end up shouting at our kids, but what is the difference between the odd shout & consistent verbal abuse?

Shouting or constantly yelling at your children might strike you as a natural and an effective form of discipline if you were brought up with it, because that’s what you are used to, but for children it can cause emotional trauma that can result in long-lasting harm.

Among the many damaging effects yelling and shouting at children can cause, particularly if it is consistent verbal abuse, is that it can seriously undermine your child’s self-esteem & self-confidence & damage their ability to trust people and their ability to be able to form appropriate relationships with others. It can also chip away at their academic and social skills. In fact, current research shows that children who are verbally abused can be just as damaged emotionally as physically and sexually abused children which places them in as much risk for depression and anxiety too.

I think we all know the difference between a short-tempered response but if you find yourself doing any of these things consistently then you may be verbally abusing your child:

  • Name-calling, belittling, swearing, insulting – ” God, you’re so stupid.” – “Why are you just such a horrible child?”
  • Indirect criticism, such as disparaging your child to your partner or in front of someone else also hurts & damages. Just because you’re not berating your child directly doesn’t mean they don’t hear it or feel shamed, humiliated or hurt.
  • Rejecting or threatening your child with abandonment. “I wish you’d never been born.” “We should put you up for adoption.” “Perhaps it would be best if you went to live with grandma.” This kind of verbal abuse creates a sense that your child isn’t wanted in the family. They feel insignificant, disconnected, isolated, wounded & unwanted.
  • Threatening bodily harm. Studies have linked verbal aggression and physical aggression: A Harvard study found, for example, that “parents who shout frequently are the ones most likely to hit frequently, and vice versa.” Even if you don’t act on your violent threats, they make your child fear and distrust you.
  • Scapegoating or blaming. “You’re the reason we’re all so stressed” or “If I didn’t have to take care of you, my life would be so much easier. ” “If you weren’t so clumsy, your brother wouldn’t have been so badly hurt.” Your child will think they’re a bad person who deserves to be unhappy. They will become anxious & have low self-esteem which will lead them into forming relationships perhaps with the wrong crowd or lead them to join gangs to feel a sense of belonging.
  • Using sarcasm. Making a mocking remark, such as “Now that was really clever – not! ” when your child spills milk on the kitchen floor, or drops something that they are carrying, might seem like a way to avoid direct criticism, but your child is perceptive enough to understand that you’re demeaning them. Children don’t ‘get’ sarcasm and as Oscar Wilde once said, ‘Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit.’
  • Berating your partner. A study at the University of Maryland found that children who see their parents verbally abusing each other are more likely to be depressed or anxious, and to experience more interpersonal problems of their own.

What are signs that a child is suffering from verbal abuse?

  • Negative self-image. This is the most common and pervasive effect of verbal abuse. Your child may say things like, “I’m hopeless” “I’m so stupid” or “Nobody likes me.” Or they may simply seem withdrawn, moody, sullen, down or depressed, all of which can be signs of a low self-esteem because verbal abuse attacks a child’s sense of self-worth.
  • Self-destructive acts. Self-harming acts like “cutting” (using razor blades or knives to cut their own skin) and all forms of self-injury signal a problem, or if they begin to get involved with reckless activities that put themselves in serious danger, like swimming in disused quarries or car chasing.
  • Antisocial behaviour. Verbally abused children demonstrate higher rates of physical aggression, delinquency, and interpersonal problems. Your child may hit other children, frequently quarrel with members in their class, or be cruel to animals.
  • Delayed development. Your child may not be making the usual milestones in their physical, social, academic, or emotional development. They may have difficulty making friends, fall behind in school, or engage in regressive acts such as rocking, thumb-sucking, and bed-wetting.

Does verbal abuse do any long-term harm?

Yes. Research shows that abused children are more likely to:

  • become victims of abuse later in life
  • become abusive themselves
  • become depressed and self-destructive later in life
  • develop anxiety

If you need help controlling your temper.

Here is my comprehensive article on ‘How to Handle Anger Positively.’

Everyone gets angry with their kids at some time or another – it’s normal – it’s healthy. Kids know just what buttons to push and they push them! It helps to accept that anger is an honest emotion, but it’s what you choose to do with your anger that’s important.

Don’t be afraid to let your anger take its natural course because if you suppress your anger, it can lead to frustration, resentment, bitterness, a sense of hopelessness and depression which is not a good thing for you or your children long term.

How do you release your feelings safely?

One way is to press an imaginary internal ‘pause button’ (like your remote control) and ask yourself ‘What exactly am I annoyed or angry about?’ This helps you step back from the situation – getting you back in control and helping to calm yourself down. Really imagine the DVD player in your hand as it’s a great way to remember to get back in control.

You will probably discover that you get wound up by the same things over and over again. So start to keep an anger diary so you start to notice your anger triggers. Is it just when you are hungry and tired and running on empty just before dinner? Is it when you go into your daughter’s bedroom for the ninth time to tell her to turn the music down?

What physical signs do you get to warn you that you are about to “lose it”? Do you start to breathe faster, go red, feel like a volcano is about to erupt as it rises up your body from your tummy? By starting to notice your physical signs you are again getting back in control and stepping back from the situation which is much better. You are becoming aware of your triggers.

Ask yourself a more empowering and useful question: ‘What would I like to see happen in a perfect world?’ as this helps you start focusing on a new solution to your frustration. Relax and start to breathe slowly and deeply – this takes the edge out of the anger. You need to focus very specifically on what it is you want to see happen. This gives you clarity and direction and helps you pass this on to your children who often don’t understand what exactly it is you want them to do.

Click here for more of my practical tips.

What can you do to avoid verbally abusing your child?

Firstly, just be aware that you do it.

Secondly, in moments of stress and anger, try to just ‘Press your imaginary PAUSE BUTTON’ and refrain from saying anything unkind, humiliating or sarcastic to your child. Remember, you are your child’s most important role model. If you tend to have meltdowns, lose your cool, and act abusively at challenging & stressful times, you’ll likely raise a child who does the same as children are listening, learning and watching you ALL the time.

My Pause Button Technique is a really simple way to empower all parents no matter what situation you find yourself in, as it allows you to press your imaginary pause button, freeze time and consider the consequences of the actions you are about to take, before making a more informed, better choice.

Check it out here

What you can do to prevent someone else from verbally abusing your child.

Be aware of all the other influences on your child. Just because you have your temper under control doesn’t mean that all the other adults in your child’s life do too.

Siblings, teachers, babysitters, sports coaches, and other people that your child comes into contact with regularly can harm your child by demeaning or humiliating him. Make a point of asking your child about their relationships with other adults. Of course, they might not tell you if someone is verbally abusing them as they may not have the words, or understand the concept or even realise it’s happening so, be on the lookout for signs of emotional upset like nightmares, bed-wetting, school phobia, and signs of excessive anxiety & speak gently to your child to find out what’s bothering them so you can address it.


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