Children do Not Listen Better When You Yell at Them

The Science Behind Yelling: How Emotion Affects Listening

Remember the last time you “lost it” with your kids? I mean yelling, of course. As parents, we’ve all had times when our kids pushed our buttons a bit too far and we couldn’t contain our strong emotions.

Have you wondered how the strong emotion in your voice affects how your kids listen? Does yelling make them listen to your instructions more? Yelling may have gotten their immediate attention, but does it reinforce their memory of what you were saying?

Luckily, we have research on this topic to help us understand how yelling affects listening. This study considered how different emotions influence memory of what was said.

Here’s how the researchers did it: participants listened to words spoken in either a neutral or sad tone of voice. Later the participants were asked to recall the words from memory. Interestingly, results of the study showed that people tended to remember words spoken in a neutral tone better than those spoken in a sad tone. Additionally, participants remembered words spoken in a sad tone more negatively than the other words.

In other words, when a more neutral tone was used, the participants remembered words better. Now, this study didn’t address yelling specifically. However, you can imagine if hearing words in a sad tone prompted individuals to remember words more negatively, an angry or yelling tone probably has an even more negative impact.

Additionally, we know from other research that people (even kids) have a much harder time processing information in their brain when it is flooded by distressing emotions such as fear or anxiety.

Put in the perspective of yelling, you can see why kids often do not respond well when we yell. Their little brains are so flooded by anxiety over our strong emotions, that they cannot process what we are saying.

Although knowing this information is helpful, when we are in that heated parenting moment, it is often difficult to stay calm. Our kids definitely know how to push our buttons in large part because we helped “install” the buttons!

One aspect of child development that I find helpful to keep in mind is an awareness of why they are behaving the way they are behaving. In other words, making some meaning out of kids’ behavior often helps diffuse the emotion of the situation. For little ones, it’s helpful to keep in mind that they do not have the mental maturity to manipulate or try to irritate you purposefully. They are just immature and do not have good self-regulation skills yet.

For all kids, understanding growth spurts or developmental spurts is often helpful. We often hear of growth spurts for infants and toddlers but even older kids have them. During these times, kids are often more irritable, unregulated and overall cranky. Understanding the cycles of when these growth spurts usually occur, might help parents avoid some yelling and overall loss of patience.

Parenting is emotionally taxing work. We love our kids but they do test our patience at times. By understanding that yelling is not effective we can help find alternatives to help our kids listen better.

About the Author

Amy Webb, PhD is a scholar turned stay-at-home mom with two young sons. With her blog, The Thoughtful Parent, she brings academic child development and parenting research into the lives of parents in the trenches of child-rearing. She does not claim to be a parenting expert, but rather a translator of academic research into reader-friendly articles.

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