Parent scolding a child (picture for illustrative purposes)
Parent scolding a child (picture for illustrative purposes) Image Credit: Pexels

To yell or not to yell – that is the question. Are you a parent who is always wondering about a ‘nobler’ way to parent? Good news is that there is a right way, and it involves lesser yelling and less praise.

Recently, an article that my editor sent me shifted my whole sense of what parenting could be.

The article talks about the journey that Michaeleen Doucleff, a correspondent for the Science Desk of NPR (National Public Radio, US) took through a Mexican village for a story. Doucleff found that all her theories on parenting were spawned during her visits to Yucatan, where parents seemed to utilise a more practical approach to raising children, as compared to their American counterparts.

In her previous trips to remote areas of northern Canada and Tanzania she found children devoid of many issues that often seem to affect children living in urban cities.

Doucleff shared her findings in her 2021 book ‘Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach US About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans’.

Parents in these areas had calmer responses to everything their children did, she found.

For example, she found that it is not necessary to praise children constantly, something urban parents often do. She observed that parents in these regions did not often praise their children for simple tasks like drawing or reading, yet the children grew up to be confident, self-sufficient, and with strong values.

Doucleff’s findings show that parental response should not be exaggerated or over the top. A simple nod or smile should be enough in most incidences.

The parents were also yelling a lot lesser to correct their children’s behaviour.

So, we spoke to two UAE-based children’s mental health experts to find out more about this ‘better way of parenting – less yelling, less praise’.

The thin line between praise and overpraise

I asked Dr. Fatima Abdullah, a UAE-based psychologist if it was all right to praise my child to encourage him.

If a parent praises a child in vain without any progress or attempt of progress – then we are sending out the message that hard work does not need to be earned thereby leading to entitlement, lack of willingness to work hard...

- Dr Fatima Abdullah , Psychologist and Managing Director of Enliven Group

Dr. Abdullah said: “Positive reinforcement and appraisal is necessary for a child’s healthy development so long as it signifies progress. However, if a parent praises a child in vain without any progress or attempt of progress – then we are sending out the message that hard work does not need to be earned thereby leading to entitlement, lack of willingness to work hard, lack of moral in workplace, and a discrepancy of what it takes to be successful in life.”

Overpraising to encourage your child? It can backfire…

So, how much praise is too much praise? And what can parents do to encourage children, without overpraising?

“When we find that children are moving from acknowledging and appreciating a parent's praise to being driven or motivated by their praise, at this stage parents might be excessively praising a child. Praising a child for mundane tasks that do not require effort or intent strips away the merit of behaviour and conditions the child’s brain to accept reward without earning it,” Dr. Abdullah added.

It can lead to imposter syndrome in adulthood…

What happens when a child is brought up being constantly praised by a parent?

According to Dr. Abdullah: “If a child was brought up being constantly praised in an unhealthy manner, the child will most likely be proud and entitled. Worst of all may suffer from imposter syndrome in their adulthood with the knowledge that they were constantly told how great and amazing they were, and now as they are able to think criticality, they feel they were lied to and lose all self-confidence and belief in themselves.”

Praising children helps them to develop a stronger sense of self-confidence. It motivates them to achieve higher goals if the praise is sincere.

- Diana Maatouk, Psy.D/Ph.D Clinical psychologist and Founder of The Hummingbird Clinic.

Dr Diana Maatouk, another Dubai-based clinical psychologist added: “Praising children helps them to develop a stronger sense of self-confidence. It motivates them to achieve higher goals if the praise is sincere. In fact, when you look at the evidence, the benefit of praising a child depends on how genuine the praise is. If a child for example presents to his parents a painting that they believe could be significantly improved, overpraising him/her could have a negative effect on his capacity to later face future challenges.”

The right way to praise

Dr Maatouk said that instead, parents should focus on finding the ‘right’ words to praise the child, as it can have a stronger positive effect on their self-confidence. She added: “Parents should carefully think about the way they praise their child: praising a child’s ability (how clever they are for example) or focusing only on the result, instead of praising his or her effort while achieving a task (the process he or she went through) can have two completely different outcomes. When children are praised for their abilities, they tend to identify to that aspect of their personality while fearing to face new challenges to avoid failure. But, when the praise focuses mainly on the process, they go through to accomplish a task, they are better encouraged to face unfamiliar situations since their sense of self-worth doesn’t depend on the outcome.

“It also seems important to remember that praise involving social comparison (“you’re better than your classmates”) is worse than overpraising unreasonably or not praising him or her at all. In that case, the child internalises that his task is to compete with others to achieve and maintain a top spot. Failing in that case can have a dramatic effect on them.”

According to Dr. Maatouk, a “good-enough” parenting style involves teaching children that failure is part of life, that it is inevitable and that it can teach them a lot without affecting their self-worth.

“The tendency to overpraise a child will inevitably backfire at him/her. Failing a task will be perceived as if it’s the end of the world. That child will develop an unrealistic sense of self. It will become difficult for him/her to face challenges in the future because of his/her fear of failing,” she added.

Yelling at a child to correct him or her does damage too, both the mental health experts said.

Is it okay to yell at a child to correct a behaviour?

“No,” said Dr Fatima Abdullah, “…yelling releases adrenaline, which is a fight, flight, or freeze hormone. That has a snow globe effect on the brain, and we are not programmed to think, focus, or making decisions during that time.”

And Dr Maatouk, who is the founder of The Hummingbird Clinic said: “Parents who choose yelling to discipline their children, often reproduce what they themselves know and have personally experienced. Remember that children learn from their parents’ behaviours. Yelling at a child as a form of correction shows him or her that his parent is unable to regulate his or her emotions. It teaches children that yelling in return is a way to manage difficult situations, that it’s an effective response to emotionally charged situations. It teaches them an ineffective way to process anger and other overwhelming emotions.”

So, what do you do if your child does not listen to polite instructions and conversations about consequence? What are some better alternatives to correcting a child’s behaviour by yelling at them? Dr Maatouk suggested: “Healthier ways to deal with a child who doesn’t listen to instructions are to tell him or her what is clearly expected of him in advance; to model that behaviour as a parent (for example, we can’t ask children to stop shouting if we, as parents, shout constantly); and to praise the behaviour performed. Healthy methods of discipline should be about effectiveness through praise and not about punishments through fear."

Setting up discipline systems

But what do I do if my child doesn’t listen to polite instructions and conversations about consequence?

According to Dr. Fatima Abdullah, parents need to have a system set up. She said: “There must be automated systems in place, so children know what to expect. For example, you get three warnings and then a consequence or perhaps your family uses a token system or behaviour chart. Find what works best for your family and what is most conducive and use that.”

How yelling affects children

What is the downside of yelling? How can it affect a child’s mental health? How can it affect them later in life?

"There are detrimental effects to yelling at children, some of the long-term effects is children becoming tone deaf, they space out and tend not to listen or follow instructions. Also, they tend to respond to more harsher and aggressive discipline methods. Constant yelling at children can also have a negative impact on their self-esteem and self-confidence. High levels of anxiety disorder have also been associated with constantly yelling at children," said Dr Abdullah.

Five effects of excessive yelling at children

Dr Maatouk listed out five issues faced by children who are raised in an environment where yelling is the “normal” way of life. She said, such children have a higher probability of developing psychological and relational issues including:

a) Behavioural problems: "When they grow up surrounded by anger, children tend to mimic the behaviours they’ve observed. By identification with the angry parent, the child develops hostile and aggressive behaviour towards others."

b) Fear and unsafety: "Yelling scares most children - the younger the child, often the more fear they feel. In a state of fear, it is quite impossible for a child to think about their mistake or misbehaviour. Children are far less likely to learn the lesson their parent wants them to learn when they are afraid. Instead of the lesson they might otherwise learn from appropriate consequences associated with their mistake, they learn to be afraid. Fearful children often grow up to be fearful and anxious adults.”

c) Confusion and a tendency to put themselves in toxic relationships: “For children, parents should usually represent a sense of security. However, when a parent constantly yells at them, children confuse that angry parent with a sense of security. Since children are egocentric, they don’t question the parent’s inability to regulate his/her emotions: they inevitably conclude that they are at fault. They end up feeling overwhelmed with guilt which negatively affect their self-worth - ‘If my parent yells at me, it’s because I deserve it since I am a bad person’. Later in life, these abused children will become adults who put themselves in toxic relationships, confusing love with hate.”

d) Anxiety and stress: “Being frequently yelled at changes the brain structure in a multitude of ways including increasing the activity of the amygdala, the stress hormones, the muscular tension, and more. The child who later becomes an adult internalises his parents’ voices that constantly seeks to punish him or her even long after that child no longer lives with his or her parents.”

e) Depression: “Other than feeling scared, hurt, or low, a child who was very often yelled at can develop serious clinical depression, which can continue even when they become adults. Angry parents’ effect on the child, can go beyond childhood. Depression can also increase the risk of drug abuse (to self-medicate and soothe the pain inside) and self-destructive behaviours as a child grows older.”

She also added: "It's important to add that all parents yell at their kids: there is no such thing as a perfect parent. All make mistakes. However, when yelling becomes a habit and a way for the parent to react to feeling ovewhelmed, then that can lead to harmful consequences to the development of children. It's when yelling is repetitive and constant that we can qualify it as being abusive to the child."