News to no one: Kids require a lot of patience. They also have a tendency not to listen when we speak at a normal volume, so the desire to raise one’s voice is real. That said, if you’re a yeller (and we've all done it), you probably already guessed that the habit isn’t doing your offspring any favors. But what’s actually going on in that tiny little head when you loose your cool and shout at them? Here’s what an expert has to say.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Aldrich Chan is a licensed neuropsychologist, founder of the Miami-based Center for Neuropsychology and Consciousness (CNC) and author of the award-winning book Reassembling Models of Reality. He received his doctorate from Pepperdine University and has experience as both a clinical researcher and practitioner.
Their Cortisol Levels Spike
At the risk of stating the obvious, kids find it very stressful when a parent screams at them. This is important to note though, because when the stress response kicks in, cortisol is released and multiple regions of the brain are affected by it (and not in a good way). Evidence shows that stress is bad for a developing brain, but more on that below.
They Stop Thinking Rationally
As previously mentioned, multiple areas of the brain are affected by cortisol and the prefrontal cortex—a region responsible for higher-order thinking, decision-making and emotional regulation—is one of them. “The prefrontal cortex can become inhibited or less active during moments of high stress, including exposure to yelling,” says Dr. Chan, adding that this inhibition “can impair a child’s ability to think rationally and make reasoned decisions.” In other words, if you’re screaming at your kid because they did something foolish, it could actually impair the prefrontal cortex, thereby making it even harder for them to act sensibly.
Of course, if the stress is a one-off occurrence, your kid’s brain will bounce back; however, the expert tells us that chronic yelling from a parent can potentially alter brain structure and lead to long-term changes in the brain’s development. In fact, a 2021 study published in Chronic Stress found that the inhibited activity in the prefrontal cortex leads to weakened connectivity and architectural changes like spine loss and synapse removal when stress is chronic, all of which can translate to cognitive impairment.
Their Memory May Be Affected
It’s not just the prefrontal cortex that takes a hit when we regularly scream at our kids. Per Dr. Chan, “repeated exposure to yelling can negatively affect the hippocampus, a brain region crucial for learning and memory, [and] may impair the ability to form new memories and retrieve existing ones.” A 2006 study from the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences describes the hippocampus as an adaptive region of the brain that’s particularly vulnerable to cortisol: “structural plasticity in response to repeated stress starts out as an adaptive and protective response, but ends up as damage if the imbalance in the regulation of the key mediators is not resolved.” What's more, kids’ brains have enhanced plasticity due to the fact that they are still developing at a rapid rate; thus, the effects of chronic stress from yelling can be even more pronounced.
It Can Lead to Mood Dysregulation
This one is a little complicated to explain, but the raphe nuclei, a region in the brain stem responsible for serotonin production, is also affected by the cortisol-stress response equation. (Quick science lesson: Serotonin is a chemical that plays a role in regulating your mood.) If you want to know how all these regions interact, you can take a deep dive with this 2010 study published in the Handbook of Behavioral Neuroscience…but the takeaway is that stress has a negative effect on serotonergic neurotransmission. Or, as Dr. Chan puts it “yelling can affect the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain [because] excessive stress and the release of cortisol can affect the regulation of neurotransmitters like serotonin, which is important for mood regulation.” And while parents may think that yelling will improve a kid’s conduct, when mood regulation suffers it’s only natural that behavior follows suit.
The Bottom Line
The effects of yelling on the brain described above can result in a wide range of real life consequences for kids, including emotional instability, difficulty forming trusting relationships, increased aggression, defiance and impulsivity and attention issues, says Dr. Chan, adding that “these changes are not necessarily permanent, but may require intervention and support to mitigate.” Of course, it’s worth noting that these effects are much more severe for chronic exposure to yelling, as opposed to, you know, shouting at your kid to clean up their Legos after you’ve stepped on one for the tenth time this morning. That said, it’s probably in you and your kid’s best interest to keep your cool when possible. Our advice? Put your impressive lung capacity to use with some deep breathing exercises instead.