Yelling at Teens

by Lucie Hemmen on March 9, 2014

Understanding the impact that yelling has on teens.

Early in my private practice work with teens, a 16-year-old client explained:

“I know my mom loves me but she’s a yeller.  When she yells at me, I feel worthless.  I feel like I’ve never done anything right in my life.  The only way I could possibly show her how much it hurts me would be to harm myself in front of her. When she’s on a roll, I fantasize about all the ways I would do that.”

We all know that yelling is not a good thing.  What we may not fully appreciate is the extent of damage that yelling creates.

“I shut my mom out years ago.  No one in the world would ever imagine what a screamer she is.  She’s a successful person in every way but at home, she snaps on us and I’m done with it.  I’m numb to her.”

Another teen shares:

“I’m much better with my eating disorder now.  But I notice when my parents yell at me, I get the urge to restrict.  It’s like, the yelling strips me down and I need to prove that I’ve got some power…that I can fight back.”

There are different kinds of yellers and different kinds of teens with a range of sensitivity to yelling.  At the mild end of the spectrum, a mostly even, emotionally regulated parent yells at a teen for leaving the oven on all day, “Damnit Beth, you could have burned the house down!”  It’s short, to the point, and over.

While Beth doesn’t love that moment, she’s likely to shake it off quickly because it’s not the typical emotional environment of her home.  She knows she blew it, and the yelling was like a soccer ball to the head.  She quickly recovers.

For extremely sensitive teens, even a brief episode of parental yelling is an emotional evisceration.  They may feel deep shame, self-hatred and worthlessness.  If they don’t personalize the negativity, they are likely to view the parent as untrustworthy and unsafe.

Other “water-off–a-duck’s back” teens are more likely to look at the parent, feel a surge of irritation mixed with a loss of respect, and put the whole sordid interaction behind them.  Nothing has been learned, but damage can be relatively minor due to the temperament of the teen.

In Beth’s case, let’s say her mom is self-reflecting with good relationship skills.  She approaches Beth a little later and says, “Sorry I yelled at you honey.  I was freaked out about the oven but you didn’t deserve to be yelled at.  Do you understand how important it is that you turn off appliances and help keep our home safe?”

Beth now has space to contemplate the matter-at-hand because she’s not tangled in negative emotions about the yelling, “It’s okay mom.  I do understand and I ‘m going to make sure I don’t do that again.”

This is an ideal outcome because Beth’s mom is also teaching Beth relationship skills.  She knows she isn’t a perfect mom but she repairs potential relationship damage quickly by acknowledging her behavior, apologizing for it, and facilitating reconnection.

Being able to acknowledge relationship boo boo’s, apologize and make appropriate repairs, serves as glue in a relationship. Stubborn, non-apologizers have Big Problems in relationships.  Egos rigidly lock into the “I’m right.  You deserve the way I’m treating you” position and everybody loses.

Alternatively, people who have strong relationship skills are happier and more successful.  They even live longer.

We parents don’t need to be perfect and by addressing our imperfect moments with heart and sincere accountability, our imperfections create opportunities for in-the-moment skill building.

Reconnection after a yell-fest is EVERYTHING for teens because without connection to loving adults, they are extremely vulnerable to a host of potential risks.  Preserving connection is much more important than parental attempts to stomp out unwanted behavior.

“My dad thinks he made a point with me by yelling at me the entire way to school.  You know what point he made?  That he’s an ass and I hate him.”

The dad later checks in with me, “I don’t like yelling at her but she needs it.  It’s the only way I get through to her.”  In a father-daughter session, this dad learned that he was definitely making an impact on his daughter – but it was not the impact he was hoping for.

At the more severe end of the yelling spectrum, anger shades into emotional abuse as the yeller spirals from the initial trigger to an expanded and very personal assault.  Swearing and stomping around may be incorporated into the display.

“Damnit Beth!  You’re so irresponsible.  I can’t trust you to be in the kitchen and do the simplest thing!  How hard is it to turn off an oven?  You actually think you’re going to college next year?  I can’t even trust you to function in our home.”

I’ve noticed this kind of yelling is especially terrifying to teen girls when it comes from dads.  Wanting to feel safe and protected by your dad, and being especially sensitive to an angry male voice, seems to escalate the negative impact.

Less relationship savvy parents will not necessarily touch base with the teen to make repairs to the relationship.  The effects on the teen are therefore much more damaging.

“My dad will just act like the whole ride to school yell fest never happened.  For me, I’m wrecked for the rest of the day.  I can’t pay attention in class.  I want to go home but then I don’t want to go home cuz he’ll be there and I’m so hurt and pissed at him.”

One thing is for sure:  the take away yelling offers teens has NOTHING to do with what they did wrong to cause the yelling.  When yellers think their getting the results they want or making an important point, they are missing a huge portion of the picture.

In the next blog, I will talk about what parents can do to change the yelling habit.


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