The Problem with Yelling

FEB. 07, 2018

By Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW


“The problem with verbal abuse is there is no evidence,” Marta shared. She came for help with a long-standing depression.

“What do you mean, lack of evidence?” I asked her.

“When people are physically or sexually abused, it’s concrete and real. But verbal abuse is amorphous. I feel like if I told someone I was verbally abused, they’d think I was just complaining about being yelled at,” Marta explained.

“It’s much more than that,” I validated.

“The problem is no one can see my scars.” She knew intuitively that her depression, anxiety and deep-seated insecurity were wounds that stemmed from the verbal abuse she endured as a child.

“I wish I was beaten,” Marta shared on more than one occasion. “I’d feel more legitimate.”

Her statement was haunting and brought tears to my eyes.

Verbal abuse is so much more than getting scolded. Marta told me that there were many reasons her mother’s tirades were traumatizing:

  • The loud volume of her voice
  • The shrill tone of her voice
  • The dead look in her eyes
  • The critical, disdainful and scornful facial expression that made Marta feel hated
  • The long duration—sometimes her mother yelled for hours
  • The names and insults—you’re spoiled, disgusting and wretched
  • The unpredictability of that “flip of the switch” that turned her mother into someone else
  • And, perhaps worst of all, the abandonment

Being frequently yelled at changes the mind, brain and body in a multitude of ways including increasing the activity of the amygdala (the emotional brain), increasing stress hormones in the blood stream, increasing muscular tension and more. Being frequently yelled at as children changes how we think and feel about ourselves even after we become adults and leave home. That’s because the brain wires according to our experiences—we literally hear our parents’ voices yelling at us in our heads even when they’re not there.

Attachment and infant-mother research confirms what we all intuitively know: Humans do better when they feel safe and consistently loved, which means, among other things, being treated with respect. What is news to many of us is that we are born with fully matured, hard-wired, core emotions like sadness, fear and anger. And when fear, for example, is repeatedly triggered by a harsh environment, like one where there is a lot of yelling, automatic physical and emotional reactions occur that cause traumatic stress to a child. The stress in their little brains and bodies increases from anything that makes them feel attacked, including loud voices, angry voices, angry eyes, dismissive gestures and more.

Children do better when they are calm. The calmer and more connected the caregiver, the calmer and more secure the child. And the healthier it is for the child's brain and body. Knowing this, here are some things all parents can remember to help young brains develop well, by ensuring our children feel safe and secure.

  • Know that children have very real emotional needs that need proper tending. In general, the more these needs are met, the easier it will be for the child to be resilient in the face of life’s challenges.
  • Learning about core emotions will help your child successfully manage emotions.
  • You can affect your child’s self-esteem by being kind, compassionate and curious about their mind and world.
  • When a break in the relationship occurs, as often happens during conflicts, try to repair the emotional connection with your child as soon as possible.
  • You can help your child feel safe and secure by allowing them to separate from you and become their own person. Then welcoming them back with love and connection even when you are angry or disappointed in their behaviors.

When you’re a parent, it’s not easy to control your temper or realize when you’ve crossed the line into verbal abuse. There is a slippery slope between being a strict disciplinarian and traumatizing a young brain. A little awareness goes a long way. Being aware of one’s behavior, listening to our tone of voice and choice of words and watching our body language will keep us in check. Little children, who can act tough, defiant or even indifferent to our actions, are still vulnerable to trauma.

Our own childhood experiences—wonderful, horrible and everything in between—need to be remembered and honored. And we can all strive to help ourselves and our families evolve for the better: to increase the best, gentle experiences we received as children and reduce the painful ones. Marta, for example, worked hard to recover from her abuse. She strove to develop compassion for herself and self-soothe her distress, both necessary but challenging parts of healing.

Several years into our work together, Marta came in following a distressing weekend and shared an amazing experience. A fight with her mother had left her reeling: “I told myself, my distress will soon pass and I’ll be okay. I named, validated and felt the sadness in my body as I gave myself compassion. After I spent time with my feelings, I took a walk through the park and looked at nature. I felt better.”

Proud of the way she could now self-soothe, I said, “What a wonderful mother you were to yourself.”


Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW, is the author of It’s Not Always Depression (Random House & Penguin UK), a book which teaches both the general public and psychotherapists about emotions and how to work with them to feel better. She received her BA in biochemistry from Wesleyan University and an MSW from Fordham University. She is a certified psychoanalyst and AEDP psychotherapist and supervisor. She has published articles in The New York Times and professional journals. Hendel was also the Mental Health Consultant on AMC’s Mad Men. She lives in New York City. For more information and free resources for mental health visit:


SEP, 19, 2018 08:47:38 AM
I am in my thirties and have agoraphobia and can't hold down a job because I feel I am low IQ. I became a mother to two beautiful girls and it wasn't until I caught myself yelling at them from an early age, that I realized how wrong it was. It's hard to wake up one day and realize your childhood wasn't normal and that it was indeed abuse. My father yelled...he RAGED. He threw things, hit things, called me names, screamed mere inches from my face. I will never forget the red face and bulging eyes or how he'd go hoarse after screaming. And then he was so kind for a while. My mother assures me that it wasn't abuse and maybe my anxiety has warped the memories somehow. But I don't know. I feel like it's abuse to scream like that and why else would I have developed agoraphobia and the absolute certainty that i'm low IQ and therefore that's why I have had zero to be proud about? It's such a strange situation and I feel like i've lost most of my life and who I was supposed to be had I been nurtured and helped through my mental illness in my teens. I'm so sad and lost. I think about ending it daily.

SEP, 13, 2018 09:05:16 PM
To: LR. I strongly suggest that you practice mindfulness meditation. However, it is best not to simply try a couple of times on your own and say that it doesn’t work. It has to become a daily habit where you practice regularly - to make this happen it is best to attend some mindfulness classes (such as the 8-week MBSR). When practiced this way, one tends to naturally become aware of one’s thoughts and then one “responds” to situations in life instead of “reacting” automatically with anger, etc. Mindfulness also brings a great deal of peace to one’s life.

SEP, 08, 2018 03:58:37 PM
I grew up with just my mom. No one yelled. People with raised voices or pressured speech always scared me. I studied psychology and neuroscience. I work with mentally ill and as a nurse with young children. I research everything. I knew when I became a parent I would never spank or yell. I wasn’t worried. I’ve always had an abundance of patience. “Caring and compassionate to a fault” we’re words used to describe me in a speech at my wedding. I was an excellent mother to my first born despite colick and money troubles, a move. Then when I had my second who also had colick and we moved 3x before he was 7mos, I lost all control. I became hyper responsive, rage overcame me at random, I yelled and cried daily. I was diagnosed with postpartum depression. Then after 6mos of treatment they further diagnosed me with adhd. I’m 37. I overcame the ppd but here I am now and despite all my efforts to maintain a calm caring loving home, I find myself yelling out of control nearly every day. I maintain composer, try to help my children get all their needs met, I play, I laugh and entertain...we read and have calm sweet bedtimes... but no matter how well the whole day goes, at some point I lose my cool and I never see it coming. My 5yo also has adhd and the constant interrupting, interjecting leaves me with no complete thoughts or thinking space or personal space and now he overwhelms his 3yo brother who screeches 6-8x an hour because he needs space. I don’t know what to do. I apologize after...usually far too Kenneth of an apology. It ruins my day. I hate myself after. It totally breaks my heart. My 5yo has the best intentions but the worst impulse control. Obviously, now I’m realizing he gets it all from me. So my question is, how do I control myself? I know yelling is ineffective and hurtful. I will try anything to stop. I have therapists. I exercise when I can. I work 30hrs a week. We have no family or money for respite. I think my husband always sounds annoyed when he is will our boys so I try to take them as often as I can...but eventually I lose it too. Usually the yell doesn’t match the behavior either. Like I said, it’s a build up of no thinking space. I try mommy time outs...but my 5yo can’t resist unlocking my door. Please. I need some magic. I lived with my step mom for 1yr when I was 8. She yelled brutally everyday. She used to throw chairs. I was scared and confused by her. Thought she was simply horrible. I was so grateful she wasn’t my real mother...yet here I am. I don’t throw things. I don’t hit but i yell and I hate myself for it.

JUL, 29, 2018 09:09:08 AM
Glenn Osgood
i was yelled at by my step dad everyday from the age of 5 till i was 21 he has ocd he made my sister mad my mum is stressful everyday all because he shouts and gets angry over thing that are nothing like holding the knife and fork the wrong way round walking down the stairs a bit loudly putting your hands on the wall you get the idea. As a result of this i was living on the edge in my own homw where i should be my relaxing enviorement i was scared everyday always trying to be carefull not to make him shout at me so basically when ever he was in the house i sufferd stress which is going to reult having these actions outside the house thinking that all house holds are the same i would go round friends house asking the parents "is it alright to sit there" and "shall i take my shoes off" and they would laugh and say no where if it was my step dad who would have a heart attack. when i was 21 from all the stess my step dad has caused i couldn't concentrate at school failed at everything even tho i don't think i am that stupid its just all the stess that was in me it was really hard to concetrate. So i failed at school went to college and studided I.T for years on the verge of getting some a levels i was diagnosed with crohns disease i had it the whole year in my last year of studing and faild miserably. I blame evrything on my stepdad and nothing has been said because when he dies i will get all his money i see it as compensation for ruin my life

JUN, 28, 2018 07:13:26 PM
Akira Chester
I didn't know why I was crying when my parents screamed and yelled at me for everything, whether I did it correct or incorrect. Thanks to this article, Every single thing fit, I showed it to a doctor, wondering if its true, And they said it was real, and explained how At least I know I'm not a worthless person that doesn't know how to do normal stuff in life.

APR, 11, 2018 02:21:19 AM
Tara Kleffman
I am a yeller and have never had this explained to me in such a compelling manner. Thank you. This may just have opened my eyes. I also have an older brother with a mental illness and I seem to yell at him more than anything else. I will definitely try another approach.

MAR, 29, 2018 03:14:06 PM
As a mother of a daughter who verbally abuses her daughter (my granddaughter) who has undiagnosed mental illness and lives with me, am I suppose to listen to this mistreatment or interfere? It is so chaotic in the house. I interfere and get accused for treating my daughter like a child which undermines her parenting! Ha, but I refuse to tolerate such abuses in my home! Most of the time, my granddaughter has done nothing wrong. My daughter has made bad decisions, anxiety and takes it out on her. Thank God my husband and I are there!!

MAR, 23, 2018 05:34:20 PM
heart wrenching. I can identify.

MAR, 16, 2018 11:22:53 AM
Reply to: june conway beeby
These are not brain diseases. Our brains constantly change structurally as a result of our experiences just like how our muscles change (grow, etc.) when we do physical activity. Also, changes that happen in brains are reversible as I mentioned in my other comment.

MAR, 14, 2018 10:36:11 AM
june conway beeby
Too bad there is none of the scientific research mentioned here instead of only sociological assumptions that are never proved by early social suppositions about the cause for human brain diseases with no evidence to show in the long history of these assumptions.

f I hope we will find a cure for all brain disease like science has found for other once-chronic diseases of humans .Scientific brain research must be massively funded by all governments if we are to eradicate these brain diseases. We spend funds to eliminate scientific research and replace it with unscientific social studies which has failed to find the biological cause and how to cure humans of these incurable decades/centuries-old brain diseases.

MAR, 06, 2018 01:45:43 PM
Louie Rafti
This article describes exactly what I experienced as a child. My father yelled at me so much, and so loud, and so often, that my childhood friends nicknamed me "Goddamnit Louis." I have made peace with my father, he is now 97 years old and living in a nursing home for alzheimers patients. But the scars still exist. Recently, I was involved in an auto accident. It was totally the other guys fault, he ran in to me. But when we got out of our cars to exchange driver's info, he went into "road rage" and I just froze. It was like I was six old again, and my father was yelling at me. Fortunately, I was able to resolve the matter successfully through legal channels. Perhaps this is why I became a lawyer - a way to resolve problems while disengaged emotionally. Great article, leading to important self-incites. I wish that NAMI was there when I was a kid!

MAR, 01, 2018 09:01:56 PM
What about verbal abuse of the elderly? My sister took full responsibility for our elderly mother and gave her professional-level care. But she'd get frustrated at mother's perceived infractions, when she felt she wasn't cooperating - she'd scream & curse her. Worse, I did nothing about it because (1) we were brought up in a contentious household & I was afraid of her anger; & (2) because of my bipolar illness, I felt I couldn't take on, full time, my mother's care. My mother died recently; besides memories I carry tremendous, well-deserved guilt.

MAR, 01, 2018 11:20:20 AM
I find it very disturbing that there is a belief that our brain which has served us well throughout our evolution, is being "changed" or "rewired" by instances such as yelling. While the term "brain change" is being presented as concurrent with trauma from persons not equipped to comment on neuroscience, medical data on humans, not rats, suggests that the brain does not change. When threatened there are hormonal/chemical changes ( big difference) that start the fight or flight response. If this heightened response continues, how can anyone be sure that other experiences, developmental, mental health and environmental factors, are not contributors to later problems in life. The literature refers to "victims" and "suffering". This deterministic viewpoint of trauma = brain change = disability is a dangerous path to the creation of a whole cadre of individuals who will live up to the diagnosis that their current behavior is excused by their past, that their brain has changed. In this case, because they were yelled at. If yelling creates trauma then the majority of the video games and television program that are currently available should be silenced. The question is are we asking persons who have experienced trauma to remain in its shadow forever?

MAR, 01, 2018 01:03:08 AM
yvonne Polk
My Husband Yell at Me all the time I tell Him get my Gun so I can finish Job I Started. Because he Don't care About My Depression and I'am Done with Living with it.

FEB, 28, 2018 01:30:49 PM
Joan Bennett
This article on Yelling not only helps me to understand what I went through in childhood but also why I continue the pattern as a new educator. I have seen other teachers also yelling at students. When a child does not listen repeatedly a teacher will become frustrated. By raising one's voice one gets attention. A better way is to take the child to the side and talk to the child or give the child choices.This is a difficult pattern to break.

FEB, 28, 2018 01:22:32 PM
Joan Bennett
an excellent article

FEB, 28, 2018 12:09:29 PM
Susan Sclipcea
It can take a lifetime to overcome the negative tapes that run in one's head. Meditation, prayer, exercise, therapy, all can help. But it is a long journey.

FEB, 28, 2018 11:14:25 AM
My dad had a different approach. He lowered his voice so you had to strain to hear it. But he'd spit out biting words with an expression of scorn and hatred on his face that was really frightening. I froze every time as if I was in the presence of a rattlesnake.

FEB, 28, 2018 10:22:29 AM
My husband was verbally abusive to me and my children. Her never seen that he was verbally abusive. His remarks were always that we needed to toughen up. He could just look at me a certain way sometimes and I would cry. Needless to say I divorced him 3 times and remarried him 3 times. Now at 50 I have separated from him and have contacted a divorce lawyer. I am now in counseling and working thru all of the abuse I have survived over the years.

FEB, 28, 2018 10:08:28 AM
I'm a mom and a yeller. I yell when attempts at calm discussion are ignored. I have a young adult schizophrenic son who only and I mean ONLY responds to yelling. I speak calmly and I make sure he's listening to me and not the voices, but he just sits in defiance of most small requests like close the door. So I eventually have to yell CLOSE THE DOOR! This stresses out not only myself, but my daughter, and my son, who then acts like I'm crazy for yelling. The example ia the door but insert any task you'd ask a small child to do. It's like I'm living in a hell I didn't create amd want no part of, but there are literally no other options. Nearly everyday *****s.

FEB, 20, 2018 03:15:23 PM
Gloria San Nicolas-Avery
I was brought up by watching my dad yell at my older siblings when they don’t listen to him. And when my two oldest sister always fighting and sometimes getting physical where I was afraid to know what was going to Happen next. I was also bullied a lot in grade school . So seeing and hearing a lot of trauma and yelling I was a nervous kid. Thank you for having this comment chat line for comments .

FEB, 15, 2018 06:48:32 PM
Connie Conant
What about verbal abuse done to an adult? My adult loved one who mental illness has been verbally abusive to me for the last 11 years. He lives with us. It is very challenging!

FEB, 08, 2018 03:48:25 PM
Georgianna Miller
Thank you for writing this. I was one of those children whose mother yelled at them, a lot. I read somethings here that clicked with me and I hope to be able to use in the future.

FEB, 08, 2018 09:49:38 AM
A child's self esteem is directly felt and developed early on when the toddler realizes they are a separate self, an "I". If there is a reinforcement of negative perception patterns by their immediate world, their primary caregivers, it needs a depth of commitment and consistent attention training to break these early perceptions of their own view in self esteem. Along with professional therapy, a daily intentional meditation experience in non duality can reveal a world and expansive universe in direct connection to who a person truly is, not what has been constructed in conditioning in the body/mind in an unhealthy self perception.

FEB, 07, 2018 11:09:45 PM
I hope the day will come when we learn and talk about what constitutes verbal abuse. A lot of people would stop it if they were aware it is abusive. As it is, we copy and do what we learned at home and think that is normal

FEB, 07, 2018 07:05:58 PM
It is true that the brain wires according to our experiences – this wiring is reversible however through psychological means. When mice are subjected to various psychological stresses (e.g. when they are restrained) the structure of their brains change. However, when these animals are released, these changes get reversed. In my case, although I had a yelling mom who was also critical of many things, I was able to overcome my problems as an adult through mindfulness practices (and I also know several others who have done this) – so, I am sure if my brain had been wired in a problematic way, they have now rewired themselves.

FEB, 07, 2018 06:17:01 PM
Roxanne Reeves
Yes. And for more on the biology of trauma, from a clinicians point of view read The Deepest Well by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris. Very readable, available on Amazon and places like Target stores.

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