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Inside: A recent study links harsh parenting to changes in brain anatomy in areas associated with emotion-regulation and higher-order reasoning. Why it is so important to stop yelling at your kids and 10 ways to stop yelling at your kids today.
There have been many studies showing that children who are maltreated or who experience severe childhood adversity show changes in the brain. These changes seen in the brain and in the stress-response system may indeed be adaptive at the time of adversity, but over time these changes can lead to severe mental health problems.
For the first time, a new study from the Université de Montréal and Stanford has shown that these same changes may be seen in children who do not experience abuse or severe adversity, but who instead experience ‘harsh parenting.’
What is ‘Harsh Parenting’?
In the study, ‘Harsh Parenting’ was defined as repeatedly getting angry, hitting, shaking, or yelling at children.
Unfortunately, many of these parenting methods are popular and accepted, especially yelling at children.
Like children who have experienced maltreatment or abuse, adolescents had smaller prefrontal cortexes and amygdala when they had repeatedly experienced harsh parenting in their childhood from ages 2 to 9.
The prefrontal context and the amygdala (part of the limbic system) are keys structures in emotion regulation and when dysregulated, are linked to anxiety and depression.
“These findings are both significant and new. It’s the first time that harsh parenting practices that fall short of serious abuse have been linked to decreased brain structure size, similar to what we see in victims of serious acts of abuse,” said Dr. Suffren, who completed the work as part of her doctoral thesis at UdeM’s Department of Psychology, under the supervision of Professors Françoise Maheu and Franco Lepore.
Changes in the Brain Due to Harsh Parenting Lead to Anxiety
A combination of harsh parenting and brain changes predicted subclinical anxiety symptoms once these children reached adolescence.
These results are telling us that harsh parenting can ultimately lead to real mental-health issues in later life.
Anxiety in adolescence has gone up 20% between 2007 and 2012. The National Institutes of Health, nearly 1 in 3 of all adolescents ages 13 to 18 will experience an anxiety disorder. The rate of hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers has doubled over the past decade.
While harsh parenting does not account for all anxiety we see in adolescence (there are so many other factors that could contribute), harsh parenting could be one factor.
Yet, at the same time, there are studies that show striking resilience of children who have experienced maltreatment or abuse — in fact, some children develop larger gray matter and white volume matter in the hippocampus and more connections between the limbic region (emotion processing) and the prefrontal cortex (emotion regulation).
What does this mean? Is there hope?
The brain is highly adaptable and resilient and there is always a possibility that healing can happen. Creating an enviroment where your child feels saftey — all the way down to there nervous system — will help build a brain that can regulate emotions and handle stress.
It is interesting that the group who showed the brain changes were repeatedly and constantly exposed to harsh parenting from the ages of 2 to 9. All of us have moment we aren’t proud of, and we are not striving to be perfect. But it is a period of sensitivity for children’s brain and stress response system — and that is being shaped within the parent-child relationship.
Early childhood is a sensitive period for brain development in the prefrontal cortex and connections to the limbic system. When your child has a tantrum or a meltdown — see that as a chance to help them build those connections. This is a chance for your child to learn how to weather stress, challenge, and the ups and downs of our world in the safety of your arms — before they have to face the world and all its harshness without the comfort of childhood.
How to Stop Yelling At Your Child
The first step is to see emotions and behavior differently. Inappropriate behaviors come from the immature expression of emotions, overstimulation, hunger, fatigue, or impulses.
If you look beyond the behavior for the root cause you can help your child in the midst of tantrums and meltdowns.
When our kids impulsively act on their emotions, we instantly hone in on what they are doing wrong. We equate the behavior to the emotion. This can give our kids the message that how they feel is wrong, making them feel worse and more likely to either internalize or lash out. Over time, this becomes a vicious cycle.
What we need to do is separate the behavior from the emotion. Feeling hurt, frustrated, angry, or upset because your friend took your toy away from you isn’t bad — it is entirely appropriate to feel those things. But the behavior of hitting your friend over the head with another toy isn’t the best way to express those feelings.
Why? Hitting your friend is wrong for many reasons, but one of these is the social cost –you risk losing that friend. Luckily (and probably due to evolution), little kids don’t hold grudges.
Once you begin to look at behavior and emotions in this way, it becomes much easier not to yell.
- Learn to separate the underlying emotions and impulses from the behavior (see how here).
- Help your child name their emotions.
- Acknowledge that emotions are, okay even when the behavior needs to change — “It is okay to be mad, hands are not for showing our anger.”
- Use feeling-breaks to help your child learn their emotions and also to reflect on better ways to express emotions and impulses. Feeling-breaks can also be for you — if you are frustrated and need a break learn what to say so you can walk away and regulate your own emotions.
- When your child is in the midst of a meltdown or tantrum, don’t try to reason with them. Acknowledge the emotion and after the emotional wave has come down, then reflect.
- Give your child choices for ways to feel the emotion and express the emotion that is appropriate. “You are really upset! Can you tell me how you feel? Do you want comfort, space, or silliness™? “
- After a stressful time, a meltdown, a tantrum, or something upsetting help your child resettle through sensory play.
- Sensory play can help to calm the nervous system and help children reset. Here are 52 ideas for sensory play.
- Find your center! What are the things that help you feel grounded and regulated? Between a stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space, take a deep breath and respond rather than react to your child.
- Create a calm-down space in your home that puts emotions first. This will give you tools to use in the moment when emotions are high.