A couple sits in my office and both are upset. I mediated their divorce a few months ago and they have returned for a session to resolve a visitation issue. They had settled on joint custody of their two daughters, age 12 and 9. But recently the older daughter had started to refuse to go to her father’s house. The mother said that the child claimed to be afraid of the father because he yelled at her frequently. The father, indignant about the claim said forcefully “she has no reason to be afraid; I have never hit her.” But the mother replied, “it has nothing to do with hitting. Yelling frightens her and I understand because I was frightened when you yelled at me.”
This issue arises frequently. Men need to understand that yelling, even when there is no physical violence, frightens women and children. In the couple I was seeing, the man was a six-foot two-inch athlete weighing over 200 pounds. He was an imposing figure. When angry or frustrated with a family member, he yelled. And the words he used when yelling were invariably insulting. “You’re just a spoiled brat and you think you can act like your mother.” For him yelling was a legitimate way to express anger. But he did not understand the effect it had on his children.
When a large adult yells at a small child it usually frightens the child. It doesn’t matter that the adult does not strike the child. The child sees a big scary adult out of control and has no way of knowing if she will be struck. In cases where the adult has previously struck the child, yelling may be a precursor to being struck and hurt and the child has no way to tell. But even when there is no history of hitting, yelling is frightening because it makes the adult’s behavior unpredictable and thus dangerous. And when the husband, who is usually bigger and stronger than the wife, yells at her the result is the same.
I have often had to explain this to men when children resisted spending time with them. Yelling is neither legitimate nor effective as a way to express anger. This does not just apply to men. Small children are also frightened by mothers who yell. My mother was a frequent yeller, and although she seldom struck me or my siblings, her yelling made me feel unsafe. And when my father who was six foot three yelled, it could be truly terrifying.
There is nothing wrong with expressing anger at something another had done. But when that expression is loud and filled with rage it invokes fear rather than understanding. When others displease us we need to express disapproval in a calm voice and without personal attack. We need to explain why we are displeased and offer a way to discuss and resolve the problem. If we do it this way, we strengthen the relationship. But yelling only damages relationships. Don’t yell.