When you yell, children can't hear you



By Sandy Spurgeon McDaniel


When children (or adults for that matter) are afraid, fear cuts off their ability to think and reason. When you comprehend that fact, it will become clear to you why a child continues to misbehave when a parent screams at him/her, or swats the child in public. When a child is afraid, fear cuts off that child's ability to think and reason.

Story: Lots of people were standing in line to board a boat returning from Avalon to Newport Beach, in California. One couple held two elderly dogs on leashes. Both dogs were extremely friendly so everyone around them was petting the tail-wagging creatures. Suddenly, a woman grabbed the arm of her 7-year-old son and screamed savagely, “What are you doing?” Her voice was loud enough to be heard a mile away. Everyone stopped talking and looked at the red-faced adult verbally assaulting the trembling boy. 

“I've told you a million times not to pet a strange dog! Those dogs don't know you! What if they bit you? What if they killed you? I can't believe you would be so stupid to do something like that!” she yelled.

The boy, mortified at being the center of negative attention, started to cry.

“If you make a fuss or cry,” the mother snarled, “I will spank you!” 

The boy hung his head. When the mother wasn't looking, he kicked her suitcase.

Fear of loud noises is a primal fear, which means it is inherent in us, not necessary to learn. Most people jump in response to a loud noise. The minute the mother screamed at him, the boy vapor locked (which is my term for froze or went numb.) The child, therefore, did not hear one word the mother screamed at him. Inside of him, the anger-resentment-revenge cycle was enhanced from being humiliated and shamed in public.

The child would have heard the mother had she squatted down and said, “I like that you love animals and it is best to ask the owner if it is safe to pet a dog before you do it.”

Fear cuts off your ability to think and reason. When you, as a parent, rush into a room and scream “What are you doing?” the children vapor lock. In order to prevent getting in more trouble, they lie, blame a sibling or start to cry. If the children knew about fear cutting off a person's ability to think, they would likely say, “You just came in here and scared us to pieces. We vapor locked, so we cannot find that answer inside of us.” 

You do not need two problems for each problem that occurs.

Another place to pay attention to giving a child cause to vapor lock is when you are helping him/her with homework. I recommend that children do a half hour of schoolwork three days a week during summer, to keep their skills in tact. Your brain may not work the same way your child's brain works. If this is true, there may be a great deal of frustration helping with homework. You explain something clearly and the child doesn't get it. You re-explain it to no avail. Feeling totally frustrated, you change to your impatient tone of voice, accented by a heavy sigh. Once the child becomes afraid and vapor locks, any further communication is impossible.

Vapor locking also occurs when an angry parent asks, “Why did you (hit your sister)?” The answer to why is “I don't know,” or “because.”

Instead, ask, “What was going on for you when you made the choice to (hit your sister)?” It is best to have this conversation when you are not foaming at the mouth. Sometimes the parent needs to go to time out to calm down. It is wise to assume there are always two sides to any story and to present the question that way, such as, “When you chose to hit your sister, can you tell me what was happening from your point of view?”

As frustrating as children can be, it is best to communicate with them without being angry, disappointed or shocked. Being calm allows the message to get through to the children who are trying to stay out of trouble and (believe it or not) please you. 




For 54 years, Sandy has been an international speaker and recognized authority on families and children. Author of five books, columnist, founder of parentingsos.com, she is a resident of Meridian and loves spending time with her three Idaho grandchicks. Semi-retired, she speaks to schools, churches, and MOPS groups and provides parent coaching sessions in person and on the phone.