Loud but not proud!
I thought I was impervious to those "research shows . . ." scare stories, but this one got to me. Shouting at children, according to a recent study by psychiatrists at a hospital affiliated to Harvard Medical School, can significantly and permanently alter the structure of their brains. It was only inordinate self-restraint - of the kind I never display towards my kids - that stopped me marching them straight off for a brain scan.
Ours is a Sturm und Drang household, with shouting matches, screaming fits, and temper tantrums - and that's just the parents. The neighbours have been warned, even the kids have been warned. At two, my first-born could do a passable imitation of me yelling (and she did, to all-comers). And one of her sibling's early sentences was: "You're a lovely Mummy, but a shouty one."
The Harvard study comes in the wake of the revelation that Jennifer Aniston, the Friends star, is not on speaking terms with her mother, partly because she shouted at the actor when she was a child. "Yes, I shouted," admitted Mom, "but a lot of my friends yell at their kids." Please God my girls never make it to Hollywood.
Is shouting at one's children the ultimate parental taboo? Certainly, it contravenes all the good parenting slogans. Shouting at children shows them that you're out of control - and I am. The reassuring thing is that almost everyone seems to do it: rarely before in my writing life have I found such an eager queue of volunteer interviewees. And almost everyone admits that it doesn't work.
There's an American saying that shouting at your children to obey is like using the horn to steer your car - and it produces the same results. But this misses the point: you don't yell at your kids because, after careful consideration, you deem it the most effective strategy; you yell at them because you've lost your rag.
The triggers are many and various, but maternal isolation and exhaustion come high on the list. Cathy Brewer, mother of two-and-a-half-year-old Gemma and five-year-old Jack, confesses: "When Jack was little, I was on my own with him a lot and shouted at him a lot. With Gemma, I've had more help and so I shout less."
Pippa Fox shouts when her children want her attention and she's trying to make their tea. Alice Goldman finds she shouts most "at the end of a day you feel should have ended but hasn't".
"I shout when I'm tired," she explains, "but also when my expectations are highest - on holiday or the weekend. And I often shout at my daughter when I'm angry with myself."
As for me, like most mothers, I rant when I've an unconscionable number of things to squeeze into an unfeasibly small amount of time (which happens most days). I also thunder when my kids encroach on the last vestiges of my personal time and space: I have this peculiar belief that, after more than 11 years of parenting, I should be allowed to pee in peace.
Almost all shouters feel guilty. Pippa Fox says she's so ashamed she shouts at her sons, aged five and nearly two, every day that "I'm trying to cut down" - as if it were like smoking. When Alice Goldman first shouted at her two-year-old, she was so horrified that she went straight round to the health visitor to confess. "The health visitor just laughed and said: 'You'd better get used to it.'"
Is it so inevitable? I've concluded that there are shouty families, and non-shouty ones. DW Winnicott, the psychoanalyst, argued that all mothers feel dominated, exploited, humiliated, drained and criticised by their babies, and that "the mother hates her infant from the word go." Fay Weldon once said: "The greatest advantage of not having children must be that you can go on believing that you are a nice person: once you have children, you realise how wars start."
Sebastian Kraemer, consultant child and adult psychiatrist at the Tavistock Clinic, London, takes a robust view: "I can't imagine how parents can't shout at their children. Family life is such a cauldron of emotions. A happy family has to have some conflict in it: in intimate relationships people have to row and make up. A 15-year-old makes you shout at him sooner or later."
Shouting at kids is often bracketed with smacking them, but for many of us it's an alternative. But when does shouting turn into bullying or verbal abuse? It's partly a matter of degree and ratio. According to Kraemer, "If there's no remission in shouting and there's no loving as well, it's destructive." The age of the child and what you actually say is also important.
"A toddler doesn't understand the difference between you shouting at them and hating them," he elaborates. "With a teenager, that's not the case. There is also a difference between honest self-disclosure ('You've made me very angry') and abuse ('You're a horrible little brat')."
Though many of us worry that shouting at our children will damage not just their brains but their wellbeing, most children quickly become desensitised to loud parents and tune out. "I think I suffer more from my shouting than they do," Pippa Fox says. "I feel absolutely awful afterwards, whereas they're fine five minutes later."
According to Jenny Riley, whose sons are 12 and 14, "The more you shout, the less they listen, and so the louder you have to shout as the years go by - depressing, isn't it ?" Another result of shouting at children is that they become pretty adept shouters themselves.
On the other hand, children who've never been yelled at can be quite fragile flowers (or so I like to think). And almost all shouters agree that a good yell can clear the air and be liberating. Jenny Riley is that rare thing, an unrepentant shouter - not only that, but a qualified counsellor.
"I grew up in a don't-express-yourself household," she says, "but I'm a volatile person, and I've got volatile children, and on balance I don't think that our shouting hurts any of us. If I overdo it I say sorry.
"I've studied all the skills. I'm just not good at practising them in the four walls of my own home."
One way of shouting less, according to Doro Marden of Parentline Plus, the parenting support organisation, is to record your evening meal on cassette and hear it back afterwards: "It can be quite instructive." Marden also suggests that thinking about the trigger situations can help. "Is it when your blood sugar level is low, or theirs is? Is it always when you pick them up from school? You can also try not to get caught up in their anger."
Most crucially, as psychotherapist Roziska Parker puts it in her book Torn in Two: The Experience of Maternal Ambivalence (Virago), mothers vary in the extent to which they can tolerate and manage the conflict provoked by loving and hating the same child.
So the guilt and anxiety we feel about shouting at our kids comes partly from our discomfort with the realities of parenting, and disappointment at failing to become the idealised parents we hoped we'd be.
No one would advocate shouting as desirable parental behaviour, but perhaps a more realistic aim is not so much to try to staunch it as to acknowledge it. No easy feat: every parent I interviewed for this article asked for their name to be changed. (I obliged.) Shouters, it seems, still put themselves on a par with convicted criminals.