I was standing on the dock of a bay… Waiting for a boat to come and take my friends and I to another island. The sea was emerald, the sky was blue, the sun was warm and the air was dry. This idyllic corner of the world was colourfull and vibrant with people and life and bustle…
…and I felt scared. My heart was racing, I felt tight and small, and vulnerable.
I was in a different country, experiencing a different culture, and a few feet away from where I was standing waiting for the boat, were a group of men.
Men who were deep in ‘discussion’… although I didn’t realise it was discussion. I thought they were having a full blown argument.
I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but it didn’t matter as I was getting quite enough from all the other ways they were ‘communicating’, and all I knew was what was happening with them made me feel unsafe.
They were shouting. Shouting loud and so very fast. They were gesturing aggressively with hands slapping, fists hitting palms and arms waving. They were getting in each other’s space. They were really, really animated… And I had never seen anything like this before… in real life. I had also never seen this kind of thing (even on TV) end well.
Our sense of safety is largely driven by subconscious processes. We take in information through our senses and use the information of what is happening around us to help us decide whether we are safe or not… and then what to do next.
Adults shouting, jumping, gesticulating, making passionate, emotional faces that look angry, and generally behaving aggressively can be scary. I was an adult – I even knew a couple of the men – and I was really unnerved by it.
I was reminded of this moment in my life recently and the implications of hearing people shouting – for a child.
- Being around adults who are shouting, whether they understand why or not, can be scary for children.
- Being around adults while they watch a football match on TV can be scary for children.
- Being around adults who are loud and drunk and ‘just having a good time’ can be scary for children.
- Being around adults who use shouting as their means of control in a house, sports field, gym or classroom can be scary for children.
When children are scared they can’t be their best selves.
When children are scared they can feel totally alone and vulnerable.
When everyone else thinks they are having a great time ‘enjoying’ the sport / the party / keeping control, a scared child can feel confused, ashamed and misunderstood as well as unsafe.
It’s worth a chat
If you want to have a chat with the children you know about their experiences of being around adults who are shouting, get ready to listen, respect and honour the things they will tell you.
Whether it was a ‘fun’ thing that was happening, a neutral thing, or a recognizably horrible thing, children often react in their body when they hear adults shouting. That’s not wrong, that’s how they were made. Shouting is generally interpreted as a sign of danger. Until the child is totally comfortable with the shouting, it will likely be setting off alarms in their subconscious and their body in a way that doesn’t feel nice.
If you have that chat with the children you know, be wary of dismissing their body-felt experiences and making them feel embarrassed for feeling the way they do when ‘it’s only a sports match’ ‘they were just having a disagreement’ ‘I’m just getting their attention’.
The world is different through the eyes of a child, and their body is programmed to know that when adults are shouting, they are not safe.
Let’s be honest, it’s easy for adults to get caught up in the moment and overlook the things that can impact children. That’s why I am writing this. I’ve had enough of these conversations with children of all ages myself over the years to know this ‘shouting thing’ is a ‘thing’ and is important for adults to consider. And it is not just hard for the kids who are known to have sensory issues – or those who have experienced domestic abuse (although they will be even more sensitive to it) it is how we are all wired.
What can be done?
So what can we do, because clearly shouting is not going anywhere?
- We can warn children ahead of time that there will be shouting (during a sports match, even in the classroom) – and help them make a plan for what to do if they don’t feel OK with it.
- We can be curious and find out from them what it was like hearing adults shouting after the event – and really listen and empathise without needing to explain the shouting away.
- And, if appropriate, we can take our shouting elsewhere – or better still find ways to communicate with someone else that don’t include shouting when children are around…
Children don’t like it when adults shout. It makes them feel horrible. Why not ask them and see what you find out?