A new study published in the Sept. 3 online edition of Child Development suggests that parents who discipline their teenagers by screaming at them, cursing them or calling them hurtful names may be promoting rather than hindering bad behavior.
“Most parents who yell at their adolescent children wouldn’t dream of physically punishing their teens,” study author, Ming-Te Wang, PhD, an assistant professor with the department of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education, told HealthDay.
“Yet their use of harsh verbal discipline – defined as shouting, cursing or using insults – is just as detrimental to the long-term well-being of adolescents,” said Wang.
And, he added, “… not only does harsh verbal discipline appear to be ineffective in addressing behavior problems in youth, it actually appears to increase such behaviors.”
Wang and his colleagues surveyed 967 two-parent, primarily middle-class families and their teens living in Pennsylvania. A little more than half the families were white and 40 percent were African American.
Over a two-yer period, parents and their teens completed questionnaires covering parent-child issues and mental health. Participating parents were queried about how often they yelled, screamed, swore or called their teens dumb or lazy, or other derogatory names. Teens were asked to describe how much “warmth” they felt they received from their parents as a function of the emotional support and parental love and care they received.
Study findings showed that 13-year-olds who received a lot of harsh verbal discipline were more likely to have symptoms of depression at age 14. These kids were also more likely to engage in problem behaviors, including fighting with peers, getting into trouble at school and lying to their parents.
Study authors reported that increases in misconduct as a result of harsh verbal discipline were similar to those that occur after physical discipline, such as pushing or hitting. In addition, the degree of closeness in the parent-child relationship outside of conflicts did not diminish the negative effects of harsh verbal discipline.
Researchers noted that these results left parents and teens in a “escalating cycle” of harsh verbal discipline and misconduct.
Wang explained why yelling is so toxic to young teens: “Adolescence is a very sensitive period when [kids] are trying to develop their self-identities,” said Wang in the Wall Street Journal. “When you yell, it hurts their self-image. It makes them feel they are not capable, that they are worthless and are useless.”
What should parents do to correct misconduct and raise a happy teenager?
According to Wang, “parents who wish to modify their teenage children’s behavior would do better by communicating with them on an equal level,” and “... by explaining their rationale and worries to them."
Timothy Verduin, PhD, a clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, agrees and advises that parents can effectively discipline kids by taking away privileges.
However, Verduin, who was not involved in the study, cautioned, “make sure you do it without a tone of critical, punitive, insulting kinds of language to it. You feel a lot more responsible for your behavior when you are corrected by someone you respect and admire. Anything you do to berate or shame a kid erodes that power you have,” he told the Wall Street Journal.