There is much buzz about a recent study that concluded that yelling at teens yields little benefit. Specifically the study, which was conducted by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and University of Michigan, found that the teens of parents who reported using verbal aggression to discipline were more prone to symptoms of depression and problem behaviors including lying and fighting. The study highlighted that the verbal aggression parents displayed during altercations with their teens had a strong negative impact on teens. These effects were not moderated by displays of warmth and support by parents at times when parents and teens were not in conflict.
In reality, the findings from this study are far from surprising. Children learn so much about behavior by observing. Parents are the main role models of behavior for their children. As previous research has also reflected, how parents behave has a far greater impact on our children's behavior than most of us may realize.
When parents yell and scream at their children, or at others with whom they interact, their child gets the message that this is appropriate behavior. In turn these children may interact similarly with their peers, parents, teachers, and coaches. This behavior can cause a host of problems for teens in the outside world.
The best approach to encouraging positive behaviors in children and teens is twofold. To begin with, parents need to practice what they preach. When parents engage in interactive discussions with their teens, they provide a productive forum in which to address issues of concern.
As the authors of the study acknowledge in relation to their findings, teens are especially vulnerable. This is in great part because one of the major tasks accomplished during adolescence is the formation of a stable identity. Put simply, teens are on a search for self. Parents who criticize and berate their teens send a negative message that teens tend to take to heart. If for example, in a fit of rage, a parent tells her teen that she is ‘stupid, or worthless,’ the teen is prone to internalize this message. The teen looks to her parent as a major role model whose opinion she both trusts and respects. A teen that has been subjected to verbal abuse may start believing that the words her parent said in anger are true. Specifically a teen may think: “If this very important person is saying these things about me, they must be true.” The impact this thinking can have on a teen’s self-concept, self-esteem, and self-confidence is devastating.
The second important part parent’s play in encouraging positive behaviors in teens is by creating a structured and supportive environment. Such an environment includes clear rules, consequences and of course reinforcement through praise and continued encouragement. The best way to get kids to buy into a system of rules and consequences is to make the process an interactive one. Kids should work with their parents to create rules and devise consequences. Rules that aren't working need to be reviewed. So often parents get stuck on trying to make something work that never will. At these moments, parents are better served re-examining the specific rules that are ineffective. They should partner with their child to create a more productive solution to the problem.
Parents are superheroes in the eyes of their children, what they say matters so it is best to make it count in a positive way. When parents talk with their teens, not at them, the interactive forum created ensures communication and increases the connection between parent and child.