The more you yell at your teenaged spawn, the worse they behave


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Yelling at children carries nothing like the social stigma of spanking. While parents often yell at their teenaged offspring, a new study just published in the journal, Child Development, has found that this actually worsen’s a teen’s behaviour. The study found that harsh verbal discipline of 13 year-old children led to worse conduct and greater depression. The more frequent was this form of discipline, the worse were these problems. Children whose conduct was problematic received more scathing words from their parents, creating a vicious circle.

Dr Ming-Te Wang, an assistant professor of psychology in education at the University of Pittsburgh and a researcher on the study, asserted, “Our findings offer insight into why some parents feel that no matter how loud they shout, their teenagers do not listen.” He explained that parents wishing to modify the behaviour of their teenaged children would be better off communicating with them as equals, detailing their rationale and worries. An earlier study revealed that over 90 percent of US parents admitted to bawling out their children, although few studies examined the effect of this strategy, with Dr Wang describing his as one of the first.

This study encompassed 976 families in Pennsylvania which were mostly middle class and white or African American. Surveys were completed over a two-year period. Something approaching half of parents – 42 percent of fathers and 45 percent of mothers – confessed to employing harsh verbal discipline within the last year. In the face of this, children were more likely to show anger and indulge in vandalism, fighting, lying, stealing and other misconduct. The connection with behavioural problems was true even when account was taken of socio-economic status.

Lambasting children was detrimental to their behaviour even if parents were emotionally supportive at other times. Wang asserted, “It hurts their self image. It makes them feel they are not capable, that they are worthless and are useless.” The study stated that teens tend to see tongue-lashing as “indicative of rejection or scorn.” This can cause a child to develop a hostile view of their relationship with their parents, view themselves negatively and experience loss of self control.

Alan Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University who authored The Everyday Parenting Toolkit, asseverated that stress, even when not severe, increased the risk of all manner of physical and mental health problems. He declared, “You do not want harshness in the home. We do not want toxins. That shows up in mental and physical health. We want acceptance, nurturing, love, cuddling.” Punishment, he said, only stops behaviour for a moment and doesn’t develop desirable behaviours. The trick is to catch teens when they do things right and praise them for it. He concluded, “If we hurt or diss our children, we’ll increase the likelihood of bad behaviour.”

Neil Bernstein, an adolescent psychologist who resides in Washington, DC and wrote How to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to Do if You Can’t, provided additional support. He expostulated, “Extremes of parenting don’t work.” What he termed “put-down parents” were as ineffective as those with a laissez faire attitude who placed no limits on a child’s actions. He added that physical discipline was “notoriously ineffective” and considerably more likely to cause additional problems rather than reduce existing ones. “Kids,” he averred, “are very big on being respected.” A parent losing their temper sets a very bad example.

Bernstein pointed out that it was better to educate than humiliate. He acknowledged that taking away a child’s gadgets was a favourite punishment in this day and age, with screen time and car keys being prime examples, but should be restricted to the short term and never accompanied by punitive language. The three most important factors in the rearing of teens, he said, were good communication, love and limits, which, if practised consistently, would probably produce a happy and healthy child.

Dr. Nadine Kaslow of Emory University, president-elect of the American Psychological Association, cautioned that yelling at teens shows them that raising the voice was how to deal with stressful situations while causing them to shut down and lowering their self esteem. Raising one’s voice occasionally was, she reported, not a problem: how else to react when the teen drives while drunk? She highlighted that yelling excessively does more harm than good.

Psychologists who work with teenagers and their families have opined that parents ought to carefully consider the study’s findings. Since the study relied upon parents’ own reports and their children’s reports of behavioural problems, it’s conceivable that responses were understated as those involved wished to give socially acceptable answers. The researchers here believed that the link could be yet stronger if responses were more truthful.

About the Author Timothy Chilman

Timothy Chilman used to work in IT. Once, in Sydney, he was turned down for a job because he was “too flamboyant” (“Someone who wears green tartan suspenders to a job interview probably isn’t going to fit in here”). Timothy then became an English teacher. University students in Bangkok complained that he was “too enthusiastic” and company students in Prague complained that he was “too theatrical.”

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