University of Pittsburgh study cites harmful effects of yelling at teens

Lower your voices, Mom and Dad

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Study after study has made the point that when it comes to disciplining children, physical punishment isn't the answer.

Neither, it appears, is yelling.

A new study from a University of Pittsburgh researcher examines the effect of parents' harsh verbal discipline on young teenagers.

The study, published online this month in the journal Child Development, found that 13- and 14-year-olds subjected to harsh verbal discipline from their parents were more likely to have symptoms of depression and behavioral problems.

Harsh verbal discipline from parents was found to be comparable to physical discipline in its effect, regardless of whether "parental warmth" was generally present in the home.

"Adolescents are really sensitive to language and judgment from other people," said Ming-Te Wang, assistant professor in the Department of Education and Psychology at Pitt and lead author of the study. "It hurts their self-image and makes them feel like they are useless."

The study characterized harsh verbal discipline as verbal intimidation (screaming or yelling), vulgarity (cursing) or humiliation (name-calling similar to "dumb" or "lazy") and interviewed 967 adolescents and their parents in Eastern Pennsylvania over a two-year period. The study was co-authored by Sarah Kenny, a graduate student at the University of Michigan.

Forty-five percent of mothers and 42 percent of fathers of 13-year-olds said they used harsh verbal discipline. For 14-year-olds, 46 percent of mothers and 42 percent of fathers said they had done so. Those figures are probably underreported, Mr. Wang said, because some parents do not want to admit doing so.

Even in children with similar home circumstances, those whose parents said they used harsh verbal discipline had higher incidences of depression and behavioral problems. Parents turn to harsh language because they hope to stop certain behaviors, Mr. Wang said, but the tactics can create a "vicious cycle" that can actually make those behaviors worse.

The children and parents surveyed were mostly from middle-class families. "There was nothing extreme or broken about these homes," Mr. Wang said. "These were not high-risk families."

The study found the negative effects of harsh verbal discipline to be comparable to effects shown from physical discipline in other studies.

The results of the study did not surprise Jered Kolbert, an associate professor of education at Duquesne University.

"There is research to suggest that verbal bullying and relational aggression are actually more harmful than physical bullying," he said.

He was surprised by the study's finding that parental warmth did not buffer the effects of the harsh verbal discipline.

Mr. Wang suggested that rather than yelling, parents try to calm down before they discipline their children, with the goal of an open conversation where parents and children can express their concerns. He also advocated that parents reward their children for good behavior.

Mr. Kolbert, who once worked as a middle school counselor, said parents of young adolescents might have trouble transitioning from controlling the behavior of young children to disciplining older children.

"Once the child becomes an adolescent, the role shifts," he said. "The parent becomes more of a consultant."

He recommends that parents instill a consequence where there is a behavior problem, but hold off on the discussion of the problem until both parties can speak calmly.

"You want the child to be able to hear your thoughts and feelings," he said. "If you are so angry, they just shut down."

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Anya Sostek: or 412-263-1308.


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