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Yelling at Teens Often Backfires; Risks Further Bad Behavior


As a parent, I am guilty of losing my temper with my children from time to time. It is only natural to feel stressed-out and frustrated when your child does something they weren’t supposed to do. As long it isn't happening too often and eventually, you can sit down with your child and come to a mutual understanding, it is okay to make a mistake.

However, if you are one that yells, insults, or swears at your child often in an attempt to correct behavior, you are risking your child’s health and you probably aren’t doing much to stop the behavior from happening again.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh conducted a study of 967 two-parent middle-class families that found nearly half of parents report using harsh verbal language to discipline their young teens (age 13 to 14). Higher exposure to yelling and verbal discipline predicted increased depressive symptoms plus the potential for the child to further engage in disruptive behavior.

Dr. Nadine Kaslow PhD, psychologist and president elect of the American Psychological Association (but not involved with the current study), says, “It sends the message that when you are mad or upset or scared, yelling is the way to deal with it” – the opposite of what is intended.

“Shouting cannot reduce or correct problem behavior,” says lead researcher Ming-Te Wang, an assistant professor in the departments of education and psychology. “On the contrary, it makes it worse.” Parents can effectively discipline kids by taking away privileges, such as screen time.

Raising your voice from time to time is understandable. As parents, we think that the louder we speak, the more likely the child will be to “hear” what we are trying to say. We use it as an attention-getter. But there is never, ever any reason to swear or insult your child by calling him or her names, such as “dumb” or “lazy.” This type of harsh verbal discipline is just as detrimental to children’s health as hitting/spanking. And it damages the bond we have with our children.

In addition, if you find yourself yelling at your children more often, it is time to look within yourself. If you are stressed and frustrated because of something unrelated (finances, job worries), you could be unwittingly taking it out on your children. Even occasional outbursts can have long-term effects says Dr. Wang. “Even if you are supportive of your child, if you fly off the handle it’s still bad,” he said.

Here are some tips from WebMD for effective discipline:
Set clear rules. Tweens and teens push boundaries to see how their parents will respond. It's important to establish clear rules, and to have consequences for breaking those rules. For example, the punishment for breaking curfew might be that your teen has to stay home the next weekend. You'll get less resistance if you involve your kids in designing their own consequences. Just don't forget that you still have the final say.

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Put it in writing. So that there can be no misunderstandings, create a formal list of house rules, or type up a behavior contract that you and your teen sign. Post the list or contract on the fridge or in another central location where your kids won't be able to miss it. Examples of clear rules include: "Curfew is 8 p.m. on weekdays, 10 p.m. on weekends, and no going out until homework is finished." Anyone who breaks one of these rules loses television for a day. If your kids do break one of the rules, all you have to do is point to the list.

Be firm -- and consistent. Teens are master negotiators and manipulators. They're adept at spotting any sign of parental weakness. When you waffle and give in to their pleas for leniency, they are going to expect the same response every time they misbehave or break a rule. Being consistent about teen discipline also means that both parents need to be on the same page. If one parent always says "yes" and the other always says "no," your teen is going to know exactly which parent to ask. While you're being firm, don't forget to also be fair and understanding. A little empathy goes a long way when disciplining teens.

Know which rules are important to you. You want to be consistent, but not harsh. It's OK to give in about the small stuff once in a while, provided that it isn't something dangerous. For example, purple hair might not appeal to you, but it probably won't hurt your teen. Drug and alcohol use, on the other hand, are non-negotiable.

Be a good role model. If the rule is "No swearing in the house" and you curse like a sailor, you're giving your teen a free pass to do the same. The best way to encourage positive teen behaviors is to model them yourself.

Teach responsibility. An important part of parenting teenagers is to teach them how to make decisions. Kids need to learn that whatever choices they make -- good or bad -- have consequences. Sit down and talk about some of the dangerous and long-term consequences that risky behaviors can have, including drug abuse, pregnancy, smoking, and drunk driving. Know that no matter how well you prepare your kids, they're going to make some mistakes. The important thing is to show them how to learn from those mistakes.

Stay involved. One of the best ways to prevent teen bad behavior is to know what your kids are up to. You don't need to spy on your teens or listen in on their phone conversations -- you just need to be an involved and interested parent. Ask what your kids are doing when they go out with friends. Know who they hang out with and where they go. Being an involved parent also means watching for any warning signs that your teen is in trouble. These signs include: skipping school, losing or gaining a lot of weight quickly, having trouble sleeping, spending more time alone, getting into trouble with the law, or talking about committing suicide. If you see any of these changes in your teen, enlist the help of a doctor or therapist right away.

Understand. You might look back at your own teen years through rose-tinted glasses, but don't forget that this tumultuous time of life comes with a lot of stress. Teens are under an enormous amount of pressure to do well in school, excel at a lot of different activities, follow all the current fads, and fit in with their friends. Before you come down hard on your teen for bad behavior, try to understand what's driving it. Could there be trouble in school? Boyfriend or girlfriend problems? Bullying? Get your kids to open up to you about their problems by creating an environment of honesty and respect. Let them know that they can talk to you about anything. Even sensitive subjects like sex and drug use should not be off-limits. Let your teens know that you will always love and support them, no matter what they do.

Journal reference:
Wang MT, et al "Longitudinal links between fathers' and mothers' harsh verbal discipline and adolescents' conduct problems and depressive symptoms" Child Devel2013; DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12143.

Additional Resource:
WebMD: Curb Your Teen’s Bad Behavior with Discipline that Works