A study published Wednesday by the journal Child Development shows that yelling at your kids and insulting them in response to bad behavior can have as much of a negative effect on them as hitting them would. Co-author of the study, University of Pittsburgh psychology professor Ming-Te Wang, says, “Shouting cannot reduce or correct their problem behavior. On the contrary, it makes it worse.” She adds that yelling makes teens feel “they are not capable, that they are worthless and are useless,” which causes more lashing out behavior that parents yell about.
The Wall Street Journal reports that “The study followed 976 two-parent families, with children assessed at ages 13 and 14 …. When their children were 13, about 45% of participating mothers and 42% of fathers said they had used harsh verbal discipline with their child during the past year. Those kids whose parents used higher levels of harsh verbal discipline when their children were 13 experienced larger increases in behavior problems the next year, including fighting with peers, trouble in school and lying to parents, as well as symptoms of depression.”
The publication also notes that “The degree of warmth of the parent-child relationship outside of any altercations didn’t alter the negative effects of the harsh verbal discipline.” That’s an important caveat for parents who consider themselves loving, but who feel that yelling is “good discipline.” Teens – and younger children – don’t sense authority from someone who is yelling at them. They’re just terrified they’re going to be hurt, and in fact they are being traumatized – that’s why yelling is also called verbal abuse.
Timothy Verduin, clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center, told the WSJ that parents can more effectively discipline kids “by taking away privileges, such as screen time or the car keys.” He says, “make sure you do it without attaching a ton of critical, punitive, insulting kinds of language to it. You feel a lot more responsible for your behavior when you’re being corrected by someone you respect and admire. Anything you do to berate or shame a kid erodes that power you have.”
Eradicating shame in parenting is a topic near and dear to my heart, and I’ve written about it many times before. One thing I think that’s important to understand is that if you’d like to make a change and parent in a less punitive, more authoritative way, you’ve got to not only make the choice to stop shaming your kids, but you’ve got to stop feeling shame yourself. If you are a punitive parent, chances are that’s a reflection of the parenting you received, and if you’ve noticed that you’re disciplining your kids in the ways your parents disciplined you – even if you don’t mean to be – you’ve got to take some time to face and examine all of the shame you were forced to swallow as a child so you don’t keep spitting or seeping it back out. Talk to your spouse, friends, or seek therapy to get the support you need.
Remember, yelling is a sign of dysfunction and it indicates helplessness and a loss of control. Bear in mind, too, though that no one is perfect, and if you do get frustrated and accidentally yell at your kids, an immediate apology acknowledging the behavior will put you back in their esteem, solidifying your trustworthiness and good judgment in their eyes. I once read something like, “children aren’t looking for perfect parents, just parents who can admit when they’re wrong,” and I believe that’s true. Cut yourself as much slack as you can as you try to learn and grow. As you work on changing your reactions to stress, remind yourself that being kind to yourself is the first step in being kind to everyone else.
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