Physical discipline has long been considered unacceptable, but many parents today raise their voice when a child is out of line. New research, however, shows that harsh verbal punishment, such as shouting, cursing or using insults, is just as harmful to adolescents as physical discipline.
The study, published online in the journal Child Development, comes from researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, who found that adolescents whose parents used harsh verbal punishment suffered from depression and were more likely to engage in vandalism or aggressive behavior.
To conduct the study, the researchers followed 967 adolescents and their parents from 10 public middle schools in eastern Pennsylvania over the course of 2 years. Of the participants, 51% were male, and 40% were African American, while 54% were European Americans.
Both students and parents completed surveys during the study period on topics regarding their mental health, child-raising practices and the quality of the relationship between parent and child.
The researchers found that, compared to other studies focusing on physical discipline during the same period of time, the negative effects of verbal punishment were similar.
Effectively, parents’ harsh words directed at their 13-year-olds resulted in an increase in adolescent “conduct problems and depressive symptoms between ages 13 and 14.”
Dr. Ming-Te Wang, lead author from the University of Pittsburgh, says:
“There was nothing extreme or broken about these homes. These were not ‘high-risk’ families. We can assume there are a lot of families like this – there’s an okay relationship between parents and kids, and the parents care about their kids and don’t want them to engage in problem behaviors.”
A significant finding from the study showed that parental warmth, which is the love, emotional support and affection between parents and their kids, is not enough to outweigh the negative effects of verbal discipline.
Dr. Wang says that yelling at children “out of love” or “for their own good” does not lessen the damaging effects of shouting, adding: “Even if you are supportive of your child, if you fly off the handle it’s still bad.”
The study also revealed that the results are bidirectional. In other words, harsh verbal punishment can lead to problem behaviors, and adolescents continue to exhibit these problem behaviors when parents yell at them.
Dr. Ming-Te Wang adds:
“It’s a vicious circle. And it’s a tough call for parents because it goes both ways: problem behaviors from children create the desire to give harsh verbal discipline, but that discipline may push adolescents toward those same problem behaviors.”
Authors from the study suggest that parents are better off communicating with adolescents on an equal level by explaining their concerns and reasons for certain decisions to them.
Dr. Wang told Medical News Today that they plan to expand their sample to Latino and Asian American adolescents since the current study focused on mainly African American and European American teens.
A recent study from Brigham Young University suggested that connecting with parents on social media is good for teens.