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Using Harsh Verbal Discipline with Your Teens Is Harmful

A study has found that if parents frequently use harsh verbal discipline with their teenagers in early adolescence, they may generate adverse influence on teens; instead of minimizing teens’ problematic behavior, harsh verbal discipline might even aggravate it. This study, from researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Michigan, has been published on Child Development.

In the past, there were few studies looking at harsh verbal discipline in adolescence. The study discovered that if parents use it during early adolescence, their teens will suffer detrimental outcomes in their later life – teens suffered more depressive symptoms between 13 and 14 than their peers who were not disciplined in such way, and they were more likely to have conduct problems including lying to parents, stealing, fighting or misbehaving at school.

Parents often use verbal discipline instead of physical punishment on teens in adolescence. *Image source:Shutterstock

The researchers used a longitudinal study method, also known as follow-up study, meaning a long-term, regular, systematic study on certain parameters. In this way, the study looked at 967 two-parent families and their children. Around half of the subjects were European American; 40% were African American and the rest were from other ethnic backgrounds. Meanwhile, most of the families were mid-class. The study lasted for two years and the main survey topics covered their mental health, childrearing practices, parent-child relationship quality as well as general demographics.

The researchers assessed the adolescents’ conduct problems through the following survey questions and the frequencies of the occurrence of these situations like “In the past year, how often have you:

  1. Been disobedient in school;
  2. Lied to your parents;
  3. Stolen from a store;
  4. Been involved in gang fight;
  5. Damaged public or private properties for fun?”

Their response format ranged from 1 (never) to 5 (10 times or more).

Parents’ behaviors indicating harsh verbal discipline were also evaluated by survey questions such as “In the past year, when your child has disobeyed you or done something wrong, how frequently have you:

  1. Yelled, shouted, or screamed at your child;
  2. Cursed or swore at your child;
  3. Called your child dumb or lazy or some other names like that? “

The items were rated in the same 5-point scale, ranging from 1 (never) to 5 (always).

The survey found that approximately 90% of American parents admitted one or more instances of using harsh verbal discipline with children of all ages; about half of the parents reported using more severe forms of harsh verbal discipline such as swearing and cursing, and calling names.

In addition, the study also pointed out that not only does harsh verbal discipline appear to be ineffective at addressing youths’ behavior problems, it in fact appears to increase such behaviors. Hostility between parents and children increases the risk of delinquency by lowering inhibition and fostering anger, belligerence and irritability, which all lead to conduct problems.

 “This study is the first one to indicate that parents’ harsh verbal discipline can damage the developing adolescent. The notion that harsh discipline is of no consequence once there is a string parent-child bond – that the children will understand that ‘my parents are doing this because they love me’ – is misguided since parents’ warmth didn’t lessen the influences of the harsh verbal discipline.” Says Ming-Te Wang, the director of this study and assistant professor of psychology in education at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Actually, harsh verbal discipline seems to be detrimental in all circumstances,” Ming-Te Want concludes.

He suggests that parents who want to modify their teens’ behavior would better discuss their concerns about the consequences of the behavior with their teenage children. This study can inform parents to learn alternatives to guide teens instead of shouting and insulting them.