Photo source: NY Times

A recent study from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Michigan found that parents who yell at their teenage children for misbehaving can cause some of the same problems as hitting them would, such as increased risk of depression and aggressive behavior. In particular, parents who yell, curse, and insult their children, e.g., call them names like “lazy” or “stupid” are causing particular harm. While spanking has been warned against by mental health and pediatric professionals for years, yelling has received less attention, perhaps because people don’t see it as a big deal.

Consistent with this study, I find in my practice that yelling is a major parenting problem with serious implications for children and families. First, yelling just doesn’t work in terms of correcting behavior, and can even make problem behavior worse. Parents often think if they yell, the child will take them more seriously. On the contrary, the more a parent “loses it” over discipline, the less they appear in charge to the child. Think of it this way: in a crisis, do you want to see the leader staying calm and in control, or running around yelling and screaming? Which scenario instills more confidence? When a parent is constantly yelling over anything and everything, the child starts tuning them out. Moreover, often a parent gets so caught up in the yelling and threatening that they don’t follow through with an effective consequence, like taking away a privilege. Kids figure that out quick, too, and the desired behavior is never achieved and the problem behavior only worsens.

Second, positive discipline is about teaching, redirecting, and correcting—all of which takes a calm teacher and a calm listener. A simple example I use a lot with kids is when the right, emotional side of your brain is “lit up” in anger, the left, problem-solving side of your brain can’t focus to learn or process anything anyone is saying. So, if everyone is upset and yelling, no one is collected enough to teach or to learn. Discipline should not be dealt out of emotion, so before any action is taken, both the child and the parent may need a few minutes to cool off. Even if punishment isn’t delivered immediately, it’s better to deliver it when it’s going to be effective, which is when both sides are calm.

Third, yelling, particularly yelling that includes cursing, name-calling, and other insults, is damaging to children personally and to the parent-child relationship. Although children are influenced by a lot of people, parents continue to be the most important people in a child’s life. Using harsh verbal discipline to berate or shame children hurts their self-image and makes them feel worthless and incompetent. In addition to causing symptoms of depression, the child is also then more likely to have MORE behavior problems (fighting with peers, trouble in school, lying to parents), which only leads to a cycle of more yelling and more acting out. Interestingly, this study also found that even if the parent and child had an otherwise warm relationship outside of any altercations, the negative verbal behavior was still just as harmful. Being warm-fuzzy-fun-parent one minute, and yelling-losing-it-overly-critical-parent the next is confusing and anxiety-provoking for children.

In today’s stressed-out, maxed-out world, even good parents are going to snap at their children once in a while and not handle a situation as well as they would have liked. Parents often have the idea that they “have to be right” all the time, and any admission that they’re not all-knowing is a sign of weakness. Not true. Children learn conflict-resolution and forgiveness from their closest caregivers, whom they love and admire. A child is not only going to respect more a parent who can come back and apologize if needed, he or she is also going to learn to admit mistakes, ask for forgiveness, and make better choices in the future in all their relationships. Which life lesson is more important: “Mom/Dad is always right” or “Mom/Dad is human and when they hurt someone (like we all do), they are big enough to admit it, ask for forgiveness, and do better the next time?” Parents don’t have to always be right; they have to be strong, wise, and kind. Saying to a child: “Mom got angry and should not have yelled at you. I don’t like your behavior, but I love you. Mom is sorry; next time I will take time to calm down before we talk” is more powerful and instructive than “being right” at the cost of a child’s feelings and the larger lesson. Though no parent is perfect, parents need to be mindful of what they are modeling for their children (especially during stress and conflict) and how their children are going to take that behavior into the world.

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