Parents-as-Drill Sergeants Not the Best Choice

Yelling at teens to discipline them linked to more depression symptoms and worse behavior

(RxWiki News) A fair amount of study has been spent on whether spanking children can cause them any long-term harm. But what about lots of yelling at children?

A recent study found that parents' yelling at and name-calling of their teens was linked to more depression symptoms in those teens.

In addition, teens were more likely to have behavior problems if their parents used yelling for discipline.

By the same token, parents were more likely to increase their use of yelling for discipline if their teens had more behavior issues.

"Discipline your teens without yelling."

This study, led by Ming-Te Wang, PhD, of the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh, looked at whether yelling at teens could influence their depression or poor behavior.

The researchers studied 976 two-parent families and their children, about half male and half female, attending public middle schools in Pennsylvania.

About half the families were white, and the average family income was about $41,000.

The families filled out questionnaires once when the children were in seventh grade (average age 13) and once when they were in eighth grade (average age 14).

The surveys for the teens included questions about symptoms of depression and about getting in trouble or other behavior issues, such as lying, stealing or getting into fights.

The parents' questionnaires asked about shouting/yelling/screaming at their children, using profanity at their child or calling their child names (such as lazy or dumb). This was called "harsh verbal discipline."

The parents were also asked questions to help researchers determine how much love, emotional support and affection existed between parents and their children.

Other information collected from the parents included how often they used physical discipline (such as spanking) and their stress and mental health.

Overall, 45 percent of the mothers and 42 percent of the fathers reported they had used harsh verbal discipline with their seventh-grade children.

The numbers did not change much the following year, when 46 percent of mothers and 43 percent of fathers reported yelling, name-calling or similar verbal discipline.

In general, teens with mothers who yelled were also more likely to have fathers who yelled.

In analyzing which teens had increased risk of depression or behavior problems, the researchers took into account the use of physical punishment, the parents' mental health and differences in the family demographics (race, income, etc.).

The researchers found that 13-year-olds whose mothers and fathers used harsh verbal discipline tended to have more behavior problems between ages 13 and 14.

On the other hand, 13-year-olds who had more behavior problems were also more likely to see their parents use harsh verbal discipline.

The effect in both directions was about equal, making it difficult to determine whether the yelling increased because of behavior or whether behavior worsened because of the yelling — or both.

Meanwhile, teens were more likely to experience greater symptoms of depression between age 13 and 14 if their parents used yelling for discipline.

Yet parents were no more or less likely to yell if their children experienced an increase in their symptoms of depression.

The amount of warmth that existed between parents and their children did not appear to make a difference in the links between parental yelling and teens' behavior problems or depression symptoms.

In other words, "parental warmth did not buffer against the effects of harsh verbal discipline on adolescent problem behavior," the researchers wrote.

"It is important that researchers and parents are aware that harsh verbal discipline is ineffective at reducing conduct problems and, in fact, leads to increased adolescent conduct problems and depressive symptoms," the researchers wrote.

"Discipline is supposed to be about teaching kids what we want them to do, and correcting their behavior when they fall short of the expected goal," said LuAnn Pierce, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker in Colorado.

"Yelling rarely teaches anything, and those who yell at their children usually do so for their own release - not the good of the child," she said. "Harsh words and name-calling is not discipline - it is verbal and emotional abuse, hence the depression."

Pierce said that parents who yell a lot need to realize that they are harming their children and that their behavior is abusive.

"The long-term effects of verbal and emotional abuse are devastating. Teens who internalize these harmful put-downs often find themselves in abusive relationships where they are treated the same way as an adult - they don't think they deserve better," Pierce said.

"When asked why they tolerate the abusive behavior by their spouse or partner, they often say it is normal to be treated that way, as that is what they have come to expect," she said.

She said this kind of behavior is also learned, not natural.

"Those who were raised in families where yelling and other forms of verbal abuse were the norm are certainly at risk for repeating that behavior with their children - it is learned behavior," she said.

Pierce said it's important that parents realize verbal abuse is just as harmful as physical abuse.

"Parents need to learn better coping skills and healthy parenting skills," she said. "It is much easier to discipline teens if we start out doing it correctly when they are children."

This study was published September 3 in the journal Child Development. The research was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. No conflicts of interest were reported.

Review Date: 
September 6, 2013