Parents who would not consider hitting a child don't apply the same brakes when it comes to yelling. But harsh verbal discipline, from yelling to insults, may be as harmful to adolescents, according to research just out from the University of Pittsburgh.
The effects may linger as long as physical abuse, too, said the study, published online in the journal Child Development.
Most parents use harsh verbal discipline at some point with children, the background information for the study noted, but little study has been done on its effects.
To find out what happens, the researchers turned to 10 public middle schools in eastern Pennsylvania. Over the course of a two-year period, they surveyed 967 adolescents and parents on such topics as parenting habits, mental health, relationship quality and more.
The families were generally middle-class and not under particular stress. They came from two-parent homes. The lead researcher, Ming-Te Wang, assistant professor of psychology and psychology in education at Pittsburgh, emphasized that the families were not high-risk.
"We can assume there are a lot of families like this; there's an OK relationships between parents and kids, and the parents care about their kids and don't want them to engage in problem behaviors," he said in a written statement.
“...We can infer that these results will last the same way that the effects of physical discipline do because the immediate-to-two-year effects of verbal discipline were about the same as for physical discipline,” Wang said.
He and co-author, Sarah Kenny, now a graduate student at the University of Michigan, found that harsh verbal discipline may aggravate, rather than reduce what they called "problematic behavior." Those who experienced such discipline "suffered from increased levels of depressive symptoms and were more likely to demonstrate behavioral problems such as vandalism or antisocial and aggressive behavior," they wrote.
"Mothers’ and fathers’ harsh verbal discipline at age 13 predicted an increase in adolescent conduct problems and depressive symptoms between ages 13 and 14" the study said.
They also noted that when parents responded to a child's misbehavior by yelling or otherwise using harsh verbal reactions, the children were more likely to continue the misbehavior.
The study was supported by grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse in the National Institutes of Health.
So what's a parent to do? Timothy Verduin, clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, told the Wall Street Journal that taking away privileges like screen time or car keys are effective. He was not involved with the research, the article noted.
Just "make sure you do it without attaching a ton of critical, punitive, insulting kinds of language to it," Verduin told the Journal. "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."
Raising teens requires "good communication, love and limits," Neil Bernstein, an adolescent psychologist in Washington, D.C., and author of "How to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to Do if You Can't," told USA Today. "If you consistently practice these three, chances are you'll raise a happy, healthy child."
Huffington Post earlier this year posted a piece from the Orange Rhino blog outlining what one mom learned when she challenged herself to go a full year without yelling at her children. Among the 10 benefits, she noted, was that "not yelling feels phenomenal for everyone."
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