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When your teen does something bad, it seems natural – even required – to yell at her. You’re upset, you’re outraged, you’re embarrassed, and you’re worried that her behavior will lead to even worse activities if you don’t put a stop to it right now. So you make a lot of noise in getting your point across.
The thing is, yelling doesn’t reduce bad behavior in teens. In fact, yelling seems to make bad behavior more likely to continue. Yelling makes things worse.
A study just released in Child Development is based in surveys given to nearly 1000 middle class 13- and 14-year-olds and their parents. The surveys asked teens questions like, “In the past year, how often have you: a) been disobedient in school, b) lied to your parents, c) stolen from a store, d) been involved in a gang fight, and e) damaged public or private property for fun?” Choices teens could select ranged from “never” to “10 or more times.” Parents were asked questions like, “In the past year, after your child has disobeyed you or done something wrong, how often have you: a) shouted, yelled, or screamed at the child, b) swore or cursed at the child, and c) called the child dumb or lazy or some other name like that?” Choices for parents ranged from “never” to “always.”
Researchers then followed up with these families with the same survey questions intermittently over a two-year period. They found that in families where parents of young teens said they use verbal discipline frequently, the children’s bad behavior increased in frequency and severity over the two-year period. Instead of having a dampening effect on teen’s behavior, yelling and name-calling actually made bad behavior more likely.
Unsurprisingly, the reverse was also true: 13- and 14-year-olds who reported more bad behavior had parents who reported using more verbal discipline. This doesn’t mean, though, that parents’ yelling is justified by children’s out-of-bounds actions. Instead, it indicates that the pattern of verbal discipline and children’s negative reaction to it probably starts at younger ages. Verbal discipline is unlikely to be effective at any age.
According to researchers, parents who use harsh discipline switch from physical control to verbal control as children become too big to spank. As many as 90% of American parents report harsh verbal discipline of children at any age, but more extreme instances of swearing at children and humiliating children with name-calling occurs in the teen years. Up to 50% of parents of teens say they use these extreme verbal measures.
So parents who yell at their teens are not alone, but their behavior is still ineffective. In fact, harsh verbal discipline appears to encourage bad behavior by alienating kids, disrupting feelings of mutual support, and making children feel uncared-for. But what else can a parent do?
- No matter what age your child is now, avoid falling into the trap of harsh punishment of every kind. Verbal abuse is not an acceptable substitute for spanking and hitting. It is equally damaging to children’s development. So start now to develop more humane and supportive methods of discipline.
- Remember that discipline is not about controlling children’s behavior but about teaching them what they obviously do not know. Parents of teens understand that trying to control teens is futile and usually backfires. Instead of controlling your child, teach your child.
- Realize that even though a teen may be as tall as an adult, his brain is not yet fully developed and his level of life experience is not the same as an adult’s. Children do not know what parents haven’t taught them. They are unable to foresee consequences of their actions and may have difficulty evaluating risks.
- As much as possible, walk through possible scenarios with a teen before she is tempted by real events. Before she goes to the mall with her friends, talk about the dangers of shoplifting. When she gets home from school each day, walk through her school schedule together and inquire about homework that needs to be done for each class. Teach your child how to think ahead.
- When bad behavior happens, talk it over calmly. Ask questions more than you give advice. Ask what was going through your child’s mind. Ask if he thought ahead. Ask what he could do differently next time. Help him to practice thinking and evaluating his own behavior.
No one ever said that raising a teen is easy. But it’s good to know that yelling, swearing and calling a child names don’t make the task easier. It’s good to know that even at age 13, 14 and older, our children still need our guidance and still need the support of Mom and Dad.
Vent your anger and disappointment privately. With your teen, be calm, be reasonable, and be a good parent.
© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.