Cruel words from parents are like ‘sticks and stones’

Adolescents who experience harsh verbal discipline suffer from increased levels of depressive symptoms, and are more likely to demonstrate behavioral problems such as vandalism or antisocial and aggressive behavior. (Credit: "screaming man" via Shutterstock)

Parents who use harsh words when disciplining their teenage children may be doing just as much harm as if they physically abused them.

Research shows that a majority of parents use harsh verbal discipline—defined as shouting, cursing, or using insults—at some point during their child’s adolescence.

A new paper concludes that, rather than minimizing problematic behavior in adolescents, the use of this kind of cruel language may in fact aggravate it.

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Adolescents who experience harsh verbal discipline suffer from increased levels of depressive symptoms, and are more likely to demonstrate behavioral problems such as vandalism or antisocial and aggressive behavior.

Perhaps most surprising, researchers say the negative effects of verbal discipline within the two-year period of their study were comparable to the effects shown over the same period of time in other studies that focused on physical discipline.

“From that 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,” says Ming-Te Wang, assistant professor of psychology in education at the University of Pittsburgh.

Based on the literature studying the effects of physical discipline, Wang and colleagues anticipate similar long-term results for adolescents subjected to harsh verbal discipline.

“Parental warmth”—such as the degree of love, emotional support, and affection between parents and adolescents—doesn’t lessen the effects of verbal discipline. The sense that parents are yelling at the child “out of love,” or “for their own good,” doesn’t mitigate the damage inflicted. Neither does the strength of the parent-child bond.

Even lapsing only occasionally into the use of harsh verbal discipline, can  be harmful, Wang says. “Even if you are supportive of your child, if you fly off the handle it’s still bad.”

A vicious circle

Published in the journal Child Development, the paper shows the results are bidirectional: harsh verbal discipline occurs more frequently when the child exhibits problem behaviors, and the same problem behaviors are more likely to continue when adolescents receive verbal discipline.

“It’s a vicious circle,” Wang says. “And it’s a tough call for parents because it goes both ways: problem behaviors from children create the desire to give harsh verbal discipline, but that discipline may push adolescents toward those same problem behaviors.”

Parents who want to modify the behavior of their teenage children would be better advised to communicate with them on an equal level, explaining their worries and rationale to them. Parenting programs are well positioned to offer parents insight into the ineffectiveness of harsh verbal discipline, and to offer alternatives.

The researchers conducted the study in 10 public middle schools in eastern Pennsylvania over a two-year period, working with 967 adolescents and their parents. Students and their parents completed surveys over a period of two years on topics related to their mental health, child-rearing practices, the quality of the parent-child relationship, and general demographics.

Males comprised 51 percent of the study subjects, while 54 percent were European American, 40 percent African American, and 6 percent from other ethnic backgrounds. Most of the students were from middle-class families.

“There was nothing extreme or broken about these homes,” Wang says. “These were not ‘high-risk’ families. We can assume there are a lot of families like this—there’s an okay relationship between parents and kids, and the parents care about their kids and don’t want them to engage in problem behaviors.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health supported the research.

Source: University of Pittsburgh