PITTSBURGH—Most parents who yell at their adolescent children wouldn't dream of physically punishing their teens. Yet their use of harsh verbal discipline—defined as shouting, cursing, or using insults—may be just as detrimental to the long-term well-being of adolescents.
That's the main finding of a new study led by Ming-Te Wang, assistant professor of psychology in education in the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education and of psychology in Pitt's Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. The results were published online today in the journal Child Development.
Research has shown that a majority of parents use harsh verbal discipline at some point during their child's adolescence. Relatively little research has been done, however, into understanding the effects of this kind of discipline.
The paper, coauthored by Sarah Kenny, a graduate student in the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, concludes that, rather than minimizing problematic behavior in adolescents, the use of harsh verbal discipline may in fact aggravate it. The researchers found that adolescents who had experienced harsh verbal discipline suffered from increased levels of depressive symptoms, and were more likely to demonstrate behavioral problems such as vandalism or antisocial and aggressive behavior.
The study is one of the first to indicate that harsh verbal discipline from parents can be damaging to developing adolescents.
Perhaps most surprising, Wang and Kenny found that 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," Wang said. Based on the literature studying the effects of physical discipline, Wang and Kenny anticipate similar long-term results for adolescents subjected to harsh verbal discipline.
Significantly, the researchers also found that "parental warmth"—i.e., the degree of love, emotional support, and affection between parents and adolescents—did not lessen the effects of the verbal discipline. The sense that parents are yelling at the child "out of love," or "for their own good," Wang said, does not mitigate the damage inflicted. Neither does the strength of the parent-child bond.
Even lapsing only occasionally into the use of harsh verbal discipline, said Wang, can still be harmful. "Even if you are supportive of your child, if you fly off the handle it's still bad," he said.
Another significant contribution of the paper is the finding that these results are bidirectional: the authors showed that harsh verbal discipline occurred more frequently in instances in which the child exhibited problem behaviors, and these same problem behaviors, in turn, were more likely to continue when adolescents received verbal discipline.
"It's a vicious circle," Wang said. "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."
The researchers report that parents who wish 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, say the authors of the study, 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.
Significantly, most of the students were from middle-class families. "There was nothing extreme or broken about these homes," Wang stressed. "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."
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.
The paper, "Longitudinal Links Between Fathers' and Mothers' Harsh Verbal Discipline and Adolescents' Conduct Problems and Depressive Symptoms," which appeared online in the journal Child Development on Sept. 4, is scheduled to appear in the March/April 2014 print issue of the journal. The research was supported by grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health.