Using harsh verbal discipline with teens found to be harmful

Many American parents yell or shout at their teenagers. A new longitudinal study has found that using such harsh verbal discipline in early adolescence can be harmful to teens later. Instead of minimizing teens' problematic behavior, harsh verbal discipline may actually aggravate it.

The study, from researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Michigan, appears in the journal Child Development.

Harsh verbal discipline happens when use psychological force to cause a child to experience or discomfort in an effort to correct or control behavior. It can vary in severity from yelling and shouting at a child to insulting and using words to humiliate. Many parents shift from physical to verbal discipline as their children enter adolescence, and harsh verbal discipline is not uncommon. A nationally representative survey found that about 90 percent of American parents reported one or more instances of using harsh verbal discipline with children of all ages; the rate of the more severe forms of harsh verbal discipline (swearing and cursing, calling names) directed at teens was 50 percent.

Few studies have looked at harsh verbal discipline in adolescence. This study found that when parents use it in early adolescence, teens suffer detrimental outcomes later. The children of mothers and fathers who used harsh verbal discipline when they were 13 suffered more between ages 13 and 14 than their peers who weren't disciplined in this way; they were also more likely to have such as misbehaving at school, lying to parents, stealing, or fighting.

Moreover, the study found that not only does harsh verbal discipline appear to be ineffective at addressing in youths, it actually appears to increase such behaviors. Parents' increases the risk of by lowering and fostering anger, , and belligerence in , the researchers found.

The effect went the other way, too. Children who had conduct problems at 13 elicited more harsh verbal discipline from their parents between ages 13 and 14.

The study looked at 967 two-parent families and their children. About half were European American; 40 percent were African American and the rest were of other ethnic backgrounds. Most of the families were middle class. Students and parents completed surveys over a two-year period on topics related to their mental health, childrearing practices, the quality of the parent-child relationship, and general demographics.

Adolescents' conduct problems were assessed at ages 13 and 14 by survey 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?" The response format ranged from 1 (never) to 5 (10 or more times).

Parents' behaviors indicating harsh verbal discipline were measured by 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?" Items were rated on a 5-point scale, ranging from 1 (never) to 5 (always).

"This is one of the first studies to indicate that parents' harsh verbal discipline is damaging to the developing adolescent," says Ming-Te Wang, assistant professor of psychology in education at the University of Pittsburgh, who led the study. "The notion that harsh discipline is without consequence, once there is a strong parent-child bond—that the adolescent will understand that 'they're doing this because they love me'—is misguided because parents' warmth didn't lessen the effects of harsh verbal discipline.

"Indeed, harsh verbal discipline appears to be detrimental in all circumstances," Wang concludes.

Wang suggests that parents who want to modify their teenage children's behavior would do better by discussing with them their concerns about the consequences of the behavior. The study's findings can inform parenting programs so that parents can learn alternatives to shouting and insulting their teens.

Explore further

The harms of harsh discipline are softened by a loving mother

Journal information: Child Development

Citation: Using harsh verbal discipline with teens found to be harmful (2013, September 4) retrieved 19 October 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Sep 04, 2013
I heard the phrase tough love at 4 not 14. Those that don't discipline their children when they are young wind up yelling and shouting at their teenagers.

Sep 04, 2013
Does it have to include shouting? Or corporal punishment?

I have to ask - the indications from the above language indicated parents in the study or elsewhere were physically disciplining their younger children, indicating "tough love" both had not worked and was continuing not to work.

My kids are well behaved and polite as well as outgoing, all without shouting or corporal punishment. Instead they are learning compromise, consequence, self control, and how to ask for and get good attention. Not much tough unless you count agreed on consequences, which are non-negotiable once in action. And one of them just turned four.

Sep 12, 2013
Hey GMR, I take it with a grain of salt when parents say how wonderfully their children behave. I have seen too many examples of kids who are terrors being described by their parents as well behaved.

When people go out of their way to tell you how well your kids are behaved that is proof that they are well behaved.

If no one or only a couple of people have told you personally that your kids are well behaved, most likely they're not! Well behaved children are the exception these days and people notice and comment on well behaved children.

Sep 13, 2013
I'd say well behaved is "my favorite kid to deal with in eight years in this program" for a summer program. I'm not joking or trying to make anything up - not in my nature. Consistency is key. If kids know the consequences for bad behavior are not dependant upon a parent's mood and are agreed to by both beforehand, there is no need for yelling.

Kids seem to respond to things being fair, so same rules for them go for me. And they can catch me if I break a rule and know I won't get mad about it. So I don't relenquish my role as parent by not shouting or hitting - I just have to be a good example.

Sep 13, 2013
GMR If others says your kids are well behaved that is a good sign. I have 4 and every where they go they we hear back how well they are behaved. I agree that Consistency is key, and kids need to know the limits. Kids need to know that IF they do X, Y will happen consistently.

Children are also very different. To discipline one child you may only need to give a disapproving glance, the next one nothing short of a spank.

What I meant by tough love at 4 not 14 is that it is easier to teach a 4 year old consequences and instill self discipline, than allowing a 4 year old to run wild then try to instill discipline at 14. I want to be releasing "shackles of restrictions" as a child gets older, not putting more on because I failed to impose them when they were younger.

Sep 13, 2013
It can take more effort depending on the child - but I'm not convinced corporal punishment does much but signal to the child that the parent has either run out of resources or that the child is seen as something less than human. We consider this in adult circles as assault - why would we want to teach our kids it is okay under any circumstance? The only time yelling is okay for me is when life or safety is at stake.

If it takes corporal punishment or the threat of it to keep a kid in line, they are not learning why you exercise self control.

Sep 13, 2013
He's not basing this on any logic Gmr. The bible says it's okay, he likes doing it, so that's that. No one is going to take his rights away goshdamnit.

There is definitely a slavery fetish going on here.

Sep 13, 2013
GMR there is a definite difference between hitting and a spank.

If you have been blessed with perfect kids who you just need to look at to discipline great. However spanks are extremely effective and settles issues quickly. Removing it or banning it actually increases child abuse. Most children know how to push the limits and will push the limit and if you try to reason with a toddler who is throwing a temper tantrum, you are only fanning the flames.

Sep 14, 2013
They thrive on attention. If attention only happens when something they do is incorrect or disruptive, the behavior is rewarded. Spanking is an escalation of a failed policy of attention for bad behavior. Preempting that with attention for good behavior, or when asked for, forestalls the bad behavior because it gets timeouts which have no attention parameter - they are the antithesis of attention. Punishment without anger works.

My children are not perfect. Because of another disruptive individual, they both had many problems only a year ago. It took about six months of consistency to undo in one case almost a decade of harm. It's not overnight, and kids will still test limits. And you don't have to never offer an exception, just be clear why it's an exception. Differentiate accidents (which are faultless) from bad behavior. And make sure the language is always focused on why the behavior is wrong, not how the child is bad.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more