School Climate & Safety

Shouting at Your Teenagers Only Foments Rebellion

By Ross Brenneman — September 11, 2013 2 min read
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Yelling is the most common solution to many problems. Stuck in traffic? Try yelling. TV on the fritz? Give it what-for. Did Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco fail to convert on third-and-two? Curse him out. If transcriptions of your remarks would be typed in ALL CAPS and end primarily in exclamation marks, you’re doing it right.

Yet just like your paltry success rate with appliances and NFL quarterbacks, new research expands on studies that show yelling at children won’t help them improve, either. And harsh discipline at home is ripe for discipline problems in school.

In a study set to be published by the University of Pittsburgh in the journal Child Development, researchers found that even in spite of an otherwise warm family relationship, parents who yell at their children likely just make bad behavior worse.

It’s not just yelling either; any harsh verbal treatment, including heavy cursing and humiliation, can jar teenagers into worse behavior. Moreover, the study found that harsh verbal discipline actually matched physical discipline in terms of long-term effect. And it doesn’t matter whether or not parents and children are otherwise close.

The study used 967 teenagers and their parents from 10 public Pennsylvania middle schools. Over two years, participants finished surveys about mental health, child-raising tactics, and relationship quality. “High risk” households were not a major factor in the study.

The authors point to a great deal of research that shows physical discipline causes behavioral problems, and other (albeit, fewer) studies that tie verbal discipline to behavioral problems.

But the effects of “parental buffering,” as the paper calls it, form the crux of the study. The researchers measured warmth through survey questions hinging on perceptions of love,
emotional support, affection, and care. It might be good most of the time, but when push comes to literal or verbal shove, parental warmth doesn’t seem to matter.

Teenagers, the authors say, interpret harsh verbal discipline as scorn and rejection, which can be a hit to self-confidence and social interaction.

“Such detriment to the process of individuation and to the development of a strong sense of personal identity can be devastating to adolescents, leading to outcomes such as depression or problematic social interactions,” they write.

Bad behavior at home can, naturally, translate into bad behavior at school, as children may develop problems with authority, develop cynicism, or feel more able to act out. The kind of behavior often dubbed “willful defiance” (basically, disorderly conduct) constitutes a major proportion of suspensions, for things as simple as cursing at a teacher. Critics of such suspensions tie them into the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s a long journey from Point A to Point B, but the study lends some weight to the idea that discipline not only starts, but goes off-track, at home.

In short, think of it as “The Breakfast Club: A Study.”

Schools have an opportunity to get involved, though.

“With the appropriate resources, schools have a great opportunity to target conduct problems in youth and also to reach parents through the messages they send home with their children,” the study concludes.

The paper now appears online, and will be published in the March/April 2014 print edition of Child Development. Ming-Te Wang, of the University of Pittsburgh, led the study, which the University of Michigan’s Sarah Kenny co-authored.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.