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Screaming at Your Misbehaving Teen May Backfire

Study found verbal abuse promoted more disobedience and conflict

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Alan Mozes

HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 4 (HealthDay News) -- Parents who discipline their teenagers with a hostile brew of screaming, cursing and name-calling may ultimately be doing far more harm than good, a new study reveals.

An analysis involving nearly 1,000 two-parent families and their adolescent children suggests that such harsh oral lashings not only don't cut back on misbehavior, they actually promote it.

The end result: an uptick in the kind of adolescent rage, stubbornness and irritation that escalates -- rather than diminishes -- disobedience and conflict.

"Most parents who yell at their adolescent children wouldn't dream of physically punishing their teens," noted study author Ming-Te Wang, an assistant professor with the department of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education. "Yet, their use of harsh verbal discipline -- defined as shouting, cursing or using insults -- is just as detrimental to the long-term well-being of adolescents," he said.

"Our findings offer insight into why some parents feel that no matter how loud they shout, their teenagers do not listen," Wang added. "Indeed, not only does harsh verbal discipline appear to be ineffective at addressing behavior problems in youth, it actually appears to increase such behaviors."

Wang and his co-author, Sarah Kenny of the University of Michigan, report their findings in the current issue of the journal Child Development.

To explain the dimension of the problem, the authors point to a recent survey that indicated that roughly nine in 10 American parents acknowledge having engaged in some form of harsh verbal discipline at some point with their child, teenaged or otherwise.

More than half said that their teenage child was the brunt of the most virulent forms of verbal assault (such as cursing and name-calling).

To dig deeper, the investigating pair focused on 976 primarily middle-class families in Pennsylvania with young adolescent offspring, all of whom were already participating in a long-term study exploring family interaction and adolescent development. A little more than half the families were white, while 40 percent were black.

Parents and their young adolescent children were repeatedly surveyed over a two-year period to gain insight into a range of mental health and relationship questions.

In particular, between the ages of 13 and 14 all the children were asked to disclose the frequency and nature of any recent behavioral issues, including in-school disobedience, stealing, fighting, damaging property for fun or lying to their parents.

Parents, meanwhile, were asked to reveal how often they had engaged in harsh verbal discipline, along the lines of having yelled, shouted, screamed, sworn or cursed at their teen. Name-calling -- such as calling their child "dumb" or "lazy" -- was also noted.

At the same time, teens were asked to describe to what degree they felt "warmth" in their relationship with their parents, as a function of the amount of parental love, emotional support, affection and care they felt was directed their way. In addition, both teen and parental depression were tracked.

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