Screaming at Your Misbehaving Teen May Backfire

Yelling at Kids

Story at-a-glance -

  • A study of 13-year-olds found that the effects of harsh verbal punishment may be just as harmful to kids as physical discipline
  • When parents used harsh verbal discipline, the children were more likely to continue their misbehavior and demonstrate depressive symptoms and behavioral problems such as vandalism or anti-social and aggressive behavior
  • Experts recommend that parents communicate with their children on an equal level, and explain the reasons for consequences or concerns about their behaviors calmly

By Dr. Mercola

Most parents have raised their voices when disciplining their children, but new research suggest that doing so – especially if it involves shouting, cursing or using insults – may be counterproductive and end up making your child more disobedient.

The study, which involved nearly 1,000 13-year-olds and their parents, even found that the effects of harsh verbal punishment may be just as harmful to kids as physical discipline.1

These Were Not 'High-Risk' Families

The researchers stressed that their findings likely apply to many average American families, where the parents love their children, care about them and want them to avoid problem behaviors. The study's lead researcher stated:

"There was nothing extreme or broken about these homes. These were non 'high-risk' families. We can assume there are a lot of families like this…"

In short, the study found that when parents used harsh verbal discipline it predicted an increase in conduct problems and depressive symptoms in the child between ages 13 and 14. Furthermore, the children were more likely to continue their misbehavior and demonstrated behavioral problems such as vandalism or anti-social and aggressive behavior.

The damaging effects were similar to those seen with physical punishments and they continued even if parents were yelling 'out of love' and also showed warmth and emotional support. In other words, the study's lead author said:2, 3

"Even if you are supportive of your child, if you fly off the handle it's still bad.

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

Criticizing, Insulting and Berating Will Backfire

Experts recommend that parents communicate with their children on an equal level, and explain the reasons for consequences or concerns about their behaviors calmly.

As punishment, you may have more success taking away their video games or car keys than shouting at the top of your lungs, especially if you're using shaming or berating words.

Ideally, you should be able to firmly set limits and establish open communication with your child without having to resort to yelling insults or name-calling. Of course, if you've raised your voice to your child on occasion, there's no need to feel guilty or worry about the long-term consequences; the study is referring more so to harsh verbal discipline than simply raising your voice.

Rahil Briggs, director of pediatric behavioral health services at Montefiore Medical Center, told WebMD:4

" …it's important to point out that we're not just talking about shouting in frustration, which everybody has done. It's one thing entirely to raise your voice at your child. That happens. But it's another thing entirely to say to your teen 'you're dumb' or lazy, or issue vulgarities.

The issue is that your parents are supposed to be on your side, on your team. But here we're talking about verbal intimidation and humiliation, which is in many ways the most damaging to children trying to find their way in life."

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Giving Children an Effective Emotional Outlet Is Important

Children feel stress, too – often intensely. They worry about making friends, succeeding at school or sports, and fitting in with their peers. They may also struggle with the divorce of their parents or feel anxious about war and violence they see on the news.

While a child's natural state is to be happy, vibrant and curious, it's estimated that up to 15 percent of children and teens are depressed at any given time,5 and this could certainly be contributing to problem behaviors.

Many of the same worries that make you feel anxious and sad have the same impact on your children, and just as you need emotional outlets and time for relaxation and stress-relief, so, too, does your child.

One important way to do this is by offering unstructured playtime for kids or free time for teens. This is essential for kids to build their imagination, relieve stress and simply be kids.

Yet today, many kids are so over-scheduled that they scarcely have time to eat dinner and do homework, let alone have any free time for play. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics states that free, unstructured play is essential for children to manage stress and become resilient, as well as reach social, emotional and cognitive development milestones.6

Children and teens can also engage in other forms of stress relief that adults even enjoy, like yoga, reading, writing or drawing. They can also learn to use the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which is a form of do-it-yourself psychological acupressure. This simple technique can help clear your body and mind of self-defeating emotions so you can implement positive goals and habits more easily in your life, and kids can learn to do it themselves.

Have You Addressed the Basics to Improving Problem Behaviors?

'Mental disorders' are loosely defined as "serious changes in the ways children handle their emotions, learn, or behave," and run the gamut from mood disorders and substance abuse to learning disorders and more serious mental illness. While there are no easy remedies for more problematic issues like autism, a wide variety of mood, learning and behavioral problems in children are related to improper diet, emotional upset or stress, and exposure to environmental toxins.

I have successfully treated many hundreds of children with behavioral and mental challenges and have consistently seen them improve once the underlying toxicities and food changes were addressed, so parents let me assure you that there is hope! To address these underlying factors in your child, without resorting to verbal shouting matches or even drug treatment:

Dramatically reduce or eliminate grains and sugars in your child's diet -- yes, even healthy organic whole grains (especially wheat) can cause problems. Try eliminating them first for 1-2 weeks and see if you notice a radical and amazing improvement in your child's behavior. Replace soft drinks, fruit juices, and pasteurized milk in your child's diet with pure water.
Give your child plenty of high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fats like krill oil. Also limit their intake of vegetable oils, as they are loaded with damaged omega-6 fats. Make sure your child gets plenty of exercise and outdoor playtime in the sunshine, ideally walking on the earth barefoot.
Avoid giving your child ANY processed foods, especially those containing artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. Instead, focus their diet on whole, ideally organic, foods to avoid both pesticides and genetically engineered ingredients. Provide your child a way to address his or her emotional stressors. Again, even children can benefit from the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which you or an EFT practitioner can teach them how to use.

Tips for Building Up Your Child's Emotional Well-Being

As a parent, you certainly want your child to grow into a confident, well-rounded and happy adult. Surrounding them with negativity and criticism is not likely to achieve this end, but surrounding them with positive, unconditional support, and firm limits, will. If you have a hard time relating to your child without yelling, you may need to work on your own emotional health first before you can help theirs, and the tips that follow are a good start. You can also teach your older children and teens about these directly, and have them begin the life-long beneficial practice of emotional nurturing:

1. Be an Optimist

Looking on the bright side of things increases your ability to experience happiness in your day-to-day life while helping you cope more effectively with stress.

2. Have Hope

Having hope allows you to see the light at the end of the tunnel, helping you push through even dark, challenging times. Accomplishing goals, even small ones, can help you to build your level of hope.

3. Accept Yourself

Self-deprecating remarks and thoughts will shroud your mind with negativity and foster increased levels of stress, not to mention increase the likelihood that you will indeed live down to your own lowered expectations. Seek out and embrace the positive traits of yourself and your life, and avoid measuring your own worth by comparing yourself to those around you.

4. Stay Connected

Having loving and supportive relationships helps you feel connected and accepted, and promote a more positive mood. Intimate relationships help meet your emotional needs, so make it a point to reach out to others to develop and nurture these relationships in your life.

5. Express Gratitude

People who are thankful for what they have are better able to cope with stress, have more positive emotions, and are better able to reach their goals. The best way to harness the positive power of gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal or list, where you actively write down exactly what you're grateful for each day. Doing so has been linked to happier moods, greater optimism and even better physical health.

6. Find Your Purpose and Meaning

When you have a purpose or goal that you're striving for, your life will take on a new meaning that supports your mental well-being. If you're not sure what your purpose is, explore your natural talents and interests to help find it, and also consider your role in intimate relationships and ability to grow spiritually.

7. Master Your Environment

When you have mastery over your environment, you've learned how to best modify your unique circumstances for the most emotional balance, which leads to feelings of pride and success. Mastery entails using skills such as time management and prioritization along with believing in your ability to handle whatever life throws your way.

8. Exercise Regularly (or Play Actively for Kids)

Exercise boosts levels of health-promoting neurochemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which may help buffer some of the effects of stress and also relieve some symptoms of depression. Rather than viewing exercise as a medical tool to lose weight, prevent disease, and live longer – all benefits that occur in the future – try viewing exercise as a daily tool to immediately enhance your frame of mind, reduce stress and feel happier.

9. Practice Mindfulness

Practicing "mindfulness" means that you're actively paying attention to the moment you're in right now. Rather than letting your mind wander, when you're mindful you're living in the moment and letting distracting or negative thoughts pass through your mind without getting caught up in their emotional implications. Mindfulness can help you reduce stress for increased well-being as well as achieve undistracted focus.