Study: Yelling At Kids Comparable To Physical Punishment

I would never, ever hit my kids. No one in my social circle would. But many of us do something that may be just as bad: we yell.

Orange Steeler/flickr
Orange Steeler/flickr

I grew up in a family of screamers and to this day I remember the sting of an out-of-control raised voice. It was one of those things I vowed not to do as a parent. But I do it, and then I feel dirty.

And I know I'm not alone. A few years back, reporter Hilary Stout declared that "yelling is the new spanking" in The New York Times:

Many in today’s pregnancy-flaunting, soccer-cheering, organic-snack-proffering generation of parents would never spank their children. We congratulate our toddlers for blowing their nose (“Good job!”), we friend our teenagers (literally and virtually), we spend hours teaching our elementary-school offspring how to understand their feelings. But, incongruously and with regularity, this is a generation that yells.

“I’ve worked with thousands of parents and I can tell you, without question, that screaming is the new spanking,” said Amy McCready, the founder of Positive Parenting Solutions, which teaches parenting skills in classes, individual coaching sessions and an online course. “This is so the issue right now. As parents understand that it’s not socially acceptable to spank children, they are at a loss for what they can do. They resort to reminding, nagging, timeout, counting 1-2-3 and quickly realize that those strategies don’t work to change behavior. In the absence of tools that really work, they feel frustrated and angry and raise their voice. They feel guilty afterward, and the whole cycle begins again.”

Here's The Wall Street Journal's take on the study and a few more salient points from the University of Pittsburgh press release:

The paper...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, Ming-Te Wang, of the University of Pittsburgh and Sarah Kenny, of the University of Michigan, 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.

I asked Steven Schlozman, M.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a staff child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital about the study. Here is his extremely thoughtful, lightly edited response:

The recent study by Ming Te-Wang and Sarah Kenny carefully uncovers the deleterious effects of harsh verbal reprimands by parents towards their children. As you might expect, yelling at your kids, and especially yelling in a way that humiliates your kids, is not good. As you might not have expected, it turns out that at least according to this study, yelling at your kids can negatively affect your kids' sense of self and self-worth well into aduthood. In other words, there are permanent effects of verbal reprimands.

But, as with all social research, we need to look at these data with a big grain of salt.

It's a given that we should not verbally assault our children. By that, I mean that it is never a good thing to continually or even occasionally refer to your child as "lazy" or "worthless" (and so on) and there is already a host of literature showing that these kinds of interactions affect kids in very negative ways.

Kids who are the subject of continual beratings by their parents have higher rates of emotional problems, including depression, anxiety, and conduct challenges. In other words, they feel less sure of themselves, they worry more, they are more prone to suffer the biological syndrome of depression, and they get into more trouble. In fact, this study shows that when adolescents are the recipients of these negative interactions, they are in fact MORE likely to raise hell.

This of course creates a vicious circle; you get yelled at, you get into trouble, you then get yelled at more, and on it goes. Also, recall that the adolescent brain has a very hard time accurately attributing perceived criticisms. The teen is wired to think that all redirections are assaultive and unfair. How many times has a 16-year-old asked a disappointed parent to "stop yelling" even though the parent is certain that no voices were raised. Ironically, it is this interaction that often yields the start of the REAL yelling.

"I'm not yelling," the parent yells. And you're off to the races.

But, there are confounders galore. First, I worry that parents who read or hear of this study, especially if the careful methodology of the study is shrunk to soundbites, will berate themselves for raising their collective voices towards their children. We ALL raise our voices at our kids, and while the point of this particular study was not to suggest alternative strategies, one is hard pressed to come up with other means by which kids can receive disciplinary direction during highly emotional moments. The simple way of saying this? We all lose our tempers. When we lose our tempers, we yell.

We can't and shouldn't be Stepford parents. Stepford parents are creepy. Among the risks of feeling compelled as parents to be under such questionably possible emotional control is the fact that your children will never get to see how you respond to your own raised vocal tensions. Making amends, showing insight into why you got angry and raised your voice in the first place, talking about your feelings to your kids...these are all part of being human and all are behaviors that it behooves us to model for our children.

So, you WILL at some point raise your voice to your kids. Try your very best to NOT be condescending or humiliating to your child when you do this. And, after you cool down, try your best to talk to your child in calmer tones about why you got so mad. It is in fact true, as this study suggests, that verbal abuse, by the numbers at least, is as bad as physical abuse. That means that kids who are physically abused do as poorly as kids who are verbally harshly attacked. However, that is not necessarily the same as saying that kids who are yelled at will be the same as kids who are beaten by their parents. The noxious stimuli of physical aggression is an extremely potent and negative determinant of brain plasticity. Brains that belong to beaten children don't do so well. However, the jury is out as to whether brain development is as profoundly affected by verbal abuse.

A final word about culture: There is a scene from the critically acclaimed show Friday Night Lights where the coach is telling one of his players about the way he was raised. He recalls that his father harshly and loudly questioned him on every decision he ever made. It seems clear from the show that in the West Texas town where the story is set, parents are blunt and to the point. They raise their voices often as they attempt to get important life lessons imbibed into their kids. Where I grew up just outside Kansas City, it wasn't that different. And though this is hardly a scientific conclusion, it is clear to me that my buddies whose parents yelled at them in an effort to get them to do the right thing still love and respect their parents very much. And, many of my buddies turned out pretty good.

These kinds of studies are immensely important but also immensely complex. Careful and nuanced discussion are absolutely essential.

Parents do you yell? Or have you learned not to yell? And if so, please let us know how your behavior evolved.

This program aired on September 5, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Headshot of Rachel Zimmerman

Rachel Zimmerman Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide. 



More from WBUR

Listen Live