Yelling as harmful as spanking for tweens, teens, study finds

It’s hard to discipline children. You can’t hit them. Timeouts are not effective. Now, a study out of the University of Pittsburgh says yelling at teens and tweens – particularly when it involves cursing or insults –can be just as harmful as hitting. So what can you do?

Remember that the word “discipline” originally meant to teach, so look for opportunities to coach your child, not just punish him for a misstep.

“Discipline implies setting limits and boundaries,” said Vicki Hoefle, mother of six and author of Duct Tape Parenting. “But the way we do it is, ‘I’m going to punish you when you do something I don’t like.’ It’s a completely wasted moment.”

No one wants to yell at their kids, and we usually feel bad when it happens. But most of us didn’t know it could be as damaging as the spankings we got when we were growing up.

The University of Pittsburgh study released in September looked at 967 middle school students over a two-year period. Those whose parents used “harsh verbal discipline” such as yelling, cursing and using insults were more likely to be depressed or have behavior problems. The study found it was also not effective in getting children to stop what they were doing, and that it was damaging even to children in homes that were generally warm and loving.

“If you yell at your child, you either create somebody who yells back at you or somebody who is shamed and retreats,” said Meghan Leahy, a mother of three and a parenting coach in Northwest Washington.

Yelling alone is not always damaging, although the surprise of a sudden change in volume can cause a child to be fearful or anxious. It’s often what is said that is harmful, according to Deborah Sendek, program director for the Center for Effective Discipline.

“When people raise their voices, the message typically isn’t, ‘Wow, I love you, you’re a great child,’ ” Ms Sendek said. “You’re usually saying something negative, and ripping down their self-esteem.”

Take a break

Sometimes you are better off pushing the pause button and revisiting the problem in 20 minutes or the next morning.

When Ms Hoefle’s children, now ages 19 to 24, were younger and she felt herself losing her temper, she would put a hard candy in her mouth or look at a sweet picture of her child. That was often enough to make her consider her response more carefully.

She also took the unconventional approach of allowing her children to leave the room if she was yelling.

Put a stop to recurring arguments

Figure out when, and why, you’re most often losing your temper, Ms Hoefle said.

Do you yell at your son every morning because he’s dawdling in the shower when you are trying to get everyone out the door on time? Then talk to him about what you can do to make things go more smoothly.

Come up with a strategy that attacks the root of the problem. If you involve your child in creating the plan, Ms Hoefle said, he is more likely to participate in executing it.

Be clear and consistent with expectations

Kids want and crave limits and structure, so it’s important to set boundaries and stick to them, Ms Sendek said. Don’t get into the habit of asking your child to do something multiple times. Instead, ask her to do something, and tell her what will happen if she doesn’t. Be specific and follow through, even if she tries to bargain her way out of the consequence.

Give your child a say

The best way to get your child to buy into consequences is to involve him in creating them, said Jennifer Powell-Lunder, creator of the Web forums It’s a Tween’s Life and Talking Teenage.

Stop arguing and reconnect

Take time out from whatever is angering you and spend time reading or playing a game with your child to reconnect, or if you are fighting about her choice in music, tell her why you dislike it, then ask her what she likes about it. You can always revisit the source of conflict later.

Let go of the small stuff

We all want children with perfect table manners, impeccable hygiene and strong moral character. Sometimes, though, you need to pick what is most important to you, or to your child’s safety, and let some of the irritating, but less dire, behaviors slide, Ms Sendek said.

© 2013, The Washington Post