The More Teens Are Yelled At, the Worse They Behave

A dad looks sternly at his teenage daughter
Using harsh words with teens may actually lead to worse behavior, a new study finds. (Image credit: Dad and teen photo via Shutterstock)

Parents commonly shout, yell or even swear at their teenagers, but such discipline tactics may actually increase their child's risk for behavior problems, a new study suggests.

In the study, parent's use of harsh verbal discipline with their children at age 13 was linked with an increased risk of conduct problems and symptoms of depression at ages 13 and 14. The more frequently parents used hash verbal discipline, the more commonly their children experienced these problems, the researchers found.

What's more, children with conduct problems also received more harsh verbal discipline from their parents. This suggests that harsh verbal discipline may lead to a vicious cycle of children acting out, and parents escalating their disciplinary actions, the researchers said. [10 Scientific Tips For Raising Happy Kids]

"Our findings offer insight into why some parents feel that no matter how loud they shout, their teenagers do not listen," said study researcher Ming-Te Wang, assistant professor of psychology in education at the University of Pittsburgh. "Not only does harsh verbal appear to be ineffective at addressing behavior problems in youth, it actually appears to increase such behaviors," Wang said.

"Parents who wish to modify their teenage children’s behavior would do better by communicating with them on an equal level, and explaining their rationale and worries to them," he said.

The study is published today (Sept. 4) in the journal Child Development.

Although a previous study found that more than 90 percent of American parents report using harsh verbal discipline, few studies have examined the effect of this discipline strategy on teenagers over time.

The new study analyzed information from 976 families, which included a mother, father and a middle-school aged child, living in Pennsylvania.

Parents were asked how often they used harsh verbal discipline in the past year, including shouting, yelling, screaming, swearing or cursing, or name-calling such as "dumb" or "lazy."

Nearly half of parents (45 percent of mothers and 42 percent of fathers) said they had used harsh verbal discipline in the last year. The link with behavior problems held even after the researchers took into account families' socioeconomic status, and use of physical discipline.

Harsh verbal discipline had a detrimental effect on behavior even if parents were also emotionally supportive and caring towards their teens.

Young teens are likely to interpret harsh verbal discipline as "indicative of rejection or scorn," the researchers said in their study. This interpretation can result in the child developing of a hostile view of the parent-child relationship, a negative view of themself, or low self-control, the researchers said.

Dr. Jefry Biehler, chair of pediatrics at Miami children's hospital, said the findings support the notion that insulting and hurtful language is not the preferred method of discipline for teens. The findings are interesting, and the topic of how harsh verbal discipline affects teens should be studied further, said Biehler, who was not involved in the study.

The study relied on parents' self-reports of verbal discipline, and on children's self-reports of behavior problems. It's possible that their responses were not entirely accurate out of a desire to provide "socially acceptable" answers, the researchers said. However, the researchers suspect that the link would be even stronger if reporting was more truthful.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.