Verbal Discipline: That Whole Sticks-and-Stones Thing is Wrong

Dear Mr. Dad: How bad is verbal discipline for kids? My next-door neighbors have a couple of teens and they are constantly yelling at them. Every single day. Not just a little—I’m talking top-of-your-lungs kind of stuff. Besides being really unpleasant to listen to, I’m worried about how that might affect the kids. I see them almost every day and I haven’t noticed any bruises or anything else that might indicate that they’re being hit. Still, should I say something to the parents or just keep my mouth shut?

A: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me,” is right up there with “Johnny and Julie siting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G….” and “I’m rubber, you’re glue, whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you” on the list of top annoying (yet endlessly repeated) childhood sayings. It also happens to be completely wrong. Screaming at kids is plenty bad. In fact, a new study has found that yelling at teens may do at least as much long-term damage as hitting.

Ming-Te Wang, a psychology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, led a team of researchers that tracked 976 13-year olds from two-parent families for two years. Among the findings was that the negative effects of “harsh verbal discipline” on the teens were comparable to the negative effects seen in children who had physically disciplined. And by “harsh verbal discipline,” I mean yelling, screaming, swearing, humiliating, verbally intimidating, and/or calling the child dumb or stupid.

To be clear, I’m not trying to minimize the consequences of physically punishing a child, and I’m not suggesting it as a viable form of discipline. I am saying, however, that even though teenagers can sometimes be challenging and frustrating and infuriating, screaming at them may backfire and could even make problem behavior worse.

At the beginning of the study, 45% of mothers and 42% of fathers admitted that they had used harsh verbal discipline with their children at some point in the previous year. Over the course of the next year—between ages 13 and 14—those teens were more likely than kids whose parents had NOT used harsh verbal discipline, to have acted out in school, lied to a parent, stolen something from a store, been involved in a gang fight, or damaged personal or public property. They were also more likely to exhibit symptoms of depression and to report feeling worthless, useless, unwanted, or unloved.

In a way, the connection between parents’ use of harsh verbal discipline and their teens’ behavior is a chicken-and-egg kind of thing. “It’s a vicious circle,” said Wang. “ … problem behaviors from children create the desire to give harsh verbal discipline, but that discipline may push adolescents toward those same problem behaviors.”

Now, as to your question of whether to say something to the parents or keep your mouth shut. Sadly, we’re living in a world where a critical comment—no matter how well-meaning—could get you shot, knifed, or just punched out. So unless you’re confident that your neighbors won’t react violently, I’d opt for keeping your mouth shut—at least to them. Reporting them to Child Protective Services is an extreme step, which you shouldn’t take unless absolutely necessary. Instead, you might tape a copy of this article (minus your question, which would give away who you are) to their front door. Hopefully they’ll get the message.

Whatcha think?

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