If shouting voices came with a switch, we’d all be better off. We could reserve said voices for the things that deserved it, like paper cuts and cold showers – the ones that were meant to be hot ones. We’re all human and none of us come with switches. We all get cranky, tired and frustrated. Sometimes we yell. We yell at the people we love and the people we don’t. We yell at the people who probably deserve it and at the ones who are in the wrong place at the wrong time. For the most part, if handled well, the fallout from these times tends to be so small as to fit through the eye of a needle, no trouble at all. Then there are the other times.
As adults, we would be hard pressed to name one good thing that can come from an angry shout down. It doesn’t make us want to listen. It doesn’t sure up influence. It doesn’t strengthen the connection. It shames, it confuses and it expands the distance between two people. In the midst of an angry attack, there’s not a lot of energy or will leftover for empathy, compromise or understanding.
No adult would accept that the best way to shift a behaviour of theirs that isn’t working so well, would be to line up for an angry spray. Our teens aren’t buying it either. In fact, when the angry yelling is consistent, they’re being broken by it.
Harsh verbal discipline during early adolescence can cause long-lasting harm. Rather than persuading good behaviour, it can cause teens to misbehave at school, lie, steal and fight. Children who are exposed to harsh verbal discipline at 13 will be likely to show more depressive symptoms.
Research has shown that our teens are just as sensitive as we are to an angry verbal lashing, but we probably didn’t need research to tell us that. For the vast differences between adolescents and adults, there are also plenty of similarities. We are broken by the same things, saddened by the same things and angered by the same things. The detail might be different but for the most part, it all comes back to how we think we’re doing, and how we think other people think we’re doing.
The study looked at 967 two-parent families and their children. Of those families, about half were European-American, 40% were African-American and the rest were from other ethnic backgrounds. Most of the families were middle-class.
According to the study, when parents respond to their teens with hostility, it heightens the risk for delinquency. It also feeds anger, irritability, and belligerence.
‘The notion that harsh discipline is without consequence, once there is a strong parent-child bond – that the adolescent will understand that ‘they’re doing this because they love me’ – is misguided because parents’ warmth didn’t lessen the effects of harsh verbal discipline. Indeed, harsh verbal discipline appears to be detrimental in all circumstances.’ Ming-Te Wang, assistant professor of psychology in education at the University of Pittsburgh
What makes a verbal lashing so harmful?
The research found that harsh verbal discipline doesn’t work as a way to improve behaviour. In fact, it makes behaviour problems worse. One of the ways parental hostility increases the risk of bad behaviour is by lowering inhibition. The will to do good is broken. When the relationship with a parent feels fragile, it feels as though there is nothing to lose.
Harsh verbal discipline does nothing to teach or guide behaviour. Instead, it teaches children to avoid certain behaviours for the primary purpose of staying out of trouble. It shapes behaviour by encouraging kids to avoid trouble, rather than nurturing an intrinsic understanding of what’s right. When the threat of punishment is gone, or when the chances of getting away with bad behaviour swing wildly in their favour, the choices are less likely to be good ones.
When the drive to do good comes from outside of themselves, choices are more likely to be driven by the environment (who’s watching, what are the odds of getting found out), rather than an intrinsic drive towards healthier, stronger choices.
They’re wired to pull away. Let’s not give them more reason to do this.
The main developmental goal for our adolescents is to separate from us and to find their own independence. It’s what they are wired to do. The drive to pull away from our influence is a such a powerful one. It’s how they find out who they are and where they fit in to the world. It’s all a healthy, normal, vital part of adolescence.
The rub is that this drive for independence us comes at a time when their exposure to potential risks is titanic. Drugs, drinking, sex, the internet – the potential for adolescents to make catastrophic decisions is immense. They need our influence and our guidance at this time of their lives more than ever, but whether or not they choose to accept that influence, or to look to us for guidance, is completely up to them. We can’t make them listen and we can’t make them head off in the right direction, but we can work towards being someone they want to come to. Of course, that doesn’t mean we have to agree with everything they do. Sometimes the things they do will be … how to put this … baffling. How we respond to them in their not so glorious times will determine how much influence they let us have moving forward.
Teens need boundaries, but those boundaries need to be fair, reasonable and non-shaming. Anything else will drive secrecy, lies, and distance. As adults, there’s no way we would turn to someone whose obvious response to our mistakes would be to yell. We might get it wrong sometimes, but there tends to be nothing wrong with our instincts for self-preservation. Our teens are no different.
When they need information, guidance and support, they’ll turn to the people they feel comfortable with – the ones who accept them. If that isn’t us, it will be their peers. Sometimes this will be okay, and sometimes it will be disastrous.
Perfect parents don’t exist. Good enough ones are great ones. Your teen won’t be broken if your capacity to stay calm abandons you sometimes. It’s going to happen. They’ll learn that nobody is perfect and that adults make mistakes and that sometimes people lose it. They’ll learn how to put things right when they things they do go wrong and they’ll learn about humility. What’s important is that yelling isn’t the first choice and that when it happens, it’s not sold as something they deserve. What they deserve is guidance that’s shame-free, open and easy to hear. And the right to get it wrong sometimes. That’s something we all deserve.