Why This Common Discipline is Harmful for Teens

The Common Discipline That is Harmful for Teens

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 research.

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.

18 Comments

Mar

What if you do shout/yell at your children? What if it’s something you loathe doing, feel deeply ashamed of and can see clearly all that’s wrong with it, yet still can’t resist responding in this way? What do you suggest (apart from counting to 10 which hasn’t worked)?

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Hey Sigmund

Mar, talk to your kids and let them know how you feel. This will take the steam out of the impact and will lessen the likelihood of disconnection or shame for them. Sometimes, the harder you push against something, the harder it will push back. Accept that this is where you are at, at the moment. I love that you are so open to trying to do things differently – that’s what makes great parents. None of us are perfect and there are things we all do that we would prefer to do differently. Talk to your children about this in an age appropriate way. Apologise to them when you snap. Let them know that you’re sorry for yelling and that you know there was a better way to deal with things. Let them know you love them and that you’re working on on doing things differently because you understand how scary or confusing or upsetting it must be when you yell (or whatever you imagine their experience of this is). Don’t let this take things away from redirecting their behaviour though. It’s still important to let them know when they have done something that they shouldn’t have.

When you can be kind and compassionate and more accepting of yourself, you may find that it will be easier to do things differently. It doesn’t hurt our kids to see that we aren’t perfect. When it hurts is when we defend our own hurtful behaviour and make out that they deserve it. I hope this helps.

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Shay

When one is a now parent that had been raised with all forms of abuse growing up becomes the yeller so as to stop spanking or hitting, how do they stop the yelling that has been ongoing for the last 12years?

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Kev

Great article, this also needs to be taken into schools as shouting and shaming is often the norm rather than the exception

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Hey Sigmund

Yes – we’re only starting to realise the damage that certain things do. Even if these things are done with the best of intentions, it doesn’t always feel that way to the one who is on the receiving end.

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Justine

People complain about Facebook but it has its strong points. It was serendipity that I came across this tonight just as I was feeling angry with my 15 year old and really felt like shouting. I know it doesn’t work and I rarely do shout but, thankfully, tonight this post reinforced my understanding and stopped me causing an unnecessary problem. Thank you. ?

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Wayne

I love your articles as they have been helpful in growing myself and very educational. I don’t always agree with everything but “shelf” what at the time may not “fit”..? I agree that yelling should never be the first option but feel that there were times when a child that nothing would have gotten across to me any other way. The saying “you should be ashamed of yourself ” does apply at times as well. I don’t know if this is the same as shaming but appears to be something that may be needed as well. Also the saying “withhold the rod and spoil the child ” that has also been one of great controversy. As there is a vast difference between a spanking and a beating, I don’t see a lot of evidence showing that a smack on the bottom or a smack on the hand is more “scarring ” then helpful in the right situations. Advice and what are considered “truths or facts” seem to be ever changing from generation to generation. I do believe that if we aren’t giving our best as parents and aren’t willing to be teachable ourselves then we have missed it. Love is the best we can give and receive. God isn’t done with us yet? Keep the emails coming .

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Sue F

Yelling, smacking, shaming are all forms of abuse. Shaming is saying “you are bad”. These things seem to have been passed down from generation to generation. I think words of kindness and encouragement go a lot further than screaming and hitting. We used to get the “silent treatment” from mum. Did that sort of behaviour ever get things sorted? We as humans connect with words. Let them be nice ones.

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Sarah

Thank you for this wonderful article! I will be sharing it with some of the parents of teenagers I am currently treating (I’m a therapist) who don’t understand the effect their yelling and name calling are having on their teenagers…which of course is why they send them to me to “fix” because they are acting out at school and on their siblings. It is difficult to change a paradigm that “children are to be seen and not heard” since the parents were raised that way or raised by abusive parents themselves….but I’m trying!

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Sue F

A great article Karen! I was one of 5 kids back in the 50’s and 60’s and punishment was metered out with the wooden spoon! There was lots of rebelliousness in our teen years and most of us had left home by the time we were 20. I don’t think mum had time for sitting down and going through our problems and dad usually left the discipline down to mum. Definitely not a good mix and has caused long lasting problems in what I would term a very dysfunctional family.

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Gabby

Wow fantastic article – I noticed a few years ago my oldest son (15) shut down when he was being yelled at – it took time and lots of counting to ten but now I rarely yell – when I do it’s mainly around my children’s lack of picking up after themselves!!

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Sheila

Great article and great reminder. I was raised that children should be seen and not heard and it took a very long time to get to feel good about myself so I understand the struggle as a parent to not repeat the parenting errors that we were exposed to. Breaking the cycle makes all the difference and it is up to us to do that. We are not perfect and teenagers are like mosquitoes sometimes … just here to test our patience.

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks Sheila. Yes, absolutely – breaking the cycle is massive and makes a difference not just for the current generation, but the ones that come after. Thankfully we have so much more information available to us now about what works and what doesn’t.

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Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare

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