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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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