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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‘Brave’ doesn’t always feel like certain, or strong, or ready. In fact, it rarely does. That what makes it brave.♥️
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#parenting #mindfulparenting #parentingtips
We teach our kids to respect adults and other children, and they should – respect is an important part of growing up to be a pretty great human. There’s something else though that’s even more important – teaching them to respect themselves first. 

We can’t stop difficult people coming into their lives. They might be teachers, coaches, peers, and eventually, colleagues, or perhaps people connected to the people who love them. What we can do though is give our kids independence of mind and permission to recognise that person and their behaviour as unacceptable to them. We can teach our kids that being kind and respectful doesn’t necessarily mean accepting someone’s behaviour, beliefs or influence. 

The kindness and respect we teach our children to show to others should never be used against them by those broken others who might do harm. We have to recognise as adults that the words and attitudes directed to our children can be just as damaging as anything physical. 

If the behaviour is from an adult, it’s up to us to guard our child’s safe space in the world even harder. That might be by withdrawing support for the adult, using our own voice with the adult to elevate our child’s, asking our child what they need and how we can help, helping them find their voice, withdrawing them from the environment. 

Of course there will be times our children do or say things that aren’t okay, but this never makes it okay for any adult in your child’s life to treat them in a way that leads them to feeling ‘less than’.

Sometimes the difficult person will be a peer. There is no ‘one certain way’ to deal with this. Sometimes it will involve mediation, role playing responses, clarifying the other child’s behaviour, asking for support from other adults in the environment, or letting go of the friendship.

Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can help our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older.♥️
When we are angry, there will always be another emotion underneath it. It is this way for all of us. 

Anger itself is a valid emotion so it’s important not to dismiss it. Emotion is e-motion - energy in motion. It has to find a way out, which is why telling an angry child to calm down or to keep their bodies still will only make things worse for them. They might comply, but their bodies will still be in a state of distress. 

Often, beneath an angry child is an anxious one needing our help. It’s the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. As with all emotions, anger has a job to do - to help us to safety through movement, or to recruit support, or to give us the physical resources to meet a need or to change something that needs changing. It doesn’t mean it does the job well, because an angry brain means the feeling brain has the baton, while the thinking brain sits out for a while. What it means is that there is a valid need there and this young person is doing their very best to meet it, given their available resources in the moment or their developmental stage. 

Children need the same thing we all need when we’re feeling fierce - to be seen,  heard, and supported; to find a way to get the energy out, either with words or movement. Not to be shut down or ‘fixed’. 

Our job isn’t to stop their anger, but to help them find ways to feel it and express it in ways that don’t do damage. This will take lots of experience, and lots of time - and that’s okay.♥️
The SCCR Online Conference 2021 is a wonderful initiative by @sccrcentre (Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) which will explore ’The Power of Reconnection’. I’ve been working with SCCR for many years. They do incredible work to build relationships between young people and the important adults around them, and I’m excited to be working with them again as part of this conference.

More than ever, relationships matter. They heal, provide a buffer against stress, and make the world feel a little softer and safer for our young people. Building meaningful connections can take time, and even the strongest relationships can feel the effects of disconnection from time to time. As part of this free webinar, I’ll be talking about the power of attachment relationships, and ways to build relationships with the children and teens in your life that protect, strengthen, and heal. 

The workshop will be on Monday 11 October at 7pm Brisbane, Australia time (10am Scotland time). The link to register is in my story.
There are many things that can send a nervous system into distress. These can include physiological (tired, hungry, unwell), sensory overload/ underload, real or perceived threat (anxiety), stressed resources (having to share, pay attention, learn new things, putting a lid on what they really think or want - the things that can send any of us to the end of ourselves).

Most of the time it’s developmental - the grown up brain is being built and still has a way to go. Like all beautiful, strong, important things, brains take time to build. The part of the brain that has a heavy hand in regulation launches into its big developmental window when kids are about 6 years old. It won’t be fully done developing until mid-late 20s. This is a great thing - it means we have a wide window of influence, and there is no hurry.

Like any building work, on the way to completion things will get messy sometimes - and that’s okay. It’s not a reflection of your young one and it’s not a reflection of your parenting. It’s a reflection of a brain in the midst of a build. It’s wondrous and fascinating and frustrating and maddening - it’s all the things.

The messy times are part of their development, not glitches in it. They are how it’s meant to be. They are important opportunities for us to influence their growth. It’s just how it happens. We have to be careful not to judge our children or ourselves because of these messy times, or let the judgement of others fill the space where love, curiosity, and gentle guidance should be. For sure, some days this will be easy, and some days it will feel harder - like splitting an atom with an axe kind of hard.

Their growth will always be best nurtured in the calm, loving space beside us. It won’t happen through punishment, ever. Consequences have a place if they make sense and are delivered in a way that doesn’t shame or separate them from us, either physically or emotionally. The best ‘consequence’ is the conversation with you in a space that is held by your warm loving strong presence, in a way that makes it safe for both of you to be curious, explore options, and understand what happened.♥️
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#mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #parenting

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