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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Today was an ending and a beginning. My darling girl finished year 12. The final year at school is tough enough, but this year was seismic. Our teens have moved through this year with the most outstanding courage and grace and strength, and now it is time for them to rest and play. My gosh they deserve it. 

It is true that this is a time of celebration, but it can also be an intense time of self-reflection for our teens. (I can remember the same feelings when my gorgeous boy finished so many years ago!) My daughter has described it as, ‘I feel as though I’ve outgrown myself but my new self isn’t ready yet.’ This just makes so much sense. 

There is a beautifully fertile void that is waiting for whatever comes next for each of them, but that void is still a void. At different times it might feel exciting, overwhelming, or brutal in its emptiness.

We also have to remember that this is a time of letting go, and there might be grief that comes with that. Before they can grab on to their next big adventure, they have to let go of the guard rails. This means gently adjusting their hold on the world they have known for the last 12+ years, with its places and routines and people that have felt like home on so many days. There will be redirects and shiftings, and through it all the things that need to stay will stay, and the things that need to adjust will adjust. 

To my darling girl, your loved incredible friends, and the teens who make our world what it is - you are the beautiful  thinkers, the big feelers, the creators, the change makers, and the ones who will craft and grow a better world. However you might feel now, the lights are waiting to shine for you and because of you. The world beyond school is opening its arms to you. That opening might happen quickly, or gently, or smoothly or chaotically, but it will happen. This world needs every one of you - your voices, your spirits, your fire, your softness, your strength and your power. You are world-ready, and we are so glad you are here xxx
When our kids or teens are in high emotion, their words might sound anxious, angry, inconsolable, jealous, defiant. As messy as the words might be, they have a good reason for being there. Big feelings surge as a way to influence the environment to meet a need. Of course, sometimes the fallout from this can be nuclear.
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Wherever there is a big emotion, there will always be an important need behind it - safety, comfort, attention, food, rest, connection. The need will always be valid, even if the way they’re going about meeting it is a little rough. As with so many difficult parenting moments, there will be gold in the middle of the mess if we know where to look. 
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There will be times for shaping the behaviour into a healthier response, but in the middle of a big feeling is not one of those times. Big feelings are NOT a sign of dysfunction, bad kids or bad parenting. They are a part of being human, and they bring rich opportunities for wisdom, learning and growth. .
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Parenting isn’t about stopping the emotional storms, but about moving through the storm and reaching the other side in a way that preserves the opportunity for our kids and teens to learn and grow from the experience - and they will always learn best from experience. 
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To calm a big feeling, name what you see, ‘I can see you’re disappointed. I know how much you wanted that’, or, ‘I can see this feels big for you,’ or, ‘You’re angry at me about .. aren’t you. I understand that. I would be mad too if I had to […],’ or ‘It sounds like today has been a really hard day.’ 
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When we connect with the emotion, we help soothe the nervous system. The emotion has done its job, found support, and can start to ease. 
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When they ‘let go’ they’re letting us in on their deepest and most honest emotional selves. We don’t need to change that. What we need to do is meet them where they and gently guide them from there. When they feel seen and understood, their trust in us and their connection to us will deepen, opening the way for our influence.
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#parenthood #parenting #positiveparenting #parentingtips #childdevelopment #neuronurtured #anxiety #anxietyinchildren #childanxiety #motherhoodcommunity #parenti
When they are at that line, deciding whether to retreat to safety or move forward into brave, there will be a part of them that will know they have what it takes to be brave. It might be pale, or quiet, or a little tumbled by the noise from anxiety, but it will be there. And it will be magical. Our job as their flight crew is to clear the way for this magical part of them to rise. ‘I can see this feels scary for you - and I know you can do this.’ 
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 #mindfulparenting #neuronurtured #parentingteens #neurodevelopment #braindevelopment #positiveparenting #parenting #parenthood #childdevelopment #parentingtip #adolescence #positiveparentingtips #anxietyawareness #anxietyinchildren #childanxiety #parentingadvice #anxiety #parentingtips #motherhoodcommunity #anxietysupport #mentalhealth #heyawesome #heysigmund #heywarrior
When our kids or teens are struggling, it can be hard to know what they need. It can also be hard for them to say. It can be this way for all of us - we don't always know what we need from the people around us. It might be space, or distraction, or silence, or maybe acknowledging and being there is enough. Sometimes we might need to know that the people we love aren't taking our need for space, or our confusion or anger or sadness personally, and that they are still there within reach.
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What can be easier is thinking about what other people might need. Asking this when they are calm can invite a different perspective and can give you some insight into what they need to hear when they are going through similar. Don't worry if you just get a shrug, or a disheartened, 'I don't know'. They don't need to know, and neither do we. The question in itself might be enough to open a new way through any sense of 'stuckness' or helplessness they might be feeling.
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#parenthood #parenting #positiveparenting #parentingtips #childdevelopment #parentingadvice #parentingtip #mindfulparenting #positiveparentingtips #neurodevelopment #parentingteens
Give them space to talk but you don’t need to fix anything. You’ll want to, but the answers are in them, not us. Sometimes the answer will be to feel it out, or push for change, or feel the futility of it all so the feeling can let go, knowing it’s done it’s job - it’s recruited support, or raised awareness that something isn’t right.

Sometimes the feelings might be seismic but the words might be gone for a while. That’s okay too. Do they want to start with whatever words are there? Or talk about something else? Or go for a walk with you? Watch a movie with you? Or do a spontaneous, unnecessary drive thru with you just because you can - no words, no need to explain - just you and them and car music for the next 20 minutes. 

The more you can validate what they’re feeling (maybe, ‘Today was big for you wasn’t it’) and give them space to feel, the more they can feel the feeling, understand the need that’s fuelling it, and experiment with ways to deal with it. Sometimes, ‘dealing with it’ might mean acknowledging that there is something that feels big or important and a little out of reach right now, and feeling the fullness and futility of that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days are rubbish, and that sometimes those days 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.

I wish our kids never felt pain, but we don’t get to decide that. We don’t get to decide how our children grow, but we do get to decide how much space and support we give them for this growth. We can love them through it but we can’t love them out of it. I wish we could but we can’t.

So instead of feeling the need to silence their pain, make space for it. In the end we have no choice. Sometimes all the love in the world won’t be enough to put the wrong things right, but it can help them feel held while they move through the pain enough to find their out breath, and the strength that comes with that.♥️

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