“Discipline implies setting limits and boundaries,” said Vicki Hoefle, mother of six in Middlebury, Vt., and author of “Duct Tape Parenting.” “But the way we do it is, ‘I’m going to punish you when you do something I don’t like.’ It’s a completely wasted moment.”
No one wants to yell at their kids, and we usually feel bad when it happens. But most of us didn’t know it could be as damaging as the spankings we got when we were growing up.
The University of Pittsburgh study released in September looked at 967 middle school students over a two-year period. Those whose parents used “harsh verbal discipline” such as yelling, cursing and using insults were more likely to be depressed or have behavior problems. The study found it was also not effective in getting children to stop what they were doing, and that it was damaging even to children in homes that were generally warm and loving.
“If you yell at your child, you either create somebody who yells back at you or somebody who is shamed and retreats,” said Meghan Leahy, a mother of three and a parenting coach in Northwest Washington. “You’re either growing aggression or growing shame. Those are not characteristics that any parents want in their kids.”
There is a difference, of course, between being verbally abusive and using a sharply raised voice. Yelling alone is not always damaging, although the surprise of a sudden change in volume can cause a child to be fearful or anxious. It’s often what is said that is harmful, according to Deborah Sendek, program director for the Center for Effective Discipline (CED).
“When people raise their voices, the message typically isn’t, ‘Wow, I love you, you’re a great child,’ ” Sendek said. “You’re usually saying something negative, and ripping down their self-esteem.”
It’s nearly impossible to never yell at your child. It’s going to happen. Even if you’re not calling your child names or insulting him, though, there are more effective ways to deal with disciplinary problems than yelling, Leahy said.
“Teens and tweens, especially, find our sensitive underbellies, and when they are outright defiant and what they do flies in the face of expectations, we do yell,” said Leahy, whose oldest daughter, Sophia, will be 10 in January. “But it’s definitely not in the toolbox of what’s effective discipline.”
What can harried parents do to get through to that child who, despite being asked 10 times to brush his teeth, is still playing with the cat and about to be late for school? Here are suggestions from parenting experts on how to keep behavioral problems from turning you into a screaming lunatic, and how to recover from it on the (hopefully rare) occasions when you do yell.