Parenthood and raising hell

Why yelling at your kids is just as bad as physical discipline

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As a mother of four children ages five and younger, Savannah Berniquez’s patience is often in short supply. One day, her eldest lamented, “Mom, you kind of yell a lot.” The others would have likely concurred, if only they could all talk. “Not the way I want my kids to remember their childhood!” Berniquez says from her home in Chesterville, Ont. The comment, heartbreaking as it was to hear, served as a wake-up call. In July, Berniquez, who writes the blog Ramblings of a Christian Mom, launched the “No Yelling Challenge: Keep Calm and Carry On,” along with two other mommy bloggers, Michelle Marine (mother of four in rural Iowa) and Cheryl Fast (mother of six in eastern Ontario). Their posts read like confessionals, with Marine admitting on her blog Simplify, Live, Love to being “downright mean” at times and “yelling hurtful things at my children.” Almost three months later, she tells Maclean’s, “I’m still struggling with it.”

There may be a new incentive to stick with the challenge. A longitudinal study published in a recent issue of the journal Child Development reveals that “harsh verbal discipline” such as yelling, cursing and name-calling can have the same negative effects as physical discipline including spanking, slapping, shoving and pushing. The researchers, Ming-Te Wang of the University of Pittsburgh and Sarah Kenny of the University of Michigan, twice collected data from 976 two-parent families living in Pennsylvania, first when the children were in seventh grade (average age 13), and then in eighth grade. The data shows that children whose parents used harsh verbal discipline at the outset of the study were actually more likely to have developed problems and depressive symptoms between the ages of 13 and 14. And even when harsh verbal discipline resulted in more bad behaviour, parents continued to do it—creating an counterproductive cycle of yelling and misconduct.

For Wang, the lead author of the study and a professor of psychology, the findings highlight a troubling miscalculation on the part of many parents of how much better screaming might be than spanking as a form of discipline. This may be an unintentional consequence of Western society’s shift away from corporal punishment, which is increasingly seen as cruel or ineffective. (About half of the families studied reported using harsh verbal discipline, and 10 per cent used physical discipline.) “There’s more attention focused on physical discipline because it’s obvious, so people feel that this is the burning issue we want to address,” Wang says. “People underestimate the impact that harsh verbal discipline can have on children.” And some parents don’t realize how ineffective it can be at curbing delinquency too. “They try to stop it” by yelling, adds Wang, “but they actually make it worse.”

It’s a familiar pattern to Jennifer Kolari, a child and family therapist in Toronto and author of Connected Parenting: How to Raise a Great Kid and You’re Ruining My Life! (But Not Really): Surviving the Teenage Years with Connected Parenting. “Yelling remains a popular parenting technique even though most of us feel like we don’t want to do that,” she says. “What I always tell parents is, first of all, if yelling worked there would be a lot of well-behaved kids in the world. It clearly doesn’t work.” Kolari also asks parents to recall a time when they were on the receiving end of a verbal attack and had a positive, productive reaction. “It’s not possible,” Kolari says. “When we’re yelled at, our sense of being threatened takes over and we go into fight or flight.”

So why do parents still engage in harsh verbal discipline if it leaves everyone worse off? As part of the No Yelling Challenge, each of the mommy bloggers reflected on “triggers,” which included, variously: noise, mess, fatigue, clutter, fights between siblings, and a lack of spousal quality time. Their experiences will resonate with other mothers, no doubt, as the study by Wang and Kenny showed that moms are more likely to use harsh verbal discipline than dads. That’s because they are usually “the primary caregiver”—cooking, chauffeuring, helping with homework—and therefore ripe for fights. Further complicating matters, says Kolari, is the fact that “kids are very entitled, and we’re not great at saying ‘No.’ The only time we feel brave enough is when we’re really mad,” and by then, “We’re overreacting.”

Part of the solution then is anticipating problems, says Kathy Lynn, author of Who’s In Charge Anyway? How Parents Can Teach Children to Do the Right Thing. She runs workshops across the country, and encourages parents to think about how they can avoid verbal brawls—for example, having everyone wake up 15 minutes earlier so there is less stress associated with rushing out the door. On her blog On the Old Path, Fast admits to noticing that “about 95 per cent of the things that would set me off with my children are probably preventable on my part,” if only she were more vigilant about catching issues early.

Kolari teaches parents to hear out a child who is upset, and advocates “front-loading,” which means setting expectations—for exactly how long the TV will be turned on, for instance—and establishing clear consequences for transgressions before they occur. She also emphasizes the importance of “cuddles” in keeping kids content. “Even though it seems unrelated, it’s not. If parents only do that, they will see an improvement in their child’s behaviour.” In fact, she tells moms and dads, “The child that you least feel like doing this with is the child who needs it the most.”

This latter point is particularly interesting in light of one specific result in the Wang-Kenny study: parental warmth did not mitigate the negative effects of yelling. “A lot of times parents justify their harsh verbal discipline by saying, ‘It’s because I love my kids, and they can understand that,’ ” says Wang, “but for kids, it’s sometimes hard to rationalize that.” Lynn says she is “bothered” by the finding that “the loving, caring stuff didn’t even count.” And Kolari warns parents against panicking. “I’m scared parents are going to feel like, ‘Oh my God, I yelled at my kid three times this week, and that’s going to ruin them,’ ” she says. “That’s not the case.”

Kolari has one more suggestion: “The trick I tell parents is if you’re really angry at your child, and what you’re saying feels fantastic coming out of your mouth, it’s wrong. What you should have to do is sit there and think, control yourself, and really work to come up with something that makes sense” as a response. “That’s a better guide for when you’re doing the right thing and saying the right thing to your child.”