Verbal discipline is a slippery slope and one mistake can have lasting, irreversible consequences.

By Esther Entin, M.D., from
June 29, 2014
Credit: Alloy Photography/Veer

The problems associated with physical punishment are well known, but even parents who would never dream of hitting their kids may still resort to shouting at them when they are pushed to the limit. A study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh and University of Michigan, published by Child Development, finds that the fallout from this kind of harsh verbal discipline is actually far greater than parents may suspect. Parents who yell at their kids may need to rethink their discipline strategies.

A Vicious Cycle

Few, if any, parents start out yelling at their children. It usually develops as children misbehave, parents react with harsh verbal discipline, children react with worsening behavior, and parents escalate their yelling and criticism. Often the cycle spins out of control.

"It's a vicious circle," said the study author Ming-Te Wang. "And it's a tough call for parents because it goes both ways: Problem behaviors from children create the desire to give harsh verbal discipline, but that discipline may push adolescents toward those same problem behaviors."

Harsh verbal discipline (HVD) is defined as "psychological force with the intention of causing a child to experience emotional pain or discomfort for the purposes of correction or control of misbehavior." Simply put, we yell at our children to try to get them to stop doing things we don't like by making them feel bad about themselves or what they are doing.

HVD can take several forms: Parents may use verbal intimidation by shouting or yelling; or try to get attention by swearing or cursing at the child; or they may use humiliation, calling the child names like dumb or lazy.

Most parents have been there. One study found that 90 percent of American parents reported one or more episodes of using HVD towards their children, often when parents shift from physical discipline, such as hitting or spanking, to verbal discipline.

Wang and co-author Sarah Kenny found that harsh verbal discipline is often linked with increased conduct or behavior problems, increased levels of aggression, and interpersonal problems in children. Aggressive yelling causes children to feel rejected and that their parents dislike them, resulting in strong negative effect on the child's view of their world, their family, and social relationships.

Emotional Fallout

When parents act with hostility towards a child, the child tends to become angrier, more irritable, and more belligerent. Rather than feeling nurtured, he frequently becomes suspicious of his angry parents, feeling the need to defend himself, which often leads to bad behavior.

Harsh verbal discipline also increases depression due to the child's belief that they are "useless," "worthless," or "inferior," as their parents' harsh criticism might suggest. In turn, a child can become overly self-critical, experience low self-esteem, and exhibit a pattern of poor choices regarding peers and behavior.

Sometimes, harsh parenting and positive parenting styles occur together in families. Positive parenting means that parents express warmth, comfort, concern and affection towards their children and are responsive to their physical and emotional needs. Children interact more with their parents and to reciprocate the feelings of warmth and love. While this parenting style is associated with fewer behavior problems, researchers found that even positive parenting is unable to decrease the negative impact on harsh verbal discipline when they occur in the same relationship.

Damaged Trust

The study's conclusions were clear. Yelling doesn't help. Harsh verbal discipline not only isn't effective, it actually makes things worse and creates potentially long-lasting psychological problems for the children and damages parent-child relationships.

Unfortunately, being the warm parent you want to be after a verbal blowout can't undo the damage. Verbal punishment eats away at a child's willingness to trust his parent.

Parents who want to change their child's behavior would do better to communicate with them on an equal level, explaining their worries and rationale to them. Parenting programs can help parents learn alternatives to harsh verbal discipline and some parents may benefit from individual or family counseling or other professional intervention to appropriately deal with dysfunctional parent-child dynamics.

This article originally appeared on The Doctor Will See You Now.

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