Yelling At Your Kids Could Be Just As Bad As Physical Discipline – So Get A Hold Of Yourself

shutterstock_152463473__1378660332_142.196.156.251Kids can be totally infuriating. But a new study shows that verbally flying off the handle at your kids may be just as emotionally harmful as physical discipline – and doesn’t necessarily correct bad behavior.

The study followed 976 two-parent families. Parents were asked question to gauge their use of harsh verbal discipline. Kids were asked questions to gauge the level of warmth in the relationships with their parents and were also questioned about depression symptoms.

When their children were 13, about 45% of participating mothers and 42% of fathers said they had used harsh verbal discipline with their child during the past year. Those kids whose parents used higher levels of harsh verbal discipline when their children were 13 experienced larger increases in behavior problems the next year, including fighting with peers, trouble in school and lying to parents, as well as symptoms of depression.


Using physical discipline is widely accepted as taboo. For that reason, many people generally agree that using physical discipline isn’t the best option. But being verbally abusive isn’t either – and this could a little more of a grey area for a lot of parents.

I think everyone raises their voice from time to time. I also think you can be stern without yelling or saying emotionally hurtful things. This study shows that harsh discipline doesn’t necessarily make kids act better – and it certainly doesn’t make them feel better. If I feel guilty after I’ve raised my voice to my child – I know I’ve done something wrong. I don’t really raise my voice to anyone – because I don’t feel like that is a civilized, adult way to behave. Why would I model that kind of behavior to my kids?

“Shouting cannot reduce or correct their problem behavior,” said Ming-Te Wang, an assistant professor in the departments of education and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and a co-author of the study. “On the contrary, it makes it worse.”

I’m not saying I’m perfect and I haven’t raised my voice to my children – I’m just saying that maybe I should stop justifying it:  ”Timothy Verduin, clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, who wasn’t involved in the study, said parents can effectively discipline kids by taking away privileges, such as screen time or the car keys.” If there are other options to explore, why resort to treating your kids in a way that you don’t treat anyone else around you?

USA Today quotes Neil Bernstein, author of How to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to Do if You Can’t: ”Extremes of parenting don’t work. The put-down parent is no more effective than the laissez-faire parent who is totally chill and sets no limits on their children’s behavior.”

(photo: Stasique/ Shutterstock)

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  • Marie

    Correlation is not causation… Children of parents who easily fly off the handle also carry their genetic baggage and predisposition to be moody.

    • SusannahJoy

      Yeah that’s what I was thinking too. Although I know I tend to get too angry, too quickly, and this is a good reminder of how dangerous that can be.

    • Marie

      I agree with you. I’m not defending verbal abuse, and the study *might* indicate that it’s causing harm, or that there are mediating factors linking yelling to bad outcomes (possibly genetics). Although the causal link isn’t clear, it’s better playing it safe.

    • Evelyn

      Agreed. There may be other factors involved and the shouting may be a symptom of another parenting problem or the result of a child with already existing behavioural difficulties and a parent who lacks the understanding to cope with them properly. A lot of studies can be ambiguous on cause and effect.

      However, I have known parents who use VERY derogatory language on small children (not even the really bad words but sometimes just the attitude) and I can appreciate that it might cause problems. A playgroup I know of had to call child services to make a report about a parent screaming for an extended period at a 2 year old, one of the mildest insults being “dirty little slut”, because she had wet herself, for example. The tone of it was unpleasant and alarming for the witnesses, never mind the child.

  • blh

    My parents yelled. Really not a big deal. Sometimes that was the only way I’d listen.

    • Véronique Houde

      This is an interesting point. My sister-in-law came to visit with her family and was frustrated because she said that, unless she yelled at her daughter, her daughter wouldn’t listen to her. She would give warnings, ask nicely, bribe, etc, but nothing worked until she got angry and started screaming. At that point, she was name calling her daughter, threatening to leave her, to take away her toys… It was always quite intense and would end in her daughter crying uncontrollably and then have to be calmed down… It’s not my place to tell her what I think unless i’m prompted, which I wasn’t. However, I couldn’t help but observe that, in my nieces mind, my sister-in-law wasn’t serious UNTIL she yelled. My niece knew that that was the sign that she needed to cut it out. Anything before that, she didn’t take seriously. Our children learn from experience when to take us seriously. If we only decide to discipline once we get angry and start screaming, you can bet your money that the child will learn that and continue until that breaking point. The key is most likely to discipline BEFORE you actually get pissed off. Firm voices, time outs, withdrawal from the situation, etc.

    • blh

      You’re probably right. But with me it never got that….intense or whatever. No threatening to leave or crying uncontrollably and all that. I still don’t think raising my voice is going to scar him I’m a person I make mistakes and lose my temper and I hope he’s not that wimpy BC people are going to say and do worse things than yell at him.

    • Véronique Houde

      if you think that not being yelled at leads kids to be whimpy, you’ve got a whole lot of trouble coming for you ;).

    • Kelly

      My parents yelled that I was a stupid fucking bitch nearly every day of my chidlhood. It was a really big deal.

    • Gangle

      There is a huge difference between being yelled out (Hey! What do you think you are doing?!) and being called a stupid fucking bitch (which was really unfair, and I am sorry that happened).

    • blh

      Name calling is different than raising your voice.

    • meteor_echo

      It depends. Sometimes, the difference can actually be marginal. There are ways to insult a kid without name calling, just by being condescending and dismissive, and to do it under the guise of ~tough love~ or discipline.

    • Simone

      Well, for what it’s worth, I bet you’re not. I bet you’re a clever kind person.

    • meteor_echo

      I really hope they’re going to end up in the shittiest nursing home ever. Abusers don’t deserve good treatment.
      And I’m sorry that this happened to you, I had the same kind of parents and it ruined some aspects of my life forever.

  • Tinyfaeri

    There’s a pretty huge difference between raising your voice at your child and verbal abuse. Raising your voice is sometimes necessary to either drive home a point or when something dangerous needs to stop ASAP. The “harsh verbal language” mentioned involves cursing, name calling, berating the teen, calling them stupid, etc – not arguing about the dirty socks all over their room. If you read the whole article, the study doesn’t say all yelling is bad, it says that teens who were verbally abused act… like they were being abused. If you’re being told all the time that you’re f***ing lazy and stupid and should have been dumped at the firestation when you were born every time you get a bad grade or forget to feed the cat, you might act out a bit. Shocking.

    • Aldonza

      Exactly. I sometimes use what I’ve dubbed my “mean teacher” voice which isn’t yelling but is louder, sharper and very very stern sounding. It only gets busted out when something pretty severe is going on, or a behavior that could be harmful and needs to be stopped immediately. It’s definitely not the same thing as cursing out a child.

  • Paul White

    I cna’t help but think the biggest thing with discipline is consistency, more than methodology. Maybe that’s just from my experience with animals, but even the best methods, if not applied consistently, won’t work. And even the worse CAN work to a (very) limited extent if used consistently.

  • Annie

    I have a really clear memory of being yelled at as a kid for doing something really fucktarded and destructive and having an anxiety attack. I actually did the same thing the next day out of anger and an intense need to *get away with it*.

    Children’s emotions are bizarre and intense. They’re learning how to be people and while our admonitions and discipline are something that does definitely influence their behavior, most of that learning is done by our example. Yelling at a kid, then yelling at them if they yell back, for example, is super easy to do but ultimately not the best thing.

  • Muggle

    I think the problem with this study– or, rather, how it’s being presented– is that all yelling is treated as a bad thing. Not that yelling, arguing, and raising one’s voice is wonderful parenting, but the articles I’ve read have made it clear that the problem is with berating the teen.

    So now we have all the pro-spankers only reading the headlines and justifying what’s basically verbal abuse as well.

  • Evelyn

    Oops. Actual verbal abuse, no, but some mornings I must admit that my throat feels a little sore by the time I have herded three children out of the door vaguely on time.

  • allisonjayne

    My parents were amazing parents in so many ways. I really did have a mostly wonderful, happy childhood and was treated with lots of respect by my parents. That’s why it hurt so much when my dad would call me a liar or a bitch. It didn’t happen often, but it did happen, and it hurt so much. One time my mom said I was lying when I said I paid her back some money she lent me. To this day, it still hurts me that that happened, because stealing money from her would have been so completely out of character for me, the fact that her response was to call me a liar about it was just awful to me.
    Conflict is fucking hard. Learning how to work through conflict without wanting to lash out and hurt people (with words) is a constant work in progress for me.

  • Ally

    I had acne as a teenager. My mom somehow saw this as a reflection of her parenting and say things to me about it ALL. THE. TIME. It was always about how disgusting my face looked, why don’t I take better care of myself, even a huge “UGHHH” when she saw my face some mornings.

    The acne went away but just thinking about the things she would say to me still make me angry. My mom has no idea why we just don’t “get along very well”. The effects of her basically telling me I was hideous (throw in a few “bitch”es here and there, threatening to send me to boarding school because she didn’t want to deal with me, among other things) won’t go away easily. This has caused me to leave her out of most things going on in my life.