It's generally agreed upon in modern cultures that hitting children, even as punishment, is bad. The effects of physical abuse on children have been well-documented in recent decades. Now, it appears that another classic parenting technique is coming under fire.
A new study published this week in the journal Child Development has shown that verbal discipline can also harm children. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that yelling at, cursing at, or insulting adolescents can actually have the opposite effects that parents intend. Children who experienced "harsh verbal discipline" were found to have increased behavioral issues (defined as vandalism, being more antisocial, or acting aggressively), as well as increased depressive symptoms.
"It's a vicious circle," said Ming-Te Wang, lead author of the study and a psychology education professor at Pittsburgh. "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."
The study followed 967 middle school children and their parents in eastern Pennsylvania for two years. Surveys given to both the parents and children asked participants about their health, parenting styles, and relationships. Most of the families in the study were determined to be middle-class.
The results were so stark that Wang and her colleagues stated the effects were comparable to those seen from physical discipline. They believe the long-term consequences of verbal discipline are also similar to those seen in children who are physically disciplined. The team also found that a close emotional relationship between parents and children did not lessen the impact of harsh verbal discipline.
"Even if you are supportive of your child, if you fly off the handle it's still bad," said Wang.