The XX Factor

Stop YELLING AT YOUR KIDS. It’s Bad for Them.

Unhinged mother. Familiar?

Photo by artproem/Shutterstock

The word discipline comes from a Latin noun that means “teaching” and an Old French one that means “suffering” or “martyrdom.” The three words live in a mostly harmonious linguistic family, but they also occasionally yell at one another. How could they not? Because while discipline is supposed to be about education, it’s often more about punishment—a punishment to produce adult catharsis.

How should you discipline your infuriating spawn when conflict arises? NOT BY YELLING. A study out in the September issue of the Journal of Child Psychology suggests that yelling is really bad for spawn. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh found that “harsh verbal discipline”—cursing, insults, and shouting—can be as harmful to kids as hitting or spanking. The scientists tracked 967 middle-schoolers for two years. The students attended 10 public schools in eastern Pennsylvania and came from middle-class families that were not considered “high risk.” Sifting through surveys these kids and their families completed on “their mental health, child-rearing practices, the quality of the parent-child relationship and general demographics,” researchers concluded that 1) yelling and bratty behavior reinforced each other, 2) yelling increased the likelihood that a child would become depressed, and 3) even kids in homes that were otherwise “warm and loving” were not immune to a raised voice’s damaging effects.

As many commenters have already pointed out, this leaves parents’ hands even more tied than they were already. No spanking. Timeouts don’t really work. Bribery is wrong. Death-stares, displaying no reaction, walking away, distraction, and gentle explanation of wrongdoing are all suboptimal. Now yelling is off the table, too. According to Alan E. Kazdin, author of The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child, the only real option is to coolly rescind a privilege according to a plan you have already discussed with your demon offspring—and then to disengage. (Or perhaps to resign yourself to the fact that your children will forever be maladjusted feral animals.)

But what’s wrong with yelling, exactly? “If you yell at your child, you either create somebody who yells back at you or somebody who is shamed and retreats,” Meghan Leahy, a mother of three and a local parenting coach, told the Washington Post. “You’re either growing aggression or growing shame. Those are not characteristics that any parents want in their kids.” When I asked my co-workers, a few said their parents bellowed at them all the time and that they were “probably scarred” (although one speculated that the screamfests “were more emotionally taxing for my dad than they were for me”). A second colleague remembered her father yelling at her to stop crying: “Not terribly productive. Also unnecessary … because I used to send myself to my room if I thought I’d done something bad.” As for the parents, though many knew that apoplexy is less a childrearing technique than a health condition, they said they couldn’t help shouting anyway (and feeling awful about it afterwards). Their kids, they explained, were “FUCKING MADDENING” and “don’t respond to reason (although they don’t respond to yelling either).”

Other colleagues pulled back the curtain on their personal shouty tactics: One dad tries to “use it [a raised voice] sparingly because then it has the greatest effect.” A mom admitted she sometimes needs to “yell to be heard,” but never launches “insults or mean things.” Finally, one wise mom told me that she doesn’t scream at all, but rather subscribes to “Marge Simpson Philosophy of Parenting.”

Lisa Simpson: But I’m so angry.
Marge Simpson: You’re a woman. You can hold on to it forever

Though it may help parents vent frustration in the short term, no one wants to yell at their kids. For those who can’t help themselves, this study is more likely to advance a pre-existing guilt complex than mend their volcanic ways. What are your tactics for avoiding screaming at your heinously ill-behaved progeny? Shout at us in the comments (not really—normal casing is fine), and we’ll publish the best recommendations on Friday.