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A new study published in Child Development shows that "harsh verbal discipline" and "physical discipline" have the same negative impact on children.
According to the study, verbal criticism behaviors, including "yelling, cursing and humiliation" that the researchers found to be common in the families they studied, "increase a child's risk for depression and aggressive behavior." The study examined the parenting styles of 976 Pennsylvania families with 13- and 14-year-olds.
Rather than solving the disciplinary problem, parents' verbal reprimands actually led children to become more depressed and engage in more destructive behavior. The lead author of the study explained, "When you yell, it hurts their self image. It makes them feel they are not capable, that they are worthless and are useless."
The study also looked at whether harsh verbal punishment was mitigated if parents also showed a high level of "parental warmth," meaning "love, emotional support, and affection." The results showed that parental warmth does not offset the effects of harsh words, and children who have mostly supportive parents who only occasionally fly off the handle still experience the same negative effects as those whose parents are more distant. Mandy Velez, "Yelling At Kids Could Be Just As Harmful As Physical Discipline, Study Suggests," huffingtonpost.com (Sep. 6, 2013).
This study indicates that verbally harsh discipline can lead to as many disciplinary and mental health issues as harsh physical discipline. Effective discipline comes from teaching children about appropriate behavior in a composed and constructive manner. Instead of yelling, parents can talk openly and calmly about why a behavior is inappropriate, using "I" language.
One effective method of constructive discipline is to simply ignore the bad behavior. Often, any kind of reaction draws attention to the behavior and actually serves to reinforce it because the child gets attention for the bad behavior. On the other hand, when parents ignore an unwelcome behavior, as long as it does not pose a risk to the child, usually children will stop doing it on their own. Parents can also redirect the child's attention to a more positive activity or remove access to the negative activity from the environment. In addition to ignoring bad behavior, parents should praise good behavior to reinforce it. Also, work with children to help them substitute a positive behavior for a negative one.
It is often difficult for parents to allow a child to struggle, and possibly fail, when faced with a challenge. For instance, if a child does not study for a test or gets into trouble at school, do not try to rescue him or her from the logical consequences of his or her actions. For older children who are perpetually engaging in counterproductive behavior, ask them for their ideas on possible solutions to the problem.
Calm is an infectious state of mind. When a child is out of control, yelling, or hitting, avoid the temptation to react in a similar manner, and instead cultivate composure and respond with a calm, controlled tone of voice. Often, the child will mimic your attitude and begin to calm down as well.
Parents should examine their own actions to see if their child's bad behavior is a reflection of their own or a response to unclear parenting. When talking to a child about inappropriate behavior, be specific about the action that you are disciplining. If children do not fully understand why they are being disciplined, then your actions will not prevent them from engaging in the activity again.
Here are some additional tips from the Suzuki Association of the Americas for constructive discipline:
- Implement "time-out": when your child is out of control, calmly take him or her to a safe and quiet place and explain why the behavior is not appropriate. Then, drop the topic when the time-out is over;
- A gentle touch can be effective in calming down a child;
- If a child does not want to do what you say, give him or her an alternative choice that is also acceptable;
- Consider taking away a privilege that the child enjoys as a consequence of bad behavior;
- Use gentle (non-hostile) humor to diffuse a tense situation with your child;
- Instead of nagging, use non-verbal warning cues to bring attention to repetitive negative behaviors;
- Work with your child to create a short list of rules and consequences and enforce them; revisit them as your child matures;
- Look for the underlying causes of bad behavior and try to address those;
- Remember that certain frustrating behaviors may actually be a healthy and normal part of your child's growing process.
Copyright 2013 - The National Catholic Risk Retention Group, Inc. All rights reserved.