It’s a sad day in America when we need a study to tell us that yelling at teenagers to discipline them makes them more depressed and their bad behavior worse. Teenagers themselves would have told us the same thing, for a lot less money.
Most parents yell at their kids because they’re frustrated, not because they think it’s a desirable way to communicate. Often they’re feeling helpless to get through to their adolescent son or daughter, to affect their teen. It’s a strange and sad feeling, especially when the choices you see your teen making are lousy ones.
The study also found that the effects of screaming at one’s teenagers were comparable to the effects on kids of physical punishment. That’s a huge finding, but it shouldn’t surprise us. Screaming, not unlike hitting or slapping, is a violation of one of the most fundamental assurances that kids need from their parents, namely, to know their parents cherish them and will take care of them and never intentionally hurt them.
Apparently only a small percentage of parents refrain altogether from using harsh verbal discipline with their children, probably a mix of those who bring to bear more effective (and respectful) ways to guide their kids, and those who have thrown up their hands and abandoned post altogether. Respect, to me at least, is the sine qua non of genuine dialogue, the enzyme that helps kids — and especially teenagers — digest a message that might otherwise be unpalatable, and a major reason why some will listen to certain adults and not others.
It gets a little tricky though, because parents will think they’re being respectful when in fact they’re not. Disrespect is pretty unmistakable, especially when intended, but it can also fly under the radar, muted and shadowy. A kid feels it, and responds in kind, albeit more coarsely to the parent who then wonders where the heck that came from.
Raising teenagers who you enjoy being around and who enjoy being around you involves more than not screaming at them. But few things are as corrosive to a relationship between a parent and child than repeated attempts on the parent’s part to “prompt” good behavior by muscling points across with harsh language or hurtful words. I think if given the opportunity many teenagers would say that, in more situations than not, their seeming defiance or surliness has less to do with wanting to deliberately incite a parent than it does their efforts to save face or preserve a dignity they feel has been threatened. What happens, then, when we are more careful to preserve our children’s dignity along with them while we speak to them? How much more of what we say might they be free to hear?