Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Wait, Yelling Hurts Kids?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. OK, so let's confess. If you're a parent, at some point you probably got so frustrated with your kids you wanted to scream and you did. Maybe as recently as, say, this morning when certain people ignored the fact that you reminded them for the 15th time that they can't wear Heelys to school. I'm just saying, you know, hypothetically. And you maybe you congratulated yourself that you've evolved beyond hitting the way your parents did. But now there's a new study from the University of Pittsburgh. It suggests that making a habit of yelling at kids - the study calls it, harsh, verbal discipline - can backfire. That children who are screamed at are more likely to suffer from depression or behavioral issues, and in severe cases, they can have problems similar to those seen in children who are hit. So we wanted to talk more about this, as you might imagined.

I'm joined now by Mari-Jane William. She wrote about the study for the Washington Post where she writes about parenting issues. She's a mom of two. Lester Spence is a father of five and associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. Jolene Ivey is another of our regular parenting contributors. She's a mom of five boys and a Maryland state lawmaker and cofounder of a parenting support group. Welcome to you all.

JOLENE IVEY: Hey, Michel.

MARTIN: Thank you all so much for joining us.

LESTER SPENCE: Thanks for having me.

MARI-JANE WILLIAMS: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So I do want to mention that the study is online and will be published in the journal called Child Development. We know you like to hear from authors directly, but the author Ming-Te-Wang at University of Pittsburgh and his co-author Sarah Kenny of the University of Michigan were not available. But Mari-Jane, you've dug into the study closely, what struck you?

WILLIAMS: Well, they followed almost one thousand, 13 and 14-year-olds from middle-class families in eastern Pennsylvania from 10 different public middles schools over the course of two years. And they found that those teens who experienced harsh, verbal discipline - by which they included screaming, yelling, but also cursing and insults - that they were more likely to show signs of depression and exhibit problem behaviors, such as vandalism or aggression in the long term.

MARTIN: And what struck me also about it is that this was a diverse group. And I do want to mention, these were all two-parent families. So if anybody's got that stereotype out here of overstressed single mom, put that to the side. These were all two-parent families, and it was a very diverse group...


MARTIN: ...Racially and ethnically. I just sort of want to point that out. Why do they think that is? They have a hypothesis about why that is?

WILLIAMS: They just think, well, there's a certain cyclical nature involved because kids who behave poorly and are aggressive or depressed or using improper behavior are more likely to have parents who are yelling and screaming at them. But they also think that that also perpetuates the behavior when you yell and scream, that that's just not an effective way to deal with problem behaviors in kids.

MARTIN: It doesn't work.


MARTIN: It doesn't work.


MARTIN: It doesn't correct the behavior. Now, Lester, you know, we know you as Mr. Chill. So I might have hypothetically confessed earlier, so maybe it's your turn. So do you ever find yourself yelling? And if so, why and what do you think about it?

SPENCE: Well, first, I want to chime in. So I actually read the article, and it's important to note for the listeners that it's not just yelling, screaming or calling your kids by another name than what you gave them. It's doing it every time, right? So whether - the question asked, within the past year, how often have you used these various tactics? So when you're talking about harsh discipline, you're talking about people who use these tactics every single time a kid does something wrong. Right?

MARTIN: So you think it's constancy? You think it's constancy. Is that what you're saying?

SPENCE: Yeah, it's persistent.

MARTIN: It's persistent.

SPENCE: Yes, it's persistent. Right. That's really the thing - the take away. So do I do that persistently? No, I've never cursed at my kids. I've never insulted them at all. I yell at them, but I only yell at them situationally.

MARTIN: OK. Does that situation occur every day, is the question.

SPENCE: There you go. It didn't occur today, knock on wood.

MARTIN: Jolene, you found yourself agreeing with the notion that yelling can actually be worse than spanking because you can imagine that there are a lot of people who don't agree with that at all. We reached out on Twitter and Facebook, and, you know, a number of people said there's no way yelling can be as bad as hitting. It's not great parenting, but we're not patient saints. We're just people. And in fact, the study does point out that yelling is a lot more common than hitting is. But why do you think it can be worse than spanking?

IVEY: I think that it sticks with you a lot longer. When somebody says something to that's hurtful, you remember it. You might remember it 50 years later. But if you just got your average spanking that your average parent might swat your legs, you probably don't remember it tomorrow. It's not going to stick with you. But something that's - and we're really talking about cases where the people, or the parents are really kind of abusive - verbally abusive. That's just - it's so damaging.

MARTIN: Well, what's the difference? I mean, some people would argue that...

IVEY: Screaming, hey, stop that, is not abuse. But yelling at your kids saying that they're a jerk, that, you know, that you don't like them, that they're bad people - those kinds of things are really damaging. And I really think that your relationship with your children or anyone you love, it's like and emotional bank account that you put good things in so that over time, all the love and hugs and kisses and warm things that go into it, you've got something to draw on.

So when you are having a disagreement, you've got something there. If you yell and are abusive to your kids in that way, that emotional bank account just gets depleted real fast. And that's, I think, what leads to the kids who are just generally behavior problems.

MARTIN: Mari-Jane, what about that? Did the study find that, what they call, high maternal warm or paternal warmth, for that matter, mediates the effect of yelling? 'Cause you could see where some people are both big huggers and also big yellers. They find that one counteracts the other or not?

WILLIAMS: That was actually what I thought was one of the most interesting things about the study. They found that parental warmth, in most situations, did not mitigate the yelling and the screaming because that unpredictability and that sudden burst of anger that no matter how loving and warm your relationship is generally, that the yelling and the screaming and the verbal discipline can still cause problems.

MARTIN: Does the study draw a distinction between hot yelling and high-volume screaming, let's say, and saying mean things? 'Cause there's a difference between, hey, get over here and you're an idiot and stuff like that. Or is there a difference between calling - you know, using mean - saying humiliating and demeaning things and the volume itself?

WILLIAMS: No. In the study they defined harsh verbal discipline as yelling and screaming, also insults and name-calling and things like that. So they didn't really distinguish among those things.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, our parenting panel is talking about a new study out of the University of Pittsburgh. It's being published in the journal Child Development. It says that yelling, harsh verbal discipline, can be as damaging to children as spanking is. And the study looked at a group of almost a thousand - a diverse group of almost a thousand adolescents, like 12, 13 - teens and tweens, let's say, and looked at the effects over time. And it was a diverse study - racially diverse study, all two-parent families - all two-parent families. Mari-Jane, this says that it doesn't work?

WILLIAMS: Well, no, apparently it doesn't. And when I was talking to parenting experts for my story to find out why it doesn't work, they sort of used the example of how you respond to yelling as an adult. If you went in to work every single day and your boss was screaming at you all the time, you wouldn't be motivated to succeed or do the right thing. And also, that if you're yelling at your child, they're not necessarily hearing what you're saying. All they take away from it is that you yelled and you were angry, but they don't get the message that you're trying to convey. So that it's better to use a tone of voice that says, I mean business, than to just scream and lose your temper.

MARTIN: Lester, you wanted to say something?

SPENCE: Well, I would say - I would change that a bit, again, and emphasize the persistence. So I would think that situationally - well, there's never really an excuse for calling a kid out of his name - but I'd say, I would emphasize, situationally, there may very well be times where you use your voice. And actually, situationally there may actually be times where cursing works. But if you do any of that stuff persistently - and that parental relationship is so important because your kids, unlike the employer relationship, your kids actually look to you for love, protection and affirmation and correction, as well, but they look for you for all that stuff.

MARTIN: I'm trying to process the whole situation where cursing works.

IVEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Not that I want you to do it right now, but I'm just saying, like, what are you talking about?

SPENCE: Well, well, I mean, there are - so there are instances - well, I mean, I'm talking, I've never done it.

IVEY: Let's hope not.

SPENCE: But I just can remember when it was done to me. Yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah, OK. Give an example.

SPENCE: There were times when it was done to me where it emphasized how important it was that I act correct, right. So if you think yelling is one level, like, OK, man, I must really be doing something wrong. Cursing represents another level, right. So I remember - and I'm not trying to put my mom out there - the one time my mom cursed at me in her whole life, and she's still alive, I remember that clearly and I did something so far beyond the pale, it wasn't funny. So I think in a circumstance like that, it could be used. But again, if it's persistent, if every time, whether you break a vase or are late two minutes, if every time you do it, it's just a bad look.

MARTIN: Jolene?

IVEY: Well, you should never curse at your children. I don't believe that that's ever a good idea. But I do understand there being variations of, you know, you being firm with your kids. And the more that you can keep everything to kind of a normal level of your voice and how you treat them, then it's not going to be necessary to get to the cursing level. So it should never get there.

MARTIN: You were telling us there was a time when you encountered a woman screaming at a baby. It was so upsetting that you had to intervene.

IVEY: It was so awful.

MARTIN: Could you just tell us about that?

IVEY: Yeah. She had a baby, like an arms baby, not like a...

MARTIN: Toddler?

IVEY: Not a toddler, a baby who could not walk. And she had the baby in her arms. The baby's screaming its head off. She's screaming at the kid and hitting him - hitting the kid and screaming at the kid to stop crying. Well, we all know how much sense that makes, right. And other people were around, it was in public, and nobody stopped her. But as soon as I saw it going on, I ran over to her and I was like, hey, what are you doing? Stop that. You can't hit him. If you treat him like this, you think he's going to respect you when he grows up? What's your problem? Give me that baby. If you don't want that baby, I got a car seat in my car right now. I will take that baby from you. And she decided maybe I was just a wee bit crazier than she was. I only...

MARTIN: Did she stop?

IVEY: She did stop. She cursed me out, but she stopped. I regretted that I didn't go find a cop and report her because I'm sure that poor baby - if she'll do that in public, god knows where that child is today.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting that the study makes the point that this is so common. That there is many studies evaluating the effects of corporal punishment of hitting children, but there are very few studies evaluating the effects of, what the study calls, harsh verbal discipline - or harsh verbal punishment - screaming at children - even though it's actually much more common.

As we've discussed on the program, there are some countries that actually outlaw hitting children, and there are public service campaigns against it. They take it very, very seriously. But screaming and yelling is not something that has really been kind of studied or thought about or talked about. So, Mari-Jane, help us out here. If you can't hit and you can't scream, what should you do?

WILLIAMS: Well, that's when I pitched this story to my editor, that's exactly what I said, what am I supposed to do? But I think the answer isn't to just sit back and let your kids run all over you. The answer is to have very strict boundaries of what's acceptable behavior that you discuss with them under calm circumstances, and then have clear consequences for breaching those boundaries and enforce them every single time and be consistent, which is hard. It's not always easy to be consistent.

MARTIN: Yeah, because again, people say things like, you should never hit your children in anger. Well, if weren't angry, why would you be hitting your kid?


MARTIN: I just always find that advice, like, so lame. Like, oh, never react in anger. Really?

IVEY: And there's something so bloodless, too.


IVEY: There's something wrong about hitting your kid when you're not angry.

MARTIN: Yeah, that doesn't make sense.

IVEY: I think it's important to be angry at the moment you spank your kid, but you better - really, you shouldn't be doing it.


IVEY: I admit it, you shouldn't be doing it. But if you do do it, just swat them on the legs and do it when you're pissed. Don't wait.

MARTIN: I'm not endorsing this. I'm just saying on behalf of my colleagues, I am not endorsing swatting. I'm just saying.

IVEY: Don't wait and say, wait 'til your dad gets home. Forget that, man. Deal with it immediately.

MARTIN: On behalf of my colleagues at NPR, we are not endorsing swatting. I'm just letting you...

IVEY: Me either, but it does happen.

MARTIN: But one of the tips that I found in your column that I found useful was to have a lot of baby pictures around.

IVEY: Right.

MARTIN: Because honestly, I know that sounds crazy, but if you think of your little baby as a baby and not as, like, the annoying smelly person that he has become, then that actually kind of takes you to a different place. You also had a suggestion of, pop a hard candy in your mouth...


MARTIN: ...To keep your mouth shut for a minute.


MARTIN: That's interesting. How'd you come up with that one? That was an interesting idea.

WILLIAMS: Well, that was the suggestion from author Vicki Hoefle who wrote the book "Duct Tape Parenting," and she said that it was enough to give her 10 seconds - I've got this candy in my mouth. I'm going to suck on the candy and I'm not going to talk until I'm calm enough to address this behavior without being insulting or losing my temper.

MARTIN: The bottom line seems to be take a break.


MARTIN: Take a break.


MARTIN: You know, back off for a minute.

IVEY: And, you know, my favorite suggestion from the article, really, was when you're having a disagreement with your kid and you're going to kill him, it says stop, apologize and eat ice cream. I love that. And I wish I had known that a few months ago when I wanted to kill one of my kids. If I could've just stopped at the moment, brought us to, you know, hey, let's take a moment. Let's have a little ice cream.

MARTIN: Do you really think - I mean, I think some people would argue that sends the wrong message. If you're in a situation where you're correcting misbehavior, do you really want to send the message of validating somebody by offering a treat. Is that really a...

IVEY: I think that the ice cream isn't so much a treat, but it's cold and you can't eat it fast, and it gives you a moment just to stop and do something pleasant together. And then you can regroup and go back and deal with the issue. So I haven't tried it yet, but it looks like a good idea. I would like to try it. Well, I would like to not to need to try it.

MARTIN: Well, that's true. Yeah, that's everybody. Other suggestions? Other suggestions? Lester, do you have another suggestion about what you do to sort of regain control of a situation when you feel it's getting out of control?

SPENCE: You know, I think the suggestions that they've already posed are really, really good. It's just really - so what I just try to do is, I try to remember how I was parented and I just try to apply what I use in the classroom - just try to be open. I do try to be firm. And then - and understand that kids make mistakes. You know, Lord knows I made them.

MARTIN: Mari-Jane, final thought from you?

WILLIAMS: I just think that taking a break and picking your battles and just figuring out what's really important to you and only trying to enforce the things that are really going to be, you know, long-term, character-building, life-threatening issues. And, you know, my child has a habit of running late for school because he's playing with the cat, and I have to learn to let that go, you know, and focus on, is he doing what he's supposed to be doing and making the right choices during the day as far as personal safety and things like that. I think that's probably the message that I took away from this story.

MARTIN: Or give away the cat.

WILLIAMS: That might work, too.

MARTIN: That one might be really harsh.


MARTIN: That could be really harsh. Mari-Jane Williams covers parenting and family issues for the Washington Post. She's a mom of two. She was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio, along with Jolene Ivey, one of our regular parenting contributors - mom of five boys, Maryland state lawmaker and cofounder of a parenting support group. Lester Spence is an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and a father of five, with us from Baltimore. Thank you all so much.

IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

WILLIAMS: Thanks, Michel.

SPENCE: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.