Sticks and stones indeed break bones -- but words can cause real harm to kids, too, a new study says. And bullies in the school yard aren’t the only ones to blame.
"Harsh verbal discipline" on the part of a parent increases a child’s risk for depression and aggressive behavior, and is "not uncommon," according to the research, which was published online earlier this week in Child Development. The disciplinary techniques in question include yelling, cursing and humiliation -- defined as "calling the child dumb, lazy, or something similar."
The study even suggests that verbal reprimands can have the same impact on children as physical punishment: "the negative effects of verbal discipline within the two-year period of [the] study were comparable to the effects shown over the same period of time in other studies that focused on physical discipline," a press release from the University of Pittsburgh, where the study's lead author is an assistant professor, explains.
The study followed 976 Pennsylvania 13- and 14-year-olds and their parents for the 7th and 8th grade years, and found that the depression or poor behavior increased in the children who were exposed to harsh verbal discipline. Instead of serving to remedy the issue, verbal discipline tactics seemed to provoke the unwanted behavior.
"Adolescence is a very sensitive period when [kids] are trying to develop their self-identities," study leader Ming-Te Wang told the Wall Street Journal. "When you yell, it hurts their self image. It makes them feel they are not capable, that they are worthless and are useless."
Wang added to NPR that the study was "a reminder to [parents] that we need to stay calm," going on to recommend "two-way interventions for parents and kids."
Neil Bernstein, author of How to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to Do if You Can't, agreed with the study's implications, he told USA TODAY, arguing: "Extremes of parenting don't work. The put-down parent is no more effective than the laissez-faire parent who is totally chill and sets no limits on their children's behavior."
The study's authors explored more than the effects of harshness alone; they also measured whether “parental warmth," or the degree of love, emotional support and affection between parents and adolescents, counteracted the effects of verbal discipline -- and concluded it does not.
“Even lapsing only occasionally into the use of harsh verbal discipline can still be harmful,” Wang said in the study's press release. “Even if you are supportive of your child, if you fly off the handle it’s still bad.”
"Harsh verbal discipline deserves greater attention in both research and practice," the researchers conclude in the study's Discussion. "The majority of research conducted on harsh discipline has focused on physical discipline in early childhood. However, given that parents tend to resort to verbal discipline as their children mature (Sheehan & Watson, 2008), it is important that researchers and parents are aware that harsh verbal discipline is ineffective at reducing conduct problems and, in fact, leads to increased adolescent conduct problems and depressive symptoms."