It’s hard to discipline children. You can’t hit them. Timeouts are not effective. Now, a study out of the University of Pittsburgh says yelling at teens and tweens — particularly when it involves cursing or insults — can be just as harmful as hitting. So what can you do?
Remember that the word “discipline” originally meant to teach, so look for opportunities to coach your child, not just punish him or her for a misstep.
“Discipline implies setting limits and boundaries,” said Vicki Hoefle, mother of six in Middlebury, Vt., and author of “Duct Tape Parenting.”
“But the way we do it is, ‘I’m going to punish you when you do something I don’t like.’ It’s a completely wasted moment.”
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The University of Pittsburgh study released in September looked at 967 middle-school students over a two-year period. Those whose parents used “harsh verbal discipline” such as yelling, cursing and using insults were more likely to be depressed or have behavior problems. The study found it was also not effective in getting children to stop what they were doing, and that it was damaging even to children in homes that were generally warm and loving.
“If you yell at your child, you either create somebody who yells back at you or somebody who is shamed and retreats,” said Meghan Leahy, a mother of three and a parenting coach in Washington, D.C. “You’re either growing aggression or growing shame. Those are not characteristics that any parents want in their kids.”
Here are suggestions from parenting experts on how to keep behavioral problems from turning you into a screaming lunatic:
• Take a break: Sometimes you are better off pushing the pause button and revisiting the problem in 20 minutes or the next morning.
When Hoefle’s children, now ages 19 to 24, were younger and she felt herself losing her temper, she would put a hard candy in her mouth or look at a sweet picture of her child. That was often enough to make her consider her response more carefully.
• Put a stop to recurring arguments: Figure out when and why you’re most often losing your temper, Hoefle said.
Do you yell at your son every morning because he’s dawdling in the shower when you are trying to get everyone out the door on time? Then talk to him about what you can do to make things go more smoothly.
Come up with a strategy that attacks the root of the problem, whether it’s using a timer to remind him when he needs to get out of the shower, or having him take one the night before. If you involve your children in creating plans, Hoefle said, they are more likely to participate.
• Be clear and consistent with expectations: Kids want and crave limits and structure, so it’s important to set boundaries and stick to them, according to Deborah Sendek, program director for the Center for Effective Discipline (CED).
• Give them a say: The best way to get your children to buy into consequences is to involve the kids in creating them, said Jennifer Powell-Lunder, creator of the Web forums It’s a Tween’s Life and Talking Teenage.
You might think they won’t take it seriously, and will suggest something along the lines of no broccoli for a week. More often than not, though, children are harder on themselves than you would be, Powell-Lunder said. Work together to figure out the most appropriate consequences for different rule violations.
• Monitor your tone: When you yell, Sendek said, your child will not remember what you said. Kids will only remember that you yelled and how upsetting that was.
“It’s a physiological response,” Sendek said. “When someone yells, your system goes on hyper-alert.”
Instead of yelling, Sendek said, use a stern tone of voice to get your child’s attention and let him or her know that what you are saying is important. Get face to face and make eye contact.
• Stop arguing and reconnect: Take time out from whatever is angering you and spend time reading or playing a game with your child to reconnect, Leahy said.
In Hoefle’s house they called this policy “Stop. Apologize. Eat ice cream.”
“I would go into the freezer and get little tubs of sherbet, give everyone a spoon, and we would all take a bite and regroup,” Hoefle said. “Whatever is happening is not as important as the fact that we are family. When we come home tonight we can talk about the problem.”
• Model good behavior by apologizing for yelling: Even the most patient parents yell occasionally. If you do yell, the best thing to do is acknowledge the mistake, Leahy said.
“There’s nothing wrong with saying you’re sorry, ever,” Leahy said. “It doesn’t mean she’ll get what she wants, but it opens the door to communication, which is all I want to do.”