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How Not To Yell At Your Teen — And What To Do Instead

By Barbara Greenberg PhD

teen disciplineThere isn’t a parent around who hasn’t lost it with his or her teen, gotten frustrated and screamed and yelled and later regretted it. It’s normal.  Parents are human and sometimes lose their cool. If this happens occasionally there is nothing to worry about.

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But frequent and constant use of harsh and critical verbal discipline — and aggression — toward teens is not only ineffective but may lead to the opposite of the desired effects, including increased behavioral problems. That’s the finding of a recent study published online in the journal Child Development and conducted by Ming-Te Wang and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh. Even more concerning: Frequent shouting, screaming and insulting behavior toward teens may put them at increased risk for depression. In the study, 13-year-old teens who were on the receiving end of aggressive verbal discipline were more likely than peers who were not subject to this behavior to develop symptoms of depression at age 14.

This is certainly not a surprise. Being put down, criticized and yelled at has never, in my experience and to my knowledge, made anyone feel good at any age. Since we are talking about teens, though, let’s discuss what types of discipline are effective because teens require nurturing and limits to develop into the best possible individuals they can be.

Here are five steps toward a more effective approach:

1. Develop a clear set of rules and consequences for your teen.

Have your child involved in the process of developing these expectations. Teens are more likely to follow a plan that they literally had a hand in developing.

2. Model positive behaviors for your teens.

Although this is not technically a form of discipline, observational learning is the most effective method of teaching positive behaviors. You are your teens’ best teachers. If you act calmly and model pro-social rather than aggressive and rule-breaking behaviors, your teens are likely to follow suit.

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3. Make sure that the consequence fits the crime.

Specifically, tie the consequence to the type of behavior that was problematic so that your teen understands the connection. So if your teen comes home late you may want to ground her/him for a weekend but not for six months.

4. Give your teens the opportunity to do “repair work.”

If they do something wrong give them a chance to set things right. If they are mean to someone then perhaps the consequence should be writing an apology letter and following up by doing something nice for that person.

and, most importantly,

5. Praise your kids for good behavior.

Discipline involves not only consequences for problematic behavior. We all want to be praised. Love, nurturing and positive feedback go a long way.

The takeaway message here is that verbal abuse is as harmful as physical abuse and that the old adage “sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never harm me ” is simply not true and has never been backed up anecdotally or by any solid research. Verbal abuse should not be used as a regular form of discipline and your teens should learn effective ways of dealing with it when their peers are engaging in it. Good luck!

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Barbara Greenberg Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with adolescents and their parents. You can see more of her work on her website.

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About this author

Barbara Greenberg PhD

Dr. Barbara Greenberg, is a teen, adolescent, child & family psychologist and is licensed in Connecticut and New York. After 21 years of running an inpatient adolescent unit at a private psychiatric hospital in New York she moved on to private practice, consulting work, writing and media. She is the... more >>