Last week, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Michigan released the results of a study that showed that yelling at teens actually aggravated problematic behavior rather than extinguishing it. Likewise, teens who were consistently yelled at had higher incidences of depression, school problems, lying, stealing and fighting than kids who did not experience “harsh verbal punishment.”
Researchers also found that the more parents yelled, the more they felt they needed to yell as the problem behaviors increased creating a vicious cycle of yelling begetting bad behavior which begat more yelling. Most interestingly, the researchers also found that a strong parent-child bond did not protect children or parents from the negative consequences of yelling that I listed above.
In my experience, parents who yell often feel powerless. They tend to threaten and have a less effective approach to applying consequences. Often these parents will lift consequences once they no longer feel angry instead of letting the consequence stay in place until the child has demonstrated not just a change in immediate behavior, but a change of heart. Here are 5 things parents can do that are more effective than yelling.
1. Collect the child
When teen commits an offense, it is often because they have fallen out of rapport with you. The result is that they either stop caring about offending you or fail, for some reason, to seek your advice before acting. The first step in disciplining a child of any age–especially adolescence–is “collecting” him or her. That is, quietly saying, “Come here. Let’s talk.” Followed by some display of physical affection. Collecting the teen puts him or her in a place where he or she is now willing to hear what you are saying instead of simply reacting defensively to every word that comes out of your mouth. It can be hard to remember to collect your teen when you’re angry, but this simple stpe can spell the difference between a compliant cooperative teen and WWIII. Your choice.
2. Seek to Understand.
Now that you’ve collected your child and he or she is more receptive to your guidance, seek to understand what your son or daughter was thinking when he or she committed the offense. Don’t interrogate. Ask, honestly and gently, with a sincere desire to understand your son or daughter’s intention. Questions like, “What made you decide to do that?” “What did you hope would happen when you decided to X?” “What message were you trying to send?” “What were you trying to accomplish by choosing Y?” are good places to start. Don’t accept, “I don’t know” as an answer. Take a break if you need to, but let your child know that you deserve real answers that will enable you to help him or her do better next time. And don’t let your kid off the hook until you get those answers. (As an aside, if your teen consistently refuses to answer your questions or stalls interminably with “I don’t know.” That’s a clear sign counseling is probably indicated).
Now that you know the intention behind your teen’s behavior, it’s time to come up with other ways your child could meet that need.
*Was the intention behind your teen’s disrespect a flawed attempt at telling you she was angry? What words should she use next time to convey her message?
*Did your son miss curfew because he lost track of time? Perhaps he needs to set his phone alarm in front of you before he goes out for the next few weeks to demonstrate that he will remember when he needs to go.
The goal of discipline is not so much punishment as it is to give the child the guidance, tools, and support he or she needs to succeed next time and the time after that. Whenever possible, treat misbehavior as a learning experience more than a failure of character. If you can go into disciplining your teen with the attitude that it is your job to figure out how to improve future compliance as opposed to merely demonstrating your frustration with them, you will be on the right track.
4. Apply Consequences Appropriately.
Additional consequences are not always necessary but when they are, make sure they are not time-limited but behavior-limited. For instance grounding a teen “for a week” usually means that the teen will wait out his week and then return to business as usual–bad behavior included. That’s a waste of time and energy.
Instead, tell your son, “Because you came home late again, even after we talked about setting your phone alarm, you are grounded for at least a week. During that time you will show me that you are able to remember what I ask of you by doing chores without being reminded. We will review your progress at the end of the week. If you have been consistently thoughtful and attentive to our expectations, you will be released from grounding. If not, you will be given another week of grounding to continue practicing being thoughtful and attentive. And so on, and so on, until I see that you are trustworthy.”
See the difference? With the latter arrangement, the teen’s behavioral change and change of heart is the key to his freedom, not the mere passage of time.
5. Revisit and Revise the Plan as Necessary.
Adolescence is complicated. New situations arise all the time that make old solutions obsolete. If a plan you developed with your teen stops working, don’t get exasperated. Repeat the steps above and develop a new plan that take into account the changed circumstances. Teens will behave if they know that 1) you are committed to helping them succeed and 2) you are committed to helping them get whatever they think they need in the most godly and efficient way possible. By contrast teens will misbehave when they feel like they can’t win and/or if they see you as an obstacle to getting their needs met. Using the steps I’ve outlined here works better than yelling because it gets you and your kid on the same side of solving the problem and has you working together to develop a plan for future success instead of competing to see who can make the other more miserable.
For more ideas on how to raise godly teens, check out Parenting with Grace: A Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids. (2nd Ed. revised and expanded) or, if you need some personal support to help you get your relationship with your teens in order, contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s Tele-Counseling Practice to work with a faithful Catholic therapist who can get your family life back on track.