It’s no secret that raising a child can be stressful. Yet, how parents handle it is crucial. Have you ever yelled at your child? Have you told him he’s dumb or useless? Maybe you’ve threatened to hit him. How about vowing to send him packing—perhaps to a home for wayward youth or to no place in particular?
If you’ve vented your anger in such ways, you’re not alone. A study of almost 1,000 parents showed that nearly all of them had used what the authors called “psychological aggression” to discipline children by the time they were 5 years old. This term includes a wide range of actions such as yelling and screaming, cursing and swearing, name calling, and threats of spanking.1
Nine in 10 parents said they had used such methods on children aged 2 or younger.2 Parents who spank their children tend to keep it up as the kids get older. Other research showed that more than half of youths in their early teens who were spanked as young children were still being spanked an average of eight times a year.3
Parents were psychologically aggressive toward their kids 22 times a year on average. As you might expect, yelling was the most common form of such discipline. Three in four parents said they had “shouted, yelled, or screamed” at their children in the past year. However, many parents used more severe methods:
* In the past year, one in two parents had threatened a spanking.
* One in three had used tactics like calling their kids “lazy” or “ dumb,” swearing at them, or threatening to send them away.
* One in four had “sworn or cursed” at their children.4
Older children and teens were most likely to receive the more severe forms of discipline such as cursing, name calling, and threats of being kicked out of the house.5
Okay, so parents can go too far with discipline. But isn’t it okay to yell once in a while? Is it really so bad to sternly promise a spanking if a child won’t follow the rules? After all, don’t these methods send a clear and direct message about poor conduct?
The study’s lead author, Dr. Murray A. Straus of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, NH believes that it depends on how, and how often, hard-line discipline is used. The impact of screaming, cursing, or threats most likely depends on how often parents resort to these methods. Another part of the picture is whether parents condemn the child’s actions rather than putting down the child herself. Effects tend to vary based on how sensitive a child is.6
Children who have been treated too harshly may become insecure, destructive, angry, or withdrawn. Later in life, they may have troubled relationships or put themselves at risk of harm.7
Still, it’s not a matter of “How much is too much?” The key question is “Why do it at all?” According to Dr. Straus, harsh discipline simply isn’t needed. He urges parents to rely on other methods such as talking with the child. He notes that steady discipline is what gets children’s attention.8
So, stick with the true meaning of discipline—to teach. Be positive and create a warm and caring climate. Provide a good example by acting calmly, using manners, and showing respect and understanding. Set fair rules and consequences and give your child the freedom that’s right for his age. Instead of yelling, praise and reward good conduct and things done well. Be flexible and, especially with older children, listen, negotiate, and involve them in decisionmaking.9
1 Straus, Murray A., and Carolyn J. Field. November 2003. Psychological Aggression by American Parents: National Data on Prevalence, Chronicity, and Severity. Journal of Marriage and Family 65: 795-808
3 American Academy of Pediatrics. Guidance for Effective Discipline, last referenced 2/17/04.
4 Straus, Murray A., and Carolyn J. Field. November 2003. Psychological Aggression by American Parents: National Data on Prevalence, Chronicity, and Severity. Journal of Marriage and Family 65: 795-808
7 National Exchange Club Foundation. Emotional Abuse, last referenced 2/17/04.
9 American Humane Association. No Hitting: Abandoning Corporal Punishment for Better Forms of Discipline, last referenced 2/17/04.
* American Academy of Pediatrics: Just The Facts: Effective Discipline
* Child Trends: Building a Better Teenager: A Summary of “What Works” in Adolescent Development
* North Carolina Cooperative Extension: Appropriate Limits for Young Children II
* Office of National Drug Control Policy: Parenting Skills: 21 Tips & Ideas To Help You Make a Difference