How do we assess the harm of yelling at your kids? Part 1

To hear Slate tell it, even fairly normal parent-child interactions (involving a raised voice) can allegedly cause serious mental health problems for kids. The Slate review of an academic study provided the following takeaways:

1) yelling and bratty behavior reinforced each other, 2) yelling increased the likelihood that a child would become depressed, and 3) even kids in homes that were otherwise “warm and loving” were not immune to a raised voice’s damaging effects.

The first issue is that the Slate review mischaracterized the findings.

  • The study isn’t about yelling at your kids – in the sense of just raising your voice – but rather is about “harsh verbal discipline,” a form of aggressive parental behavior.
  • When it comes to kids, the study isn’t talking about their “bratty behavior,” but rather “vandalism or antisocial and aggressive behavior,” which sounds more serious.
  • Finally the study isn’t looking at all “kids” but rather just adolescents, which seems like an important detail.

Slate also missed a nuance here, one the authors of the original study try to gloss over as well. The results are “bidirectional“:

the authors showed that harsh verbal discipline occurred more frequently in instances in which the child exhibited problem behaviors, and these same problem behaviors, in turn, were more likely to continue when adolescents received verbal discipline.

So the authors are essentially admitting that their data can’t answer the chicken-egg question – do adolescents misbehave because parents yell, or do parents yell because adolescents misbehave? And do adolescents really misbehave less if parents stop yelling, or do parents stop yelling because adolescents get their act together?

The study also did not attempt to isolate genetic factors in agressive behavior shared by parents (using “harsh verbal discipline”) and the adolescents who act out. That seems like a glaring shortcoming. It would be interesting to know if there is less of a correlation between harsh verbal discipline and agressive adolescent behavior in families where at least one child was adopted, for instance.*

We live in a time when minor variations in parenting style are believed to have massive effects on how kids turn-out. But there is little evidence to support this belief, and this study contributes more data on associations between the behaviors of parents and children without saying anything convincing about what causes what.#

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