How do we assess the harm of yelling at your kids? Part 2

Last week we took a look at a report in Slate on a new academic study on the relationship between parental yelling and adolescent misbehavior.

One finding of the study was a correlation between “harsh verbal discipline” from  parents and depression in adolescents. The authors of the study, and the Slate reviewer, suggest that the former causes the latter.

But why?

While conventional belief holds that depression can be caused by stressful life events – and, I don’t know, maybe being a kid who’s parents yell at her all the time would qualify – it is worth noting that, for instance, the Mayo Clinic lists the following causes of depression first:

Biological differences. People with depression appear to have physical changes in their brains…
Neurotransmitters. These naturally occurring brain chemicals linked to mood are thought to play a direct role in depression.
Hormones. Changes in the body’s balance of hormones may be involved in causing or triggering depression…
Inherited traits. Depression is more common in people whose biological family members also have this condition…

They then list a few other possible causes, like “life events” (the death of a loved one, a financial crisis) and “early childhood trauma” like serious abuse or the loss of a parent.

The idea that you can give a child the disease of depression by yelling at the child is…shall we say, not well established.

In fact, the Mayo Clinic list of causes suggests that while depression can be caused by the worst sorts of life traumas, it is most useful to think of it as a biological disease driven by physical changes in the body, and by genetics. This means a child is likely to get depressed for the same reason a child gets Lupus or Type I Diabetes – because something has gone wrong inside the child’s body.

So why the statistical correlation between parental yelling and depression in children? Well, maybe the depression is causing the yelling. Depressed people are infuriating to deal with. They mope around. They are terribly negative, and unreliable, and frustrating.

And it would be much worse if it was your adolescent child who was acting like this – the parent would likely feel as if they had failed somehow with this struggling kid. Seeing the child act out and do dangerous things, or just sit around the house in sad, gloomy funk, while their appearance gets more disheveled and grades sag, would be a constant reminder of that feeling of failure.

It is hard to imagine any but the most enlightened and saintly parents NOT yelling at depressed kids more often than normal.

Also, given depression’s undisputed genetic component, it would have been interesting if the study had also asked – are parents who yell also more likely to be depressed? Perhaps the parents are depressed, the kids are depressed, and the yelling (on the part of the parent) and bad behavior (on the part of the adolescent) are symptoms of their disease – not causes of it.

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