Threatening or screaming at teenagers may
put them at higher risk for depression and disruptive behaviours such as
rule-breaking, a new study suggests."The take home point is that the
verbal behaviours matter," Annette Mahoney, who worked on the study, said.
She's a professor of psychology at Bowling
Green State University in Ohio."It can be easy to overlook that, but our
study shows that the verbal hostility is really relevant, particularly for
mothers who scream and hit, and for fathers who do either one," Mahoney
told Reuters Health.
Lasting ill effects
All of the kids in her study had been
referred to a community clinic due to mental health or behavioural problems. Their
mothers had to be both verbally and physically abusive to increase the kids'
risk for depression and behaviour issues. But either kind of behaviour alone
from a father was sufficient to produce lasting ill effects. The researchers
realise that parents can be trapped in a vicious cycle.
Verbal abuse "has a cyclical nature to
it," said Mahoney. Kids with behavioural or mental health problems can be
tough to handle, she said. Not surprisingly, her team found, adolescents whose
parents were also physically violent toward them – hitting, choking, or
threatening them with a gun or knife – had an even higher risk for mental
illness and behavioural problems.
"Parental verbal aggression towards
adolescents is just as – if not more – destructive than severe physical
aggression, particularly in families seeking mental health services," said
Michelle Leroy, also of Bowling Green State University who led the research.
Traumatised and threatened
For the study, which was published in the
journal Child Abuse & Neglect, 239 troubled adolescents between the ages of
11 and 18 filled out surveys that asked if they were hit, called names, or
subjected to other forms of physical or verbal violence over the past year.
Parents of the youths also participated,
reporting their behaviours in the same time frame. 51% of the adolescents said
they'd experienced serious physical or verbal aggression, or both, from one or
Having a mother who both screamed and hit
increased kids' risk for mental health problems (such as anxiety, depression,
and rule-breaking behaviours) to an even greater extent than having a mother
who was aggressive in only one way.
In other words, the effect of a mother's
verbal hostility may be worsened if she also hits her child, Mahoney said. That
may be because teens likely feel more traumatised and threatened when physical
violence is a real possibility.
In contrast, screaming by mothers who had
not previously escalated to serious physical aggression did not appear to
increase the risk of psychological problems among teens getting counselling in
this study, Mahoney told Reuters Health.
Breaking the cycle
On the other hand, fathers who were
verbally abusive affected the adolescents' mental health, regardless of whether
the threats were accompanied by physical violence.
The study's results may indicate that
doctors should be on the lookout for verbal aggression at home, particularly in
families with an adolescent who may be having mental health or behavioural
problems, the researchers say.
Many doctors make it a habit to ask their
patients about acts of physical abuse. They should also ask about verbal
violence, Mahoney's team adds. "You have to break the cycle; someone has
to crack it open. It doesn't excuse the parents' behaviour, but (doctors and
therapists) have to not be judgmental (and) get the facts out."