When the media reports on science, continue to be skeptical

There’s a new study on child development making the rounds. “Longitudinal Links Between Fathers’ and Mothers’ Harsh Verbal Discipline and Adolescents’ Conduct Problems and Depressive Symptoms“:

This study used cross-lagged modeling to examine reciprocal relations between maternal and paternal harsh verbal discipline and adolescents’ conduct problems and depressive symptoms. Data were from a sample of 976 two-parent families and their children (51% males; 54% European American, 40% African American). Mothers’ and fathers’ harsh verbal discipline at age 13 predicted an increase in adolescent conduct problems and depressive symptoms between ages 13 and 14. A child effect was also present, with adolescent misconduct at age 13 predicting increases in mothers’ and fathers’ harsh verbal discipline between ages 13 and 14. Furthermore, maternal and paternal warmth did not moderate the longitudinal associations between mothers’ and fathers’ use of harsh verbal discipline and adolescent conduct problems and depressive symptoms.

The WSJ trumpets, “Study Says Yelling Is As Hurtful as Hitting“. Is that what they found?

I went to the paper. Here’s their measure of yelling:

These items were adapted from the Conflict Tactics Scale (Straus, 1979). Items were: “In the past year, after your child has disobeyed you or done something wrong, how often have you: a) shouted, yelled, or screamed at the child, b) swore or cursed at the child, and c) called the child dumb or lazy or some other name like that?” Items were rated on a 5-point scale, ranging from 1 (never) to 5 (always). The three items were averaged together to create the constructs of mothers’ and fathers’ harsh verbal discipline. The constructs demonstrated good internal consistency at each time point (mother: α = .77 and .78; father: α = .75 and .77).

OK, that’s a little odd to me. Full disclosure: I’ve yelled at my kids. I hate it when I do, I regret it afterwards, and I almost always try and apologize later. But you know what? Kids yell at each other sometimes. They yell at me sometimes! My parents yelled at me sometimes. It’s part of being human. So anyone who didn’t answer yes in some way to (a) would be odd in my book. But that’s way different from calling a child dumb, lazy, or some other name. I don’t think I’ve even sworn at my children ever. But these three things are treated equivalently for this study. Is that valid? I have no idea.

But if you get past that, I give you the major finding of this paper, the relationship between harsh verbal discipline and conduct problems:

ResultsDo you understand that? Me neither. I think they are showing that there are statistically significant relationships between these factors. I don’t doubt that. But does that mean that yelling at your kids is as harmful as hitting them? No. As always with the media and research, take what you read with a grain of salt.



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