Teens tune out dads who yell, cooperate less both at home and with strangers

Posted June 8

Fathers who yell or are otherwise verbally hostile to their teenagers will find those kids less cooperative at home and with strangers, according to a new study that says mothers who yell don't see the same effect. (Deseret Photo)

A family study suggests that a father who yells may get the opposite results of what he wanted when it comes to dealing with his teens, according to researchers at Brigham Young University who found when dads are hostile, the kids help out less at home and with strangers.

The study, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, found that moms and dads show about equal levels of both warmth and "verbal hostility," which includes yelling and other verbal negative interaction, as well as putting a child down or escalating the situation when a child is hostile to the parent.

But hostility of moms did not trigger the same negative outcome, according to lead author Laura Padilla-Walker, associate professor and associate director of BYU's School of Family Life.

The findings came from the 10th wave of a "flourishing family" study that looked not at families that are disadvantaged but at 500 families in the Seattle area who are doing well, to see if researchers could determine why some families thrive. When the study began, one child in each family was 11; most of those kids are in their 20s now, though this study's data came from their teen years, Padilla-Walker said.

A father's impact

Past research has suggested only mothers matter for positive behaviors and fathers are more important to protect against negative behaviors, said Padilla-Walker. But this study found fathers also impact how or if kids develop "prosocial" behaviors like helping, sharing and kindness.

By using what she described as a "more nuanced approach to parenting and prosocial behavior here, we found that fathers were particularly important in promoting prosocial behavior toward friends," she said, adding it's the father's warmth that makes the difference.

"Second, we found that father hostility, especially observed hostility, was consistently negatively related to all targets of prosocial behavior — family, friend, strangers, etc. This suggests that while maternal warmth was associated primarily with prosocial behavior toward family, paternal hostility was detracting from prosocial behavior across the board," Padilla-Walker said. "I think that’s a pretty clear message. Fathers need to connect more and yell less. Children need fathers to be more than just the disciplinarians, and they are important for the promotion of positive qualities."

Although fathers were no more or less hostile than mothers, the difference in outcomes was clear. Padilla-Walker said she thinks that probably has to do with the rest of the relationships between the parents and their children.

"Fathers had slightly lower warmth than mothers, and we know from other research that if you have a good relationship with your kids, a little hostility won't do much harm. But if you don't have a great relationship, then that same level of hostility is seen very differently by the child. So fathers probably need to work not only on being less verbally hostile — less yelling — but also on being softer and building a strong relationship so that when they do lose their cool, it's not as damaging," she said.

She noted the possibility, as well, that "fathers are hostile in different ways than mothers that are not captured by our measurement and this impacts children differently."

Building on past studies

The research builds not only on the flourishing family studies, but on previous BYU research on parenting styles that found parental efforts at control don't work once kids reach adolescence.

"So this is just another study showing that autonomy should really be increasing and control — certainly verbal hostility — should be decreasing during this time point, as it's really ineffective," Padilla-Walker said.

BYU researchers learned several years ago that moms and dads help kids develop different traits. For instance, fathers are key to whether a child is persistent in completing projects and overcoming challenges, according to a study they published in the Journal of Early Adolescence.

Dads who are effective at imparting that trait are authoritative, not authoritarian, according to Randal Day, a BYU professor and co-author on both studies. He describes authoritarian fathers as "demanding, because-I-said-so" parents, while authoritative dads set boundaries, explain why rules are in place and the consequences of breaking them, and maintain a close and loving relationship with their children.

He told the Deseret News that authoritarian fathers "may get results, but they also get a lot of unintended effects with it," including the possibility that once the fear of father's wrath is removed, children may no longer persist.

A study led by the University of Missouri a couple of years ago and published in the journal "Parenting: Science and Practice" also noted gender differences in what parents bestow on kids. They found that bossy moms quickly lose their children's attention during playtime.

"We know that children, regardless of culture, need to feel loved," study lead author Jean Ispa, a professor of human development at the University of Missouri, said in a statement accompanying the study. "Children take in the meaning of what their mothers are trying to do, so if a mom is being very directive and is generally a very warm person, I think the child feels, 'My mom is doing this because she cares about me, and she's trying to do the best for me.' If the warmth is missing, then the child might feel, 'My mom is trying to control me and I don't like it.'"

"Consistent with our other work, having a quality relationship continues to be important," Padilla-Walker said.

Besides Day, the BYU study was co-authored by Matthew G. Nielson.

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