By Allison Bond NEW YORK Tue Dec 10, 2013
(Reuters Health) – Threatening or screaming at teenagers may put them at higher risk for depression and disruptive behaviors such as rule-breaking, a new study suggests.
“The take home point is that the verbal behaviors 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.
All of the kids in her study had been referred to a community clinic due to mental health or behavioral problems.
Their mothers had to be both verbally and physically abusive to increase the kids’ risk for depression and behavior issues. But either kind of behavior alone from a father was sufficient to produce lasting ill effects.
The researchers realize that parents can be trapped in a vicious cycle.
Verbal abuse “has a cyclical nature to it,” said Mahoney. Kids with behavioral 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 behavioral 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.
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 behaviors in the same time frame.
Fifty-one percent of the adolescents said they’d experienced serious physical or verbal aggression, or both, from one or two parents.
Having a mother who both screamed and hit increased kids’ risk for mental health problems (such as anxiety, depression, and rule-breaking behaviors) 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 traumatized 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 counseling in this study, Mahoney told Reuters Health.
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 behavioral 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’ behavior, but (doctors and therapists) have to not be judgmental (and) get the facts out.”
By Maia Szalavitz April 04, 2013
A happy face can certainly lift spirits, but can it reduce rage?
Studies have documented that the physical act of smiling is a universal, and effective way to lift mood, if briefly. But in the latest research on the power of the smile, researchers led by Marcus Munafo of the University of Bristol in England found that even seeing smiles on the faces of others can have a profound effect on a person’s tendency toward violence or aggression— that is, as long as that person recognizes the smile as one of happiness, and not as a sneer.
Munafo and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments involving normal adults as well as highly aggressive teens who had been referred to a youth program, either by educational authorities or the courts. About 70% of the teens already had a criminal record.
In the first experiment, 40 healthy adults, aged 18-30, looked at computer images of faces that had been morphed to show facial expressions that ranged from happy to angry with increasingly difficult to discern expressions in between. Participants were asked how angry they felt and then had to rate the images as displaying either happiness or anger — there was no option for “ambiguous” or “unable to tell.” From these ratings, the scientists were able to generate a score of their biases toward happiness or anger as reflected by where the volunteers decided that happiness ended and anger began.
Previous research found that aggressive people — including violent offenders — tend to interpret even neutral expressions as hostile: “You looking at me?” can easily turn what would have been a nonevent into a tragic confrontation, so preventing such misinterpretations could have important implications.
Based on their initial scores, half of the healthy participants were then told by the computer that some of the ambiguous faces that they had rated as angry should have been scored as happy. This was intended to bias them toward judging the in-between faces more positively. The other 20 received feedback that simply validated their prior choices, creating a control group.
After this training, both groups were tested again and the group that received the biased feedback shifted its ratings of ambiguous faces toward the happy side. Participants were also asked to rate their level of angry feelings again after completing the second round of testing. Those who were trained to interpret ambiguous faces as happier actually reported feeling less angry afterward compared to the controls.
The researchers next focused on the 46 adolescents from the high risk youth program, ranging in age from 11 to 16. These teens completed the same testing, but both the youth and the staff reported on the teens’ levels of aggressive behavior before the testing started and for two weeks afterward. The teens who had been trained to interpret ambiguous facial expressions more positively were significantly less aggressive two weeks later, as rated by both the staff (who did not know which kids were in the intervention group) and by themselves.
“The results of our experiments strongly suggest that biases in the perception of emotional facial expressions play a causal role in subjective anger and aggressive behavior,” the authors conclude.
That doesn’t mean that smiles alone are the answer to violence among adolescents — previous research in which antisocial youth were trained to better recognize emotions, for example, did not have any effect on their level of aggressive behavior. But this earlier study focused on improving teens’ perception of clear facial signals, not ambiguous ones. Since ambiguous signals are more prone to misinterpretation, it may be that violent behavior in some youth is perpetuated by their constant misintepretation of angry expressions where they don’t exist, that push them to combative responses. The findings suggest that helping young people, particularly those who are prone to violence, to learn to give others the benefit of the doubt when they see what they think is a threatening face could help end the vicious cycle of violence.
Maia Szalavitz @maiasz
Maia Szalavitz is a neuroscience journalist for TIME.com and co-author of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential — and Endangered.