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Teenagers react badly to verbal hostility from fathers and become less helpful at home and with strangers. They are less affected when mothers lose their cool.
Fathers should be gentler with teenagers, who react badly when dad yells at them, according to our study, which found that teenagers are less affected when mom is verbally hostile.
Our findings challenge ‘Wait till your father gets home’ attitudes that traditionally position dads as the lead disciplinarians when children grow older. We showed that when dad plays this role in a heavy-handed way, it turns teenagers off from being helpful at home and with strangers. In contrast, when mom loses her cool with the kids, they don’t tend to react negatively in this way.
Moms and dads show similar levels of warmth and hostility to teenagers
“It’s really important for dads to be kind and gentle to their children. Forget traditional messages urging you to be the harsh disciplinarian. Forget ‘Wait till your father gets home.’ Hostility from dad tends to result in negative outcomes.”
We filmed 500 adolescents talking separately with mom and dad at home. Our study was unusual because we were able to record fathers as well as mothers on film. The mothers and fathers showed similar levels of warmth and verbal hostility to the young people. So, for example, fathers’ lacking warmth for their children wasn’t an issue. But the same parental behaviors had considerably different effects, depending on which parent was involved.
When dad showed hostility by, for example, shouting, being critical, disapproving or rejecting, teenage behavior toward family members and strangers tended to grow worse. That didn’t happen when mothers were hostile.
Impact of verbal hostility from dads matters
Some parents might not worry about children becoming less helpful after being told off. Not being helpful might not seem such a serious thing compared to, say, drug use or delinquency. But other research shows that having helpful attitudes at home provides wider benefits for teenagers, protecting them from becoming generally aggressive and delinquent, as well as from deviant behavior later in life.
We also found that warmth had different effects depending on whether it came from mom or dad. The positive effects of mothers’ warmth were greater than those of fathers’ warmth, leading teenagers to be more helpful, sharing and willing to volunteer at home. Fathers’ warmth promoted prosocial behavior toward friends, but somewhat less consistently.
Mothers’ warmth and fathers’ hostility are key influences
“We also found that warmth had different effects depending on whether it came from mom or dad. The positive effects of mothers’ warmth were greater than those of fathers’ warmth, leading teenagers to be more helpful, sharing and willing to volunteer at home.”
Looking at the big picture, warm mothering is particularly effective in shaping a home of well-behaved adolescents. But such good behavior, both at home and among strangers, is put at risk when dad is verbally hostile to the teenagers.
These findings are important even though parents’ influence on their children’s behavior diminishes as their offspring grow older. That is, behavior is increasingly determined by a child’s character, having been shaped by parental influences in the earlier years. Our research shows that both mothers and fathers continue to be significant influences on teenage behaviors and outcomes, albeit in different ways.
Dads should avoid traditional disciplinarian role with teenagers
Our message to dads is that it’s really important to be kind and gentle with older children – even gentler sometimes than mom. Forget traditional messages urging you to be the harsh disciplinarian. Forget ‘Wait till your father gets home.’ Hostility from dad tends to produce negative outcomes.
These are difficult insights for some fathers to act on. Boys are often trained to believe that the only acceptable emotion is anger. Many then bring that approach to fatherhood. But it doesn’t work well, especially with adolescents who are behaving badly. That doesn’t mean fathers should be permissive or cease to apply rules. But they should recognize the difference between being firm and being hostile.
Fathers may not realize how hostile they can be
Our findings also suggest that fathers might not realize how hostile they are to teenagers at times. In our study, we scored fathers’ behavior independently by observing the filmed evidence. When the observational evidence clearly pointed to fathers’ hostility and negative impacts on the teenagers, the fathers, in reporting their own behavior, hadn’t described it as hostile. Indeed, neither had their children. This dissonance between observational and self-reported evidence suggests that fathers should reflect on parenting styles that may seem normal to them – and to their teenagers. In reality, their approaches may be more hostile than they realize or admit and may also be damaging to their children.
Padilla-Walker LM, Nielson MG & Day RD (2016), The role of parental warmth and hostility on adolescents’ prosocial behavior toward multiple targets, Journal of Family Psychology, 30