Children who are disciplined harshly from an early age have a higher risk of developing mental health problems in the long term. So suggests a new study from researchers in the UK and Ireland that invites health professionals and teachers to be attentive to the influence parenting style might have on a child showing signs of poor mental health.
The perfect parent doesn’t exist, but today more than ever, there is much debate around different styles of parenting, ranging from authoritarian attitudes centered on the needs of the parent(s), to so-called positive parenting, focusing on the needs of the child. Two styles at opposite ends of the spectrum, between which are many approaches partway between the two.
A team of researchers from the University of Cambridge and University College Dublin decided to focus on studying the consequences of strict, even harsh, discipline on the mental health of children from a very young age.
Based on 7,507 Irish children from the ‘Growing up in Ireland’ longitudinal study, this research cross-referenced two types of data: those relating to the mental health of children at the ages of 3, 5 and 9, and those concerning the parenting style experienced by children at age 3.
These were classed as warm parenting (supportive and attentive to their child’s needs); consistent parenting (setting clear expectations and rules); and hostile parenting. According to the researchers, the latter style “involves frequent harsh treatment and discipline, and can be physical or psychological.”
For example, children may be subjected to frequent yelling, regular physical punishment, isolation for bad behavior, and damage to their self-esteem.
Greater risk of developing “high-risk” symptoms
Published in the journal Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences, the results identify a link between harsh or hostile discipline and long-term mental health problems. Specifically, the researchers found that children experiencing this type of parenting at age 3 were 1.5 times more likely to develop what the researchers call “high-risk” mental health symptoms by age 9.
The scientists said they studied two types of symptoms: internalized, which can take the form of anxiety disorders or social isolation, and externalized, which can take the form of aggressive behavior or hyperactivity.
“Our findings underline the importance of doing everything possible to ensure that parents are supported to give their children a warm and positive upbringing, especially if wider circumstances put those children at risk of poor mental health outcomes. Avoiding a hostile emotional climate at home won’t necessarily prevent poor mental health outcomes from occurring, but it will probably help,” explains study co-author, Jennifer Symonds, associate professor in the School of Education, University College Dublin.
Warm but not without limits
In light of this, the researchers believe that it is important for health professionals and teachers to be aware of the influence parenting style could have on a child who may be experiencing mental health problems, and that it may be necessary for parents to be supported in this particular situation.
However, scientists do not intend to call into question an upbringing that sets rules and boundaries for children.
“We are not for a moment suggesting that parents should not set firm boundaries for their children’s behavior, but it is difficult to justify frequent harsh discipline, given the implications for mental health,” says study co-author, Ioannis Katsantonis, a doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge.
In this regard, the researchers also observed that warm parenting was not necessarily associated with a greater likelihood of children falling into the ‘low risk’ category for mental health problems.
This, the researchers suggest, may be related to the fact that parenting is not the only factor at play in the development of such disorders. Gender, physical health, and socio-economic status are also important criteria.
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