Hostile parenting and harsh discipline increase the likelihood of lasting mental health problems in children, a report suggests.
Details of the study
New research just published concludes that parenting which involves frequently shouting at, isolating, and physically punishing young children, made it 1.5 times more likely that a child would be at “high risk” of developing poor mental health by the age of nine.
The findings come from a study of more than 7,500 Irish children, whose mental health symptoms were charted at ages three, five, and nine by researchers at University College Dublin (UCD) and the University of Cambridge.
The researchers used data from 7,507 participants in the ‘Growing up in Ireland‘ longitudinal study of children and young people. Mental health data was captured using a standard assessment tool called the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire. Each child was given a composite score out of 10 for their externalizing and internalizing symptoms at ages three, five and nine.
A second standard assessment was used to measure the parenting style children experienced at age three. Parents were profiled based on how far they inclined towards each of three styles: warm parenting (supportive and attentive to their child’s needs); consistent (setting clear expectations and rules); and hostile.
Of the 7,500 children, about 10% were found to be in a high-risk band for poor mental health, including symptoms of anxiety, aggression, and social withdrawal.
There is clearly a danger that parenting style can exacerbate mental health risks. This is something we can easily take steps to address.
What does the research tell us?
Children who, at age three, had parents that screamed or shouted at them regularly, isolated them as a punishment, or were unpredictable and moody in the way they disciplined them were much more likely than their peers, who had experienced supportive or consistent parenting styles, to fall into this group.
Hostile parenting involves frequent harsh treatment and discipline and can be physical or psychological. It may, for example, involve shouting at children regularly, routine physical punishment, isolating children when they misbehave, damaging their self-esteem, or punishing children unpredictably, depending on the parent’s mood.
Ioannis Katsantonis, a doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, said,
“The fact that one in 10 children were in the high-risk category for mental health problems is a concern, and we ought to be aware of the part parenting may play in that.
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. There is clearly a danger that parenting style can exacerbate mental health risks. This is something we can easily take steps to address.”
About 10% of the children were found to be in a high-risk band for poor mental health. Children who experienced hostile parenting were much more likely to fall into this group.
Importantly, the study makes clear that parenting style does not completely determine mental health outcomes. Children’s mental health is shaped by multiple risk factors, including gender, physical health, and socio-economic status. Researchers said girls were more likely than boys to be in the high-risk category.
They also found that children of single parents were one to four times more likely to be high risk, and those from wealthier families were less likely to exhibit worrying mental health symptoms by middle childhood.
Avoid a hostile emotional environment
Avoiding a hostile emotional climate at home won’t necessarily prevent poor mental health outcomes from occurring, but it will probably help
Jennifer Symonds, associate professor in the UCD School of Education, said,
“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.”
The researchers argue that mental health professionals, teachers, and other practitioners should be alert to the potential influence of parenting on a child who shows signs of having poor mental health. They add that extra support for the parents of children who are already considered to be at risk could help to prevent these problems from developing.
Researchers say that the findings underscored the importance of early intervention and support for children who are at risk of mental health difficulties and that this should involve tailored support, guidance, and training for new parents.
In summing up the report, the study team suggests that appropriate support could be something as simple as giving new parents clear, up-to-date information about how best to manage young children‘s behavior in different situations.
Additionally, there is clearly a danger that parenting style can exacerbate mental health risks. This is something we can easily take steps to address.
What do you think of the research findings? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.