According to new research, young children who frequently experience harsh discipline from their parents are much more likely to experience long-lasting mental health issues.
Researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Dublin discovered that children exposed to “hostile” parenting at age three were 1.5 times more likely than their peers to have mental health symptoms that met the criteria for “high risk” by age nine than their counterparts. The study included more than 7,500 Irish children. Parenting that is hostile sometimes entails severe punishment and can be either psychological or physical. For instance, it could involve yelling at kids all the time, regular physical discipline, isolating kids when they disobey, lowering their self-esteem, or punishing kids irrationally depending on the parent’s mood.
At ages three, five, and nine, the researchers recorded the symptoms of children’s mental health. They looked at signs of mental illness that are internalised (such anxiety and social disengagement) as well as externalised (like impulsive and violent behaviour, and hyperactivity).
It was shown that 10 per cent of the kids were at high risk for having poor mental health. Children in this group were substantially more likely to have encountered aggressive parenting.
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.
The researchers do argue, however, 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.
The study was undertaken by Ioannis Katsantonis, a doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, and Jennifer Symonds, Associate Professor in the UCD School of Education. It is reported in the journal, Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences.
“The fact that one in 10 children was 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,” Katsantonis said. “We are not for a moment suggesting that parents should not set firm boundaries for their children’s behaviour, but it is difficult to justify frequent harsh discipline, given the implications for mental health.”
Symonds 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.”
While parenting is widely acknowledged as a factor influencing children’s mental health, most studies have not investigated how it affects their mental health over time, or how it relates to both internalising and externalising symptoms together.
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 externalising and internalising 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.
The researchers found that, based on the trajectories along which their mental health symptoms developed between ages three and nine, the children fell into three broad categories. Most (83.5 per cent) were low risk, with low internalising and externalising symptom scores at age three which then fell or remained stable. A few (6.43 per cent) were mild risk, with high initial scores that decreased over time, but remained higher than the first group. The remaining 10.07 per cent were high risk, with high initial scores that increased by age nine.
Hostile parenting raised a child’s chances of being in the high-risk category by 1.5 times, and the mild-risk category by 1.6 times, by age nine. Consistent parenting was found to have a limited protective role, but only against children falling into the ‘mild-risk’ category. To the researchers’ surprise, however, warm parenting did not increase the likelihood of children being in the low-risk group, possibly due to the influence of other factors on mental health outcomes.
Previous research has highlighted the importance of these other factors, many of which the new study also confirmed. Girls, for example, were more likely to be in the high-risk category than boys; children with single parents were 1.4 times more likely to be high-risk, and those from wealthier backgrounds were less likely to exhibit worrying mental health symptoms by middle childhood.
Katsantonis said 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.
“Appropriate support could be something as simple as giving new parents clear, up-to-date information about how best to manage young children’s behaviour in different situations,” he said. “There is clearly a danger that parenting style can exacerbate mental health risks. This is something we can easily take steps to address.