Should parents punish kids? Harsh discipline linked to increased risk of mental health problems

CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — Should parents rethink how they discipline their children? A new study warns that harsh discipline increases the risk of children developing long-term mental health problems. Many moms and dads likely still believe in the old saying, “spare the rod and spoil the child” — meaning if youngsters don’t receive punishment when they do wrong their personal development will suffer. However, researchers in the United Kingdom who examined over 7,500 Irish children found those with exposure to “hostile” parenting were 50 percent more likely to have “high-risk” mental health symptoms.

The research team, from the University of Cambridge and University College Dublin (UCD), finds that kids who experience “hostile” parenting at age three are 1.5 times more likely than their peers to display mental health symptoms that qualify as “high-risk” by age nine. Hostile parenting can include frequent harsh treatment and discipline. This can involve both physical or psychological punishment.

Researchers say these incidents may take the form of shouting at children regularly, regular physical punishment, isolating children who misbehave, damaging their self-esteem, or punishments that are more random and depend on the parent’s mood.

The team charted children’s mental health symptoms at ages three, five, and nine. They also studied both internalizing mental health symptoms (anxiety and social withdrawal) and externalizing symptoms (impulsive and aggressive behavior or hyperactivity). Roughly one in 10 children fell into the high-risk category for poor mental health, but those experiencing hostile parenting were much more likely to be a part of that group.

Man preparing to spank or use corporal punishment on his child with belt
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Is parenting style the only thing affecting a child’s development?

The study, published in the journal Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences, makes it clear that parenting style does not completely determine mental health outcomes. Instead, multiple factors shape children’s mental health including gender, physical health, and socio-economic status.

However, the researchers note that mental health professionals, teachers, and other experts need to be aware of the potential influence of parenting on children who displays signs they’re having mental health problems. They add that providing extra support for parents who have children already at risk could prevent problems from developing in the first place.

Ioannis Katsantonis, a doctoral researcher at Cambridge University’s Faculty of Education, conducted the study with Professor Jennifer Symonds from UCD’s School of Education.

“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,” Katsantonis says in a media release. “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.”

“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,” Prof. Symonds adds.

One parenting style may protect children

Although parenting is an acknowledged factor which can a child’s mental health, prior studies have not investigated how different parenting styles affect mental health over time, or how it relates to both internalizing and externalizing symptoms.

The researchers of this project used information from 7,507 participants in the “Growing up in Ireland” study — focusing on children and young people. Each child received a composite mental health score out of 10 for their externalizing and internalizing symptoms at ages three, five, and nine. A second assessment measured the parenting style children experienced at age three.

Study authors profiled parents based on their tendency to use one of three styles: “warm parenting” (supportive and attentive to their child’s needs), “consistent” (setting clear expectations and rules), and “hostile” parenting.

The research team found that the children also fell into three broad categories. Over four in five (83.5%) were low-risk, with low internalizing and externalizing symptom scores at age three, which then fell or remained stable. Just 6.43% had a mild risk, with high initial scores that decreased over time but remained higher than the first group. The remaining 10.07 percent were high-risk, with high initial scores that increased by age nine.

Results show that hostile parenting increased 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 had a limited protective role, but only against children falling into the mild risk category. To the researchers’ surprise, 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.

How do other life factors impact children?

Previous studies have examined the impact of the other factors which influence a child’s mental health, many of which the new study confirmed. For example, researchers say girls were more likely to be in the high-risk category than boys. Children in single-parent homes were 1.4 times more likely to be high-risk and those from wealthier backgrounds were less likely to display concerning mental health symptoms as adolescents.

Dr. Katsantonis says that the findings underscore the importance of early intervention and support for children who are at risk of mental health issues. 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 behavior in different situations,” the researcher concludes. “There is clearly a danger that parenting style can exacerbate mental health risks. This is something we can easily take steps to address.”

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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