The adage “spare the rod, spoil the child” has been deemed inappropriate for decades, but a new study has shown just how damaging a harsh upbringing really can be.
Physically punishing youngsters, regularly shouting at them or isolating them, increases the risk of developing lasting mental health problems by nearly 50 per cent, Cambridge University has found.
Researchers charted the mental health of more than 7,500 Irish children at ages three, five and nine looking for signs of anxiety, social withdrawal, impulsiveness, aggression and hyperactivity.
They found the signs of mental problems were more frequent in youngsters who had been exposed to “hostile parenting” at the age of three.
The study showed that by the age of nine, one in 10 children were in the high-risk category for mental health problems, with those who had endured harsh parenting, 47 per cent more likely to fall into that group.
Harsh discipline 'difficult to justify'
Jennifer Symonds, Associate Professor in the UCD School of Education, 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.
“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.
“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.”
In the study, 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.
Hostile parenting was defined as frequent harsh treatment and discipline which could 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.
To uncover parenting style, parents were asked questions such as “How often do you tell this child that he/she is not as good as others?”,and “How often do you hug/kiss the child for no particular reason?”.
The researchers pointed out that parenting does not entirely determine mental health with other factors such as gender physical health and family income and environment playing a role.
Girls were more likely to be in the high-risk category than boys; children with single parents were 40 per more likely to be high-risk, and those from wealthier backgrounds were less likely to exhibit worrying mental health symptoms by middle childhood.
Signs of poor mental health
But they said that mental health professionals and teachers should be aware of the potential influence of parenting on a child who shows signs of having poor mental health.
Study author Ioannis Katsantonis, a doctoral student at Cambridge, 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.”
The research was published in the journal Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences.