In many parts of the world, including the United States, England, and Northern Ireland, physically punishing children is still officially permitted. This is problematic considering that several studies suggest that harsh parenting practices, such as hitting or shouting, negatively affect children’s behavioral and emotional development.
Such practices have been linked to an increased risk of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and aggression. They have also been associated with poorer academic performance, lower self-esteem, and impaired social skills.
Using harsh parenting practices such as hitting or shouting is not only ineffective as a disciplinary tool but may harm children’s mental health.
While research has primarily considered the effect of parenting behavior on children’s development, effects may also occur in the opposite direction. Children who act out frequently or struggle with controlling their emotions may also place unique strains on parenting behavior. As a result, children’s mental health may negatively affect parenting.
For example, a child who has trouble controlling their emotions may throw frequent temper tantrums, which can lead to parental frustration and negative reactions, such as yelling or physical punishment. This, in turn, may lead the child to struggle with controlling their emotions even more.
Such two-way relationships have received limited attention in research. By recognizing the influence that a child’s behavior can have on parenting, interventions can be designed to target both the child’s emotional and behavioral difficulties and the parent’s reactions and coping mechanisms. Supporting parents in managing their child’s difficulties in a positive and effective way can ultimately lead to better outcomes for both the child and the family.
My colleagues and I conducted a study to explore the two-way relations between parenting behaviors and children’s mental health. We investigated whether harsh parenting tactics such as hitting and shouting show two-way relations with children’s behaviors across early to middle childhood (when children are three, five, and seven years old).
The behavioral effects we studied included two externalizing behaviors – conduct problems (e.g., throwing temper tantrums) and hyperactive/inattentive behaviors (e.g., being easily distracted). We also looked at emotional problems (e.g., symptoms of depression and anxiety).
Our study included 14,037 children (49% female, 84% White) and one of their parents (primarily mothers) who were part of the UK Millennium Cohort Study. Participants came from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, ensuring that the study was representative of the UK population.
Using harsh parenting techniques, such as shouting at or hitting three- to five-year-olds, led to children showing more symptoms of hyperactivity and inattention, and more emotional problems when they were five and seven. These findings are consistent with previous research showing that harsh parenting practices have a negative effect on children’s mental health.
Harsh parenting practices can increase children’s mental health problems which, in turn, lead to further increases in harsh parenting practices.
This is not a one-way relation. Parents of children who showed more conduct problems and hyperactive/inattentive behaviors and parents of children with higher levels of emotional problems were more likely to increase their harsh parenting in the subsequent year. Thus, harsh parenting may have negative effects for children through a negative self-perpetuating loop: In this way, harsh parenting practices can increase children’s mental health problems which, in turn, lead to further increases in harsh parenting practices.
First, our findings suggest that using harsh parenting practices such as hitting or shouting is not only ineffective as a disciplinary tool but may harm children’s mental health. Other parenting techniques should be used to support children’s healthy development, such as ignoring unwanted behaviors, setting clear expectations, and explaining why certain behaviors are unwanted. (For additional examples, see the evidence-based Incredible Years Parent Programs.)
These approaches help children understand and learn from their mistakes without damaging their self-esteem or sense of security. Using such methods can lead to a more positive and supportive relationship between parent and child.
Second, our findings underline the importance of addressing parenting difficulties in families with socioemotional difficulties to help prevent the accumulation of additional issues. Children experiencing big emotions or having trouble behaving appropriately can increase the stress and challenges of parenting. Thus, we encourage parents to reflect on their parenting strategies and seek the assistance of mental health professionals to develop ways to support their children in overcoming challenging behaviors without resorting to harsh parenting tactics.
Our research supports recent policy changes in Scotland and Wales, which explicitly ban the use of physical punishment as a parenting tool. We encourage policymakers in other parts of the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere to implement similar policies.
Policymakers should also prioritize providing interventions and services for at-risk children and families. This could include evidence-based parenting programs, mental health support for parents and children, and other forms of family support to help promote positive child development and prevent the escalation of behavioral and emotional difficulties and negative effects.
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