Hostile parenting and harsh discipline on young children significantly increase a child’s risk of developing lasting mental health problems

Hostile parenting involves frequent harsh treatment and discipline and can be physical or psychological. Though all parenting styles differ, sometimes hostile parenting involves shouting at children regularly, routine physical punishment, isolating children when they misbehave, damaging their self-esteem, or harsh discipline.

Looking at the effects of harsh discipline on children, researchers at the University of Cambridge and University College Dublin analysed children’s mental health symptoms at ages three, five and nine, looking at mental health symptoms like anxiety and social withdrawal.

Overall, research revealed that children who had experienced hostile parenting were 1.5 times likelier than their peers to have mental health symptoms which qualified as ‘high risk’ by age nine.

10% of the children were found to be in a high-risk band for poor mental health

Conducting a longitudinal study of 7,507 Irish children, researchers took mental health data with 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.

Using a second standard assessment to measure the parenting style children experienced at age three, parents were then categorised based on how far they inclined towards each of three styles:

  • Warm parenting: supportive and attentive to their child’s needs
  • Consistent parenting: setting clear expectations and rules
  • Hostile parenting: (previously described parenting style)

The children with mental health symptoms fell into three broad categories:

  1. 83.5% were low risk, with low internalising and externalising symptom scores at age three which then fell or remained stable
  2. 6.43% were a mild risk, with high initial scores that decreased over time but remained higher than the first group.
  3. The remaining 10.07% were high-risk, with high initial scores that increased by age nine.

Certain parenting styles and family factors impact mental health outcomes

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.

Researchers found that other factors can influence children’s mental health outcomes as much as parenting style. For instance, girls were more likely to be in the high-risk category than boys.

Girls were more likely to be in the high-risk category than boys

Similarly, 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.

However, warm parenting still meant some children landed in the medium and high-risk group, possibly due to the influence of other factors on mental health outcomes.

Avoiding hostile parenting will still help the child, even considering other factors

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 behaviour, but it is difficult to justify frequent harsh discipline, given the implications for mental health.

“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. There is clearly a danger that parenting style can exacerbate mental health risks. This is something we can easily take steps to address.”

Jennifer Symonds at the University College Dublin added: “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.”

“Avoiding a hostile emotional climate at home won’t necessarily prevent poor mental health outcomes from occurring, but it will probably help.”

The researchers note that parenting style does not completely determine mental health outcomes, as a child’s mental health can be influenced by multiple risk factors, including gender, physical health, and socio-economic status.

However, 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.


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