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Harsh discipline increases risk of lasting mental health problems in children

Posted 31 March, 2023

Frequently discipling young children harshly puts them at significant risk of lasting mental health problems, a new report suggests.

The research by University of Cambridge and University College Dublin found parenting that involves repeated shouting, isolating, and physically punishment made it 1.5 times more likely that a child would be at “high risk” of developing poor mental health by age nine.

(opens in a new window)Reported in the journal 'Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences', the study which involved 7,500 children found some 10% were in the high-risk band for poor mental health, including symptoms of anxiety, aggression, and social withdrawal.

“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,” said (opens in a new window)Associate Professor Jennifer Symonds, from the UCD School of Education, who undertook the study with Dr Ioannis Katsantonis, Faculty of Education at University of Cambridge.

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

The researchers used data from 7,507 participants in the ‘Growing up in Ireland’ longitudinal study of children and young people, and charted their mental health symptoms at ages three, five and nine.

“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,” Dr Katsantonis added.

“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 researchers studied both internalising mental health symptoms (such as anxiety and social withdrawal) and externalising symptoms (such as impulsive and aggressive behaviour, and hyperactivity).

About 10% of the children were found to be in a high-risk band for poor mental health, and those children who experienced hostile parenting were much more likely to fall into this group.

Hostile parenting is generally considered to involve frequent harsh treatment and discipline and can be physical or psychological.

While the study notes parenting style does not completely determine mental health outcomes, as it found warm parenting did not increase the likelihood of children being at low-risk of developing poor mental health, it does argue 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.

It adds that extra support for the parents of children who are already considered to be at risk could help to prevent problems from developing.

Dr Katsantonis said 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 added.

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

By: David Kearns, Digital Journalist / Media Officer, UCD University Relations

To contact the UCD News & Content Team, email: newsdesk@ucd.ie