Corporal punishment and control can lead to mental health problems in children, new study finds.
It is well-established that parenting style can have a significant impact on a child’s mental health. Years of studies have explored the relationship between how a person parents and child development and have discovered that certain styles of parenting can promote positive mental health outcomes, while others may contribute to, or exacerbate, negative outcomes.
Parenting styles that included physical discipline, or corporal punishment, and over-control are considered “hostile” parenting and put children at a higher risk of developing mental health problems, according to a new study published in March 2023.
The study, conducted in Ireland, followed 7,500 from nine months to nine years of age. It found that children who were exposed to various forms of hostile parenting from age three were 1.5 times more likely to have high risk mental health symptoms and 1.6 times more likely to have mild risk mental health symptoms by age nine.
Dr. Ioannis Katsantonis, a doctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge and lead author on the paper, said the biggest negative effect of hostile parenting is on children in early childhood, and it should be avoided.
“We found that children in the high-risk class had parents with greater stress and greater likelihood of ongoing physical and mental health problems. These parents might need additional support and resources to address their own needs and enhance their parenting skills,” Dr. Katsantonis said.
Co-author Dr. Jennifer Symonds, an associate professor at the University College Dublin, reflected the need for parental support in order to promote well-being for children, especially in early childhood.
Dr. Anju Hurria, a child psychiatrist at the University of California, Irvine – not affiliated with the study – also added, “Nobody is born knowing how to parent. What I appreciate about this study is that it’s advocating for us to give more support to parents in terms of evidence-based parent management programs.These should be readily accessible in all communities for parents.”
Consistent parenting, where rules and expectations are applied consistently and fairly, is another key to avoiding some of the negative mental outcomes for children at the lower end of the risk spectrum. This consistency also refers to a parent’s expectations of a child’s behavior and consequences of bad behavior.
“Consistent parenting may help because it provides children with a sense of predictability and security, which can act as a buffer against worsening mental health,” explained Katsantonis.
Surprisingly the study did not find any change to risk in terms of mental health outcomes for children with “warm” parenting styles – a style characterized by reasoning and support. Previous research has suggested that this style of parenting provides protection against negative mental health outcomes.
Katsantonis says this highlights the fact that parenting isn’t the only factor affecting childhood well-being. Other factors like income and access to resources, single parent households, genetics, and parents with mental health issues, for example, can “absorb any positive benefits of warm parenting in terms of mental health.”
Nonetheless, the findings from research on parenting style and mental health suggest that parents have a significant impact on their children’s well-being by being warm, responsive, and supportive, while also setting clear and consistent boundaries and expectations.
Hurria points out that mental health outcomes are not just caused by parenting. “There are many factors, such as genetics. But this does give us one area to intervene.”