New Study: Harsh Discipline & Risks to Children’s Mental Health

As Muslim parents, it’s essential to be mindful of our parenting styles, as new research indicates that consistently exercising harsh discipline with young children may significantly increase their risk of developing lasting mental health issues.

In a study involving over 7,500 Irish children conducted by researchers from the University of Cambridge and University College Dublin, it was found that children exposed to ‘hostile’ parenting at age three were 1.5 times more likely to exhibit high-risk mental health symptoms by age nine. Hostile parenting includes frequent harsh treatment and discipline, which can be physical or psychological.

The research delves deeper into the various aspects of hostile parenting. It may 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. Such an environment can be detrimental to a child’s mental health, leading to long-term effects on their well-being.

The study followed children’s mental health symptoms at ages three, five, and nine, examining both internalizing mental health symptoms (such as anxiety and social withdrawal) and externalizing symptoms (such as impulsive and aggressive behaviour, and hyperactivity). Researchers discovered that about 10% of the children were in a high-risk band for poor mental health, with those who experienced hostile parenting being much more likely to fall into this group.

Importantly, the study makes clear that parenting style does not completely determine mental health outcomes. Children’s mental health is shaped by multiple risk factors, including gender, physical health, and socioeconomic status. While the research focuses on the impact of parenting styles, it’s important to recognize that these other factors also play a significant role in a child’s mental health.

The researchers do argue, however, 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. They add that extra support for the parents of children who are already considered to be at risk could help to prevent these problems from developing.

The study was undertaken by Ioannis Katsantonis, a doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, and Jennifer Symonds, Associate Professor in the UCD School of Education. It is reported in the journal, Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences.

Katsantonis 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.”

Symonds 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.”

While parenting is widely acknowledged as a factor influencing children’s mental health, most studies have not investigated how it affects their mental health over time, or how it relates to both internalizing and externalizing symptoms together.

The researchers used data from 7,507 participants in the ‘Growing up in Ireland’ longitudinal study of children and young people. Mental health data was captured using a standard assessment tool called the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire. Each child was given a composite score out of 10 for their externalizing and internalizing symptoms at ages three, five, and nine.

A second standard assessment was used to measure the parenting style children experienced at age three. 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.

The researchers found that, based on the trajectories along which their mental health symptoms developed between ages three and nine, the children fell into three broad categories. Most (83.5%) were low risk, with low internalizing and externalizing symptom scores at age three which then fell or remained stable. A few (6.43%) were mild risk, with high initial scores that decreased over time, but remained higher than the first group. The remaining 10.07% were high risk, with high initial scores that increased by age nine.

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. To the researchers’ surprise, however, warm parenting did not increase the likelihood of children being in the low-risk group, possibly due to the influence of other factors on mental health outcomes.

Previous research has highlighted the importance of these other factors, many of which the new study also confirmed. Girls, for example, were more likely to be in the high-risk category than boys; 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.

Katsantonis 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 behavior 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.”

As Muslim parents, it’s essential to remember that setting firm boundaries for our children’s behavior is crucial, but frequent harsh discipline may have lasting implications on their mental health. Instead, we should strive to create a warm, supportive, and nurturing environment that fosters their emotional well-being and overall development.

In conclusion, being mindful of our parenting styles and providing a loving and positive upbringing for our children can significantly impact their mental health. By being aware of the potential risks associated with hostile parenting and seeking appropriate support when needed, we can help our children thrive and develop into well-adjusted individuals.

One way to foster a healthy parenting approach is by engaging in open communication with our children, actively listening to their thoughts and feelings, and demonstrating empathy. By doing so, we can create a strong bond, allowing our children to feel comfortable discussing their concerns with us.

Additionally, engaging in positive discipline techniques, such as setting clear expectations, offering praise and rewards for good behavior, and using for example loss of privileges as a consequence, can help reinforce appropriate behavior while maintaining a nurturing environment.

It’s also important to maintain a balance between setting boundaries and providing emotional support. Encouraging our children to express their emotions and providing guidance on how to cope with challenging situations can help them build resilience and develop healthy coping mechanisms.

Finally, seeking advice and support from fellow parents, community members, or professionals can help us navigate the complexities of parenting and make well-informed decisions. This not only benefits our children’s mental health but also strengthens our own well-being as parents.

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