Study finds that children who are subjected to harsh punishment are more likely to have long-term mental health problems
Nadia Farooq

Children’s mental health symptoms were documented at three, five, and nine years of age.

15 July, Cambridge: New studies show that youngsters who are often subjected to severe parental punishment are more likely to have emotional and behavioural problems as they grow up.

Children who were exposed to “hostile” parenting at the age of three were found to be 1.5 times more likely than their peers to exhibit “high risk” mental health symptoms by the age of nine, according to a study conducted by researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Dublin. More than 7,500 Irish kids were surveyed for the research. Harsh psychological or physical punishment is a common feature of hostile parenting. The parent may resort to extreme measures, such as constant screaming, physical punishment, isolation when the child disobeys, a drop in self-esteem, or unreasonable punishment.


Researchers took note of children’s mental health at three, five, and nine years old. Both internal (such as anxiety and social disengagement) and exterior (such as impulsive and aggressive behaviour, and hyperactivity) symptoms of mental illness were considered.

Ten percent of the children were found to be at very high risk for mental health problems. These kids were far more likely to have experienced abusive parenting than the general population.

The study’s findings that parenting style is not the only determinant of mental health are significant. Multiple risk variables, such as gender, physical health, and socioeconomic situation, impact children’s mental health.

However, the authors do believe that mental health experts, educators, and others in the helping professions should be on the lookout for any indication that a child’s poor mental health may be related to their own parenting. They note that if parents of children identified as being at risk were given more assistance, these issues may be avoided altogether.

Doctoral student Ioannis Katsantonis of the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education and Associate Professor Jennifer Symonds of the University of California, Davis, conducted the research. Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences publishes the results.

As Katsantonis put it, “we ought to be aware of the part parenting may play in that,” given that one in ten children are at high risk for mental health disorders. “We are not for a second arguing that parents shouldn’t enforce strict limits on their children’s behaviour. However, given the potential negative effects on a child’s mental health, it’s hard to justify frequent harsh discipline.”

According to Symonds, “our findings underscore the importance of doing everything possible to ensure that parents are supported to give their children a warm and positive upbringing,” particularly if the kid’s environment puts the youngster at risk for poor mental health outcomes. Poor mental health outcomes can’t be completely avoided, but they can be mitigated by maintaining a peaceful environment at home.

However, few research have looked at how parenting impacts children’s mental health over time or how it connects to internalising and externalising symptoms in tandem, despite the fact that it is generally regarded as a factor impacting children’s mental health.

The ‘Growing up in Ireland’ study is a long-term survey of 7,507 Irish children and young adults. The Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, a widely used instrument for assessing mental health, was used to collect the data. At the ages of 3, 5, and 9, each child’s externalising and internalising symptoms were added together to form a single score out of 10.

At the age of three, children were evaluated on their exposure to different parenting styles using a second standard test. Each parent was characterised based on their propensity to exhibit one of three parenting styles: warm (caring and responsive to their child’s needs), consistent (establishing firm ground rules), or antagonistic.

The children were divided into three groups based on the patterns of change in their mental health symptoms from the ages of three to nine, according to the study’s authors. Scores for both internalising and externalising symptoms were low at age three and thereafter decreased or stayed consistent for the most majority (83.5%). Some 6.43 percent fell into the moderate risk category, with initial ratings that were high but dropped over time. The remaining 10.7 percent were classified as high-risk due to very high scores at the outset and continued growth at the age of nine.

By age 9, a kid exposed to hostile parenting was 1.5 times more likely to fall into the high-risk group, and 1.6 times more likely to go into the mild-risk category. Maintaining a routine with your kids has been shown to protect them, but only from the’mild-risk’ group. However, contrary to expectations, researchers found that warm parenting did not enhance the chance of children being in the low-risk category.

The current study supported many of the findings from previous studies highlighting the significance of these additional variables. Middle-class children from affluent families were less likely to show worrisome signs of mental illness, whereas children from low-income families were 1.4 times more likely to be in the high-risk group.

According to Katsantonis, the results highlight the need for early intervention and assistance for children at risk of mental health disorders, with a focus on providing individualised counselling and training for new parents.

Giving new parents clear, up-to-date information on how to effectively manage young children’s conduct in various settings “could be something as simple as providing appropriate support,” he added. It is obvious that some parenting styles might increase the chances of psychological problems in children. There are simple measures we can take to fix this.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here