Harsh discipline increases risk of children developing lasting mental health problems

Hostile parenting involves frequent harsh treatment and discipline and can be physical or psychological.


Parenting practices and children’s internalising and externalizing mental health symptoms (MHS) have been linked in numerous research. Yet, it is unclear how many parenting philosophies work together to affect how MHS develops in children throughout childhood.

A new study by researchers at the University of Cambridge and University College Dublin examined the differential effects of parenting style on population heterogeneity in the joint developmental trajectories of children’s internalising and externalizing MHS.

The study, which involved over 7,500 Irish children, found that parents who frequently exercise harsh discipline with young children are putting them at significantly greater risk of developing lasting mental health problems. Children were 1.5 times likelier than their peers to have mental health symptoms that qualified as ‘high risk’ by age nine.

At ages three, five, and nine, the researchers recorded the symptoms of children’s mental health using a standard assessment tool called the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire. They investigated internalised and externalized mental health symptoms, including anxiety and social disengagement (such as impulsive and aggressive behavior and hyperactivity). Each child was given a composite score of 10 for their externalising and internalising symptoms.

It was shown that 10% of the kids were at high risk for having poor mental health. Children in this group were substantially more likely to have encountered aggressive parenting.

Children’s parenting style at age three was measured using a second standardized test. The three parenting styles of warm parenting (supporting and responsive to their child’s needs), consistent parenting (making clear expectations and rules), and hostile parenting were used to create parents’ profiles.

The children fell into three broad categories based on the trajectories along which their mental health symptoms developed between ages three and nine. Most (83.5%) were low risk, with low internalizing and externalizing symptom scores at age three, which fell or remained stable. A few (6.43%) were a 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.

By the age of nine, hostile parenting increased a child’s chances of falling into the high-risk and mild-risk categories by 1.5 and 1.6 times, respectively. It was discovered that consistent parenting only slightly reduced the chance of harm to “mild-risk” children. Warm parenting did not, to the researchers’ surprise, improve the likelihood that children would belong to the low-risk group, presumably as a result of the impact of other factors on the outcomes of mental health.

It’s important to note that the study makes it apparent that parenting practices do not entirely predict mental health outcomes. Many risk variables, such as gender, physical health, and socioeconomic status, impact children’s mental health.

Nonetheless, the researchers contend that those involved in mental health care, teachers, and other practitioners should be aware of how parenting styles may affect a kid who exhibits symptoms of poor mental health. They suggest that providing additional support to parents of children who are already deemed to be at risk may aid in preventing the emergence of these issues.

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 suggesting that parents should not set firm boundaries for their children’s behavior. However, it is difficult to justify frequent harsh discipline, given the implications for mental health.”

Jennifer Symonds, Associate Professor in the School of Education, University College Dublin, said, “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.”

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 as simple as giving new parents clear, up-to-date information about how best to manage young children’s behavior in different situations. There is a danger that parenting style can exacerbate mental health risks. This is something we can easily take steps to address.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Ioannis Katsantonis and Jennifer E. Symonds. Population heterogeneity in developmental trajectories of internalising and externalising mental health symptoms in childhood: differential effects of parenting styles. Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences. DOI: 10.1017/S2045796023000094


See stories of the future in your inbox each morning.