What came first: harsh parenting techniques or conduct problems in children? This can seem like a chicken and egg problem. A new study published in Child Development finds that there is a reciprocal relationship between parenting style and child behaviors, suggesting that altering parenting behavior could greatly help children with socioemotional difficulties.
Having socioemotional behaviors in childhood is linked with increased chances of adverse outcomes later in life, such as mental health issues and delinquent behavior. It is imperative to understand the risk factors of developing these socioemotional problems early, in order to put forth effort to prevent them.
Harsh parenting is one such risk factor and can include behaviors such as yelling and spanking. Patterson’s coercion model views behavioral problems and maladaptive parenting as having a bidirectional relationship, with each increasing the other. Support for this model has been mixed, and this research seeks to further investigate the relationship.
Lead author Lydia Gabriela Speyer and her colleagues utilized families from the United Kingdom who were taking part in a longitudinal study following children from ages 0 to 17. Data was collected at 9 months, 3, 5, 7, 11, 14 and 17 years old. The current study utilized all children who participated in all waves up to 7 years old. Trained interviewers visited homes for data collection and measures included a strengths and difficulties measure and a conflict tactics measure. These scales accounted for children’s’ behaviors and parenting techniques.
Results showed support for Patterson’s coercion model. Harsh parenting techniques were related to hyperactivity at age 5 and emotional problems at age 7. Conduct problems in children at age 3 were associated with harsh parenting at age 5, and hyperactivity and emotional problems at age 5 were both associated with harsh parenting at age 7. This supports bidirectionality for hyperactivity and harsh parenting but does not support bidirectionality for conduct problems and harsh parenting. Withdrawal tactics in parenting were shown to be beneficial during preschool years but could lead to adverse effects during the 5 to 7 age range.
This research sought to further explore the relationship between parenting and socioemotional problems in children. Despite the benefits of this study and its advantageous nuances, it also has limitations. Firstly, the data collected was almost exclusively mother-reported. Additionally, the measures used to assess disciplinary parenting lacked strong reliability, which could skew data.
“Findings not only highlight that parenting practices such as smacking, or shouting may have detrimental effects on children’s mental health but also that children presenting with behavioral issues may place additional strain on maternal parenting behaviors,” the researchers concluded. “Consequently, it is crucial for interventions aiming to reduce the occurrence of socioemotional problems, and particularly the co-occurrence of emotional and conduct problems, to focus on the whole family system and specifically on parenting behaviors.”
“Furthermore, considering that harsh parenting is still used, more attention should be paid to public health campaigns that can inform parents about the potential harmful effects of such parenting practices on children’s socioemotional development and equip them with alternative, more adaptive parenting tools.”
The study, “The role of harsh parenting practices in early- to middle-childhood socioemotional development: An examination in the Millennium Cohort Study“, was authored by Lydia Gabriela Speyer, Yuzhan Hang, Hildigunnur Anna Hall, and Aja Louise Murray.