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New Study: Harsh Discipline is Associated with More Behavioral Problems

There was an interesting study published online this week in the journal Pediatrics:
 

The most important finding of this study was that harsh discipline tactics don’t lead to healthy, well-behaved children.

This was a longitudinal study (meaning that the same groups of kids were studied at several different time points) of Australian children in which 5107 infants (3-19 months) were monitored several times up until age 4-5 years and 4983 preschoolers (4-5-year-olds) were monitored up until age 8-9 years.  Between enrollment in the study and the final assessment, 86% and 87% of the infants and preschoolers, respectively, remained in the study.  That makes this a relatively large study with a good retention rate.

Child mental health was assessed with the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire.  The SDQ, which can be downloaded in just about any language HERE, asks the parent or caregiver to mark whether statements about their children are “not true,” “somewhat true,” or “certainly true.”  For example, the SDQ asks if your child is “restless, overactive, cannot stay still for long,” or is “nervous or clingy in new situations, easily loses confidence.”

The study authors used the SDQ to determine if children had symptoms of externalizing or internalizing mental health problems.  Externalizing problems are related to aggression and oppositional defiance.  Internalizing problems include anxiety and depression.  Among the kids in this study, 20% had externalizing problems and 24% had internalizing problems at 6-7 years of age.  In the 8-9-year-old group, 17% had externalizing and 24% had internalizing problems.

The researchers measured a wide array of potential risk factors for mental health issues, including family factors (such as mother’s age, education, single parent home, socioeconomic status), child factors (sex, race, physical health, language development, sibling), parenting practices, mother’s mental health, various family life stressors (conflicts, grief/illness, job quality), and community factors (type of childcare, rough neighborhoods).  I would say that the study was fairly comprehensive in measuring a wide range of factors that might influence a child’s mental health.  However, a major limitation of the study was that they didn’t look at the fathers at all, except for noting whether or not they were present – nothing on the fathers’ mental health or parenting practices.

The researchers built statistical models in which they tried to explain the children’s mental health outcomes using all of those risk factors that I just listed.  They found that 20-30% (depending on the group) of mental health problems were associated with the risk factors I listed above.  The other 70-80% are associated with factors that the study didn’t examine, such as genetics, exercise, diet, or factors related to the kids’ fathers.  20-30% doesn’t seem like much, but that isn’t surprising when you consider that behavior and mental health are so complicated.

Here are the most important findings of this study:

Of all of the potential risk factors that I listed above, harsh discipline was the strongest and most consistent predictor of externalizing problems in both age groups evaluated.  That is, as defined in this study, kids that were smacked or yelled at were more likely to be aggressive and defiant.

Internalizing problems (anxiety and depression) were also higher in kids who were harshly disciplined, but in addition were consistently associated with kids with health problems, only children, and maternal emotional stress.  In the 4-5-year-olds, over-involved and over-protective parenting styles were also associated with internalizing problems.

A limitation of any longitudinal study like this one is that it is purely observational.  It can show that factors are associated with one another, but it can’t prove a causal relationship.  That is, this study can’t prove that harsh discipline causes more behavioral problems, it only says that kids that are disciplined harshly also have more behavioral problems.  This can lead to chicken and egg type questions.  For example, it is possible that kids that the kids are disciplined harshly because for whatever reason they have more behavioral problems, and their parents just don’t know how else to respond.  Finding out if harsh discipline makes the situation worse would require a study with an intervention – something that would compare two groups of kids, one whose parents had coaching on respectful, nonviolent discipline and another whose parents did not.  Either way, this study does show that in kids with behavioral problems, yelling and hitting are not an effective discipline strategy.  If harsh discipline worked, then the study would have shown that it was associated with kids without problems.

I wasn’t surprised by these findings, and you probably aren’t either.  Here’s why the study is important:  It gives people who work with young kids and their parents specific risk factors to watch for.  Pediatricians, educators, and social workers can use these factors to identify high-risk kids, check in with them, and talk with kids and their parents about mental health.  They might mention that hitting and yelling at kids doesn’t resolve their behavioral problems, at least not in Australia.

One surprise finding…

Mothers who had at least two alcoholic drinks per day had kids with fewer externalizing and internalizing problems.  Having been on the science side of research before, I can just imagine the authors of this study groaning when they found this result.  They tried to find another way to explain it but couldn’t.  That’s science for you.  It doesn’t always make sense.  The authors of this study guess that this particular finding is “attributable to chance.”  It is more fun to imagine that these moms put their feet up and enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine after the kids went to bed, maybe helping to offset some of that maternal emotional distress.

Pure speculation on my part (NOT medical advice!), but on that note, I think I’m done for the night:)

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7 Comments
  1. Alice,I am curious what the correlation is with the externalization and internalization is when father is present verses not present/involved. I think single parents may be more likely to discipline too harshly or respond inappropriately if he/she is the only one. Having another person to step to say "listen to your mother" while you collect yourself is critical. There is nothing more frazzling than a toddler having a temper tantrum. If my husband wasn't there to step in, there are times I could have lost my cool and spanked out of anger.

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    September 9, 2011
  2. Kim – In this study, there were no significant correlations between single-parent families and either externalization or internalization issues. What you are saying makes complete sense to me, though. Maybe in this population there was too much variation in whether or not the father or partner was helpful to make it show up as a correlation. It seems like it would be really dependent on whether or not you were on the same page as to how you wanted to deal with discipline issues. I think the fact that they didn't look at father/partner issues is a major shortcoming of the study in this day and age.

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    September 9, 2011
  3. I kind of wonder why they relied solely on the mother's reporting of the behaviors- both theirs and their children's.I find that some parents who are super strict also seem to have a lower tolerance for the fidgeting and rambunctiousness that is standard for little kids.

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    September 10, 2011
  4. I cannot help but thinking about how parents have so much more influence in the ways that they handle themselves than by anything we say, explain, make rules for, etc. It does seem natural that yelling and hitting a child teaches them that if they want to be convincing, they should try yelling and hitting.

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    September 10, 2011
  5. In all my recent thinking about discipline, I keep coming back to cultivating empathy – showing empathy for our kids and in doing so, teaching them to be empathetic of others, including their parents! It is the opposite of using aggression or shame to discipline. I just read a post about understanding toddlers that I absolutely love:http://www.regardingbaby.org/2008/08/02/a-childs-view/Thank you all for reading and commenting!

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    September 10, 2011
  6. I am a single mom, and while my daughter's father is active in her life, he's not here every day, so it does make a difference in how I parent on some days. I think that it's important to examine how fathers interact with their kids. I think the fact that this study examined only mothers is very telling about our societal standards for mothers, and perhaps, why we, collectively, suffer more depression and anxiety related to how we parent, while dads are given props just for being involved in their kids lives. A problem, that we, as a society need to correct. Moms AND dads have roles in their children's behavior and upbringing. Thanks for this great post! I'll be checking in again. I love the science behind anything, but in the past three years, particularly parenting.

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    September 10, 2011
  7. Thanks Martha – I totally agree! It is so true that our society expects more out of mothers when it comes to parenting. Plenty of families defy that norm, and yeah, those dads are (rightfully) praised for their involvement. Meanwhile, this study did find that maternal stress was a major predictor of anxiety and depression in kids. I loved this little video about why parental happiness is so important:http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/raising_happiness/post/tuesday_tip_parentalhappiness/Its a little warm and fuzzy, but it is sciency too:)

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    September 10, 2011

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