Does it sometimes seem like your child is completely out of control? Does it test your patience, provoke you to yell, lash out, or resort to another parenting move that you immediately regret? You are absolutely not alone.
It may feel like nothing you do or say can calm an upset child, but a longitudinal study of children up to 7 years old shows that there is a correlation between the way people parent and the way their child behave – and when it comes to harsh parenting like yelling and hitting, it’s kind of a downward spiral.
Researchers in the UK tried to see if there was evidence to support Patterson’s hypothesis, the theory that “maladaptive” parenting practices lead to more misbehavior in children, and vice versa. In other words, the more they act, the more you yell – but the more you yell, the more they act.
The result is a new study, published in Child development this spring, which found that misbehavior can lead children to more harsh parenting, and that harsh parenting in turn creates more misbehaving children.
We’ve all been there, caught in the cycle of nobodies on their best behavior. But how does it work, and is there anything families can do to break free?
Examining data collected from the Millennial Cohort Study, which collected information from children from 9 months to age 17, researchers focused on data collected up to seven years and found that there was indeed a correlation between parenting style and children’s problem behaviour. The study’s authors decided to focus on these early-to-middle childhood years because this is when harsh parenting practices are likely to be used, and also when children’s emotional and behavioral issues begin to emerge.
Information on both parent and child behavior was collected from interviews with parents conducted in their homes, as well as from surveys completed by a parent – almost always (98%) the mother. Questionnaires asked how often parents used ‘harsh’ disciplinary tactics such as shouting, hitting and ‘telling off’, as well as withdrawal tactics such as ignoring, sending a child to their room or a booster seat, and taking away ‘treats’.
Researchers found that harsh parenting tactics were associated with hyperactive and inattentive behavior through ages 3-7, and that harsh parenting at age 5 was correlated with emotional problems at age 7. Emotional problems at age 5 were also correlated with harsh parenting at age 7. The relationship between a parent’s use of withdrawal tactics and a child’s behavioral or emotional problems was less consistent over time.
Researchers did find that a combination of harsh and withdrawing parenting tactics correlated with behavioral problems at age 3, and also with emotional problems at age 7. However, there was not the same kind of relationship between behavioral problems and harsh parenting over the same time period, only a correlation between behavior problems at age 3 and harsh parenting at age 5.
The authors suggest that the differences in the impact of parenting tactics at different ages may be a result of the significant developmental growth that occurs in children from early to middle childhood. We know that yelling at a toddler will elicit a different response than yelling at a 7-year-old, so it makes sense that it would also have a different impact on their behavior. The authors also say that their results suggest that the use of withdrawal tactics may reduce emotional problems and hyperactive/inattentive behavior in ages 3-5, but may actually worsen from ages 5-7. For example, a time-out may serve its purpose for a 3-year-old, but not a 6-year-old.
“Findings highlight not only that parenting practices such as slapping or yelling can have adverse effects on children’s mental health, but also that children presenting with behavioral problems can place additional strain on maternal parenting behavior,” the researchers told PsyPost. “Therefore, it is crucial for interventions aimed at reducing the incidence of socio-emotional problems, and especially the co-occurrence of emotional and behavioral problems, to focus on the whole family system and specifically on parenting behaviours.”
Interestingly, since boys are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, the study’s authors did not find differences in this relationship between parenting style and behavioral issues according to the gender of the children.
The study offers nothing to recommend harsh parenting tactics – there is no benefit. The authors write, “our results show that harsh parenting is at most ineffective in managing behavior problems.”
In fact, the study led to their recommendation for better parent education about the downsides of harsh parenting tactics—and about better tools parents can use when raising their children.
But if the more your kids misbehave, the more likely you are to use such tactics, you’re certainly not alone. The study found that when children had behavior problems at age 3, their parents were more likely to use both harsh and withdrawal tactics at age 5.
These findings support the general consensus that treatment for behavioral and emotional issues in children should involve both the child and their parents.
Unfortunately, there is not one specific thing you can do or say as a parent to get your child’s troublesome behavior under control – but by avoiding harsh parenting tactics (for example, not hitting) and always taking into account where your child is is developmental, you can at least have a positive influence on both their behavior and their emotional well-being.