Parenting styles that included physical discipline and overcontrolling behavior, referred to as "hostile" parenting, were found to nearly double the risk for their children to develop mental health symptoms, according to a new study.
The study, published Thursday in the medical journal Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences, followed over 7,500 children in Ireland from 9 months old until they were up to 9 years old.
Children who were exposed to hostile parenting at age 3 were 1 1/2 times more likely to have high-risk mental health symptoms and 1.6 times more likely to have mild-risk mental health symptoms by age 9.
"Our findings suggest that hostile parenting should be avoided as much as possible in early childhood if we want to prevent children from developing increased mental health symptoms," said lead author Dr. Ioannis Katsantonis, a doctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge. "We found that children in the high-risk class had parents with greater stress and greater likelihood of ongoing physical and mental health problems. These parents might need additional support and resources to address their own needs and enhance their parenting skills."
Lead co-author Dr. Jennifer Symonds, an associate professor at the University College Dublin, reiterated the need for parental support to promote mental well-being in children.
"Our findings underline the importance of doing everything possible to ensure that parents are supported," Symonds said.
"Nobody is born knowing how to parent. What I appreciate about this study is that it’s advocating for us to give more support to parents in terms of evidence-based parent management programs. These should be readily accessible in all communities for parents," according to Dr. Anju Hurria, a child psychiatrist at the University of California, Irvine, who was not involved in the study.
The impact on consistent parenting on mental health
Consistent parenting, where expectations and rules are consistently applied, was found to be mildly protective in children at lower risk for developing mental health symptoms. In addition to rules being set, Katsantonis highlights that consistency refers to parental expectations regarding their children’s behavior, and to the consequences of misbehaving.
"Consistent parenting may help because it provides children with a sense of predictability and security, which can act as a buffer against worsening mental health," said Katsantonis.
The researchers unexpectedly did not find any change in risk for mental health symptoms with "warm" parenting styles, which previous research has suggested is protective.
"This underlines the fact that parenting is not the only factor shaping mental health. The impacts of low income, living in a lone-parent household, being a female child, facing health issues or having parents with health problems could all to some extent absorb any positive benefits of warm parenting in terms of mental health," said Katsantonis.
"Of course, mental health symptoms are not just caused by parenting techniques," said Hurria. "There are many factors, such as genetics. But this does give us one area to intervene."
Keerthana Kumar, M.D., M.P.H., a preventive medicine resident at the University of Kentucky, is a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.
If you are in crisis or know someone in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. You can reach Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada) and The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386.