Study finds bidirectional relationship between child hyperactivity and harsh parenting

Which came first: harsh parenting techniques or behavioral problems in children? This can look 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 behavior, suggesting that changing parenting behavior could greatly help children with social-emotional problems.

Having socio-emotional behavior in childhood is associated with a greater chance of adverse consequences later in life, such as psychological problems and delinquent behavior. Understanding the risk factors for developing these social-emotional problems early on is imperative so that you can make an effort to prevent them.

Harsh parenting is one such risk factor and can include behaviors like yelling and hitting. Patterson’s coercive model views behavioral problems and maladjusted parenting as a two-way relationship, with one magnifying the other. Support for this model is mixed, and this study seeks to explore the relationship further.

Lead author Lydia Gabriela Speyer and her colleagues used families from the United Kingdom who participated in a longitudinal study that followed children ages 0 to 17. Data were collected at 9 months, 3, 5, 7, 11, 14 and 17 years of age. The current study used all children who participated in all waves up to 7 years old. Trained interviewers visited homes for data collection and measures included a strength and difficulty measurement and a conflict tactics measurement. These scales accounted for children’s behavior and parenting techniques.

The results showed support for Patterson’s coercion model. Harsh parenting techniques were related to hyperactivity at age 5 and emotional distress at age 7. Behavioral problems in 3 year olds were associated with hard parenting at 5 years old, and hyperactivity and emotional problems at 5 years old were both associated with hard parenting at 7 years old. This supports bidirectional behavior for hyperactivity and hard parenting, but does not support bidirectional behavior for behavioral problems and hard parenting. Withdrawal tactics in parenting were found to be beneficial during the preschool years, but could lead to adverse effects in the 5 to 7 year age range.

This study aimed to further investigate the relationship between parenting and social-emotional problems in children. Despite the advantages of this study and its favorable nuances, it also has limitations. First, the data collected were reported almost exclusively by the mother. In addition, the measures used to assess disciplinary parenting were not very reliable, which could skew the data.

“Findings highlight not only that parenting practices such as hitting or yelling can have adverse effects on children’s mental health, but also that children with behavioral problems may put additional pressure on the mother’s parenting behavior,” the researchers concluded. “Therefore, it is critical that interventions aimed at reducing the occurrence of socio-emotional problems, and in particular the co-occurrence of emotional and behavioral problems, target the whole family system and specifically parenting behavior.”

“In addition, as harsh parenting continues to be used, more attention should be paid to public health campaigns that can educate parents about the potential harmful effects of such parenting practices on children’s socio-emotional development and equip them with alternative, more adaptive parenting tools.”

The study, “The Role of Harsh Parenting Practices in Early-to-Middle Childhood Socioeconomic Development: An Examination in the Millennium Cohort Study,” was authored by Lydia Gabriela Speyer, Yuzhan Hang, Hildigunnur Anna Hall, and Aja Louise Murray.

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