Does it sometimes seem like your child is completely out of control? Does it try your patience, provoking you to yell, lash out, or resort to some other parenting move that you immediately regret? You’re absolutely not alone.
It can feel like nothing you do or say can get a worked up child to calm down, but a longitudinal study of children up through 7 years old shows that there’s a correlation between the way people parent and the way their child behaves — and when it comes to harsh parenting like yelling and hitting, it’s kind of like a downward spiral.
Researchers in the UK set out 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 out, the more you yell—but the more you yell, the more they act out.
The result is a new study, published in Child Development this spring, that found that misbehaving kids can lead to more harsh parenting, and that harsh parenting in turn creates kids who are misbehave more.
We’ve all been there, trapped in the cycle of nobody behaving their best. But how does this work, and is there anything families can do to break free?
Examining data collected from the Millennial Cohort Study, which has collected information from kids starting at 9 months through age 17, researchers focused on data collected up through age seven, and found that there was indeed a correlation between parenting style and kids’ problem behavior. The study’s authors decided to focus on this early-to-middle childhood period because it is when harsh parenting practices are most likely to be used, and also when kids’ emotional and behavioral issues start to show up.
Information about both parent and child behavior was collected from interviews with parents conducted in their homes, as well as from surveys filled out by a parent — almost always (98%) the mother. Questionnaires asked how often parents used ‘harsh’ disciplinary tactics like shouting, hitting, and ‘telling off,’ as well as withdrawal tactics like ignoring, sending a child to their room or a time out chair, and taking away ‘treats.’
Researchers found that harsh parenting tactics were associated with hyperactive and inattentive behaviors throughout ages 3-7, and that harsh parenting at age 5 was correlated with emotional problems at age 7. Emotional problems at at age 5 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 conduct problems at age 3, and also with emotional problems at age 7. However, there was not the same kind of relationship between conduct problems and harsh parenting over this same timespan, only a correlation between conduct 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 reaction from yelling at a 7-year-old, so it makes sense that it would have a different impact on their behavior as well. The authors also say that their results suggest the use of withdrawal tactics can reduce emotional problems and hyperactive/inattentive behaviors in ages 3-5, but may actually make them worse from ages 5-7. A time out, for example, might serve its purpose for a 3-year-old, but not a 6-year-old.
“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 told PsyPost. “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.”
Interestingly, as boys are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, the study’s authors did not find differences in this relationship between parenting style and behavior issues according to the sex of the children.
The study offers nothing to recommend harsh parenting tactics — there is no benefit at all. The authors write, “our results show that harsh parenting is at best ineffective for managing conduct problems.”
In fact the study led to their recommendation for better parental education about the downsides of harsh parenting tactics — and about better tools parents can use when raising their kids.
But if the more your kids misbehave, the more likely you are to resort to such tactics, you’re definitely not alone. The study found that when kids had conduct issues 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 no one specific thing you, as a parent, can do or say in order to get a handle on your kid’s troublesome behavior — but by avoiding harsh parenting tactics (not spanking, for example) and always taking into account where your child is at developmentally, you can at least have a positive influence on both their behavior and their emotional well-being.