'Hostile' parenting increases risk of child mental health issues

One in 10 children were in the high-risk category for mental health problems


A recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Cambridge and University College Dublin (UCD) has found that children who are subjected to "hostile" parenting at the age of three are 1.5 times more likely to develop high-risk mental health problems by the age of nine. 

The study monitored over 7,500 children and examined their mental health symptoms at ages three, five, and nine, taking into account both internalising symptoms like anxiety and social withdrawal, as well as externalising symptoms such as impulsivity, aggression, and hyperactivity. The research discovered that 10% of the children studied were at high-risk for poor mental health, and those who had experienced harsh parenting were more likely to fall into this category. 

The study has been published in the journal Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences

Hostile parenting involves frequent harsh discipline, that could be physical and/or psychological. It could, for example, involve shouting at children regularly, routine physical punishment, isolating children when they misbehave, damaging their self-esteem, or punishing children unpredictably depending on the parent's mood.

While the researchers make it clear that parenting style does not definitively determine mental health outcomes, they do argue that mental health professionals, teachers and other practitioners need to be alert to children displaying poor mental health.

"The fact that one in 10 children were in the high-risk category for mental health problems is a concern and we ought to be aware of the part parenting may play in that," Ioannis Katsantonis, co-lead researcher, University of Cambridge, said.

"We are not for a moment suggesting that parents should not set firm boundaries for their children's behaviour, but it is difficult to justify frequent harsh discipline, given the implications for mental health," said Katsantonis.

Using data from 7,507 participants in the Growing up in Ireland' longitudinal study of children and young people, scientists used Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, a standard assessment tool, to capture mental health data.

They gave each child a composite score out of 10 for all their symptoms at ages three, five and nine.

They used a second standard assessment to measure the parenting style children experienced at age three.

Parents' tendencies towards each of three styles were measured - warm parenting (supportive and attentive to their child's needs); consistent (setting clear expectations and rules); and hostile.

Based on the mental health symptom development trajectories, the study broadly classified the children into three categories.

83.5 per cent of them were at low risk, with low symptom scores at age three, remaining stable or falling thereafter.

6.43 per cent of the participants were at mild-risk, with high initial symptom scores reducing with time but still being higher than the first group.

The remaining 10.07 per cent were high-risk, with high initial scores that increased by age nine.

Hostile parenting raised a child's chances of being in the high-risk category by 1.5 times, and the mild-risk category by 1.6 times, by age nine, the researchers found.

Consistent parenting was found to have a limited protective role, but only against children falling into the mild-risk' category.

To the researchers' surprise, however, warm parenting did not increase the likelihood of children being in the low-risk group, possibly due to the influence of other factors on mental health outcomes.

Jennifer Symonds, co-lead researcher and associate professor, UCD, said, "Avoiding a hostile emotional climate at home won't necessarily prevent poor mental health outcomes from occurring, but it will probably help." 

(Wih inputs from PTI)