Parents who harshly discipline their young children may be putting them on a path toward lasting mental health symptoms, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that among 7,500 children followed from age 3 to 9, about 10% fell into a "high risk" group where mental health symptoms -- ranging from persistent sadness to acting out -- worsened over the years.
And children whose parents often used harsh discipline, including yelling or physical punishment, were about 50% more likely than their peers to end up in that group.
Experts said the findings, published March 30 in the journal Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences, underscore an important reality: Some parents need to learn better strategies for managing young children's behavior.
That might mean a "timeout" to nip a tantrum in the bud, according to study leader Ioannis Katsantonis, a doctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
But it also means setting up clear and consistent behavior rules that young kids can understand.
In this study, "consistent" parenting styles seemed to have benefits for children's mental well-being. For those families, kids' early-childhood behavior and emotional issues typically improved over time.
"This could be because consistent parenting provides children with a sense of predictability and security, which can act as a buffer against worsening mental health," Katsantonis said.
When parents are consistent, he said, it suggests they "have a positive and secure relationship with their child, whereby they are responsive and warm towards their child, while setting clear boundaries and expectations."
The findings are based on just over 7,500 children in Ireland who were part of a national health study. When the children were 3, 5 and 9 years old, their parents completed standard questionnaires gauging kids' "internalizing" and "externalizing" behaviors.
Internalizing symptoms have to do with emotions -- when kids are persistently sad, anxious or withdrawn, for example. Externalizing symptoms are directed outward, and include problems like aggression, impulsivity and defiance.
Overall, the study found, roughly 10% of children showed a pattern of worsening internalizing or externalizing symptoms over the years. In contrast, most kids -- about 84% -- were consistently on the low end of the spectrum for emotional symptoms, and grew out of any early-childhood behavior issues.
A small percentage of kids had a higher-than-normal level of symptoms, but did show some improvement over time.
It turned out that the way parents managed their 3-year-old's behavior was key in their child's mental health trajectory. When parents scored high (by their own reports) on the "hostile parenting" scale, their child was 50% more likely to fall into the high-risk group, versus kids whose parents were low on that scale.
Hostile parenting can mean frequently yelling, unpredictably doling out punishment, name-calling or physically punishing a child.
Given what's already known about those tactics, the new findings are no surprise, said Gregory Fosco, a professor of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University.
"These harsh, over-reactive parenting strategies put kids at risk," said Fosco, who was not involved in the study.
He noted that the ways in which parents manage their young child's behavior do not exist in a vacuum: Parents who use harsh means may have a lot of stressors in their lives, and possibly their own mental health issues, for example.
Even when that's the case, though, Fosco said that parents can learn "alternative skills" that might improve the whole family's well-being.
"When a child starts to show they're doing better, that often helps parents' mental health, too," Fosco said.
Like Katsantonis, he pointed to the importance of consistency and keeping your cool: Make clear rules about how you expect your child to behave, and be consistent about following through with "reasonable consequences" for misbehavior, like a timeout. Also, use calm, neutral tones instead of yelling and issuing threats.
"You can learn to use clear consequences, without things escalating to that degree," Fosco said.
At the same time, he added, not all misbehavior needs a response. Sometimes parents can spare everyone some drama if they let a minor incident go.
Fosco also recommended that parents learn to "be kind to themselves," and find ways to get some stress relief.
"You'll be able to respond to your children more calmly if you're also taking care of yourself," he said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has advice on disciplining your kids.
SOURCES: Ioannis Katsantonis, MPhil, doctoral researcher, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, U.K.; Gregory M. Fosco, PhD, professor, human development and family studies, and psychology, Pennsylvania State University, University Park; Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences, March 30, 2023, online