If you’re looking for a solid reason to consider gentle parenting, here’s one: a recent study found that harsh discipline from parents puts kids at a greater risk of developing lifelong mental health problems. Keep reading to learn more, plus get some tips on more positive alternatives to hostile parenting.
Harsh Discipline Damages Kids’ Longterm Mental Health, Study Shows
I think by now you know that I’m a big advocate for using gentle parenting techniques. I truly feel that it helps me raise kinder kids and forge a stronger bond with them. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t let them just do whatever they want.
Contrary to popular misbeliefs, gentle parenting is NOT permissive parenting. It just means that I show my kids the same respect that I expect them to show me. It means I don’t treat them like they’re “hostiles” who need a “firm hand” or anything like that.
Deep down, I know that I’m raising them right. But it’s still always nice to see research prove what I know in my gut. That’s exactly what this study does: proves, to me at least, that I’m on the right track. Let’s check it out.
First, though, if you want to read the full study, it’s called “Population heterogeneity in developmental trajectories of internalising and externalising mental health symptoms in childhood: differential effects of parenting styles.” That’s a mouthful of a title, isn’t it? It’s also British, hence the spelling (those aren’t typos, I swear). You can find it here in the Journal of Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences. I’ll summarize it for your below, though, if you don’t have time to wade through a super-long article.
Here’s What the Study Says
Researchers at the University of Cambridge found that ”those exposed to ‘hostile’ parenting at age three were 1.5 times likelier to have ‘high risk’ mental health symptoms at age nine.” For the sake of the study, they define “hostile” parenting as “frequent harsh treatment: for example, shouting at children regularly, isolating them as a punishment, or unpredictable treatment depending on the parent’s mood.”
While the study acknowledges that “parenting is only one factor influencing mental health,” the researchers involved recommended that both teachers and mental health professionals should “be alert to its potential impact,” and that new parents should receive tailored support, guidance and training.
Researcher Ioannis Katsantonis, said, “Appropriate support could be something as simple as giving new parents clear, up-to-date information about how best to manage young children’s behaviour in different situations,” Katsantonis said. “There is clearly a danger that parenting style can exacerbate mental health risks. This is something we can easily take steps to address.”
What do other researchers say about hostile parenting?
This is far from the only study that shows harsh and hostile parenting does far more harm than good. Let’s quickly look at a few others. Then I’ll share some of my favorite tips for being a more positive parent.
First up, a 2012 joint study done by the University of Georgia, U of Iowa, and Emory University found that harsh parenting practices, including verbal aggression, physical punishment, and the withdrawal of love and support, were associated with poorer health outcomes in adolescents, including higher levels of stress and depression.
Last year in 2022, a study found that corporal punishment (spanking) actually affects brain activity and can lead to increased anxiety & depression in kids. That study builds on the results of one done by the University of Texas at Austin in 2021, which found that “physical punishment of children is not effective in preventing child behavior problems or promoting positive outcomes and instead predicts increases in behavior problems and other poor outcomes over time.”
Then there’s the 2017 study done by Hokkaido University that I found particularly intriguing. Researchers looked at punishment in a broader sense (versus just in terms of parenting). The results of this one are interesting for two reasons:
- First, researchers found that punishment is not an effective tool to “get members of society to cooperate for the common good.” In other words, threatening people with punishment (or actually punishing them) didn’t really make them want to be better people.
- Second, when asked why punishment is so pervasive in human society despite its lack of results, one researcher explained that “It could be that human brains are hardwired to derive pleasure from punishing competitors. Another added. “However, it is more likely that, in real life, a dominant side has the ability to punish without provoking retaliation.”
Let me clarify something. I don’t interpret this to mean that parents enjoy punishing their kids. Yes, sadly, there probably are parents like that, but I don’t think your average mom or dad thinks, “Punishing little Timmy is just SO much fun, especially because he can’t fight back!” However, it does kind of show that punishments are more beneficial to the punisher than the “punishee,” if that makes sense.
These are just a handful of the studies that I found on all of the drawbacks of hostile parenting styles. There are a lot more out there. Just search “punishment” on a site like Science Daily and you’ll find a long list. While not all of them relate to parenting, there are definitely enough to make you want to find more positive ways to handle your kids’ mistakes and missteps. This brings us to…
Positive Parenting Alternatives to Harsh Discipline
There are plenty of positive alternatives to harsh discipline that can help your children thrive AND learn to be responsible adults. Here are a few methods that I find work well with my kids.
1. Connect and bond with your kids
As Dr. Laura Markham, author of Calm Parents, Happy Kids, wrote, “Our children need to know that we take joy in them or they don’t see themselves as worth loving. In fact, your ability to enjoy your child may be the most important factor in his development.”
I really believe that spending time together as a family is such an important part of positive parenting. Having a good relationship with your kids not only helps them feel safer and more secure, but it can also go a long way toward raising responsible children. When you take the time to build a real bond, your kids are also far more likely to respect your rules because they respect YOU.
2. Set crystal-clear boundaries
Kids aren’t mind readers. They need clear boundaries so they know what you expect of them. Just make sure your rules are age-appropriate and explained in a positive way.
3. Focus on reinforcing good behavior
Praise your child when they do something good, and focus on the behavior you want to encourage rather than the behavior you want to discourage. That doesn’t mean that you have to lavish your kids with praise every time they wash the dishes when you ask them to or anything. But a quick “Thanks!” can go a long way.
4. Use natural and logical consequences:
This is a two-parter, but they go together really well. A natural consequence is something that happens as a result of your child’s actions. For example, you tell your son not to play so rough with his toys because they’ll break. You also let him know that if they break, you won’t buy him a new one. He still plays rough and, of course, the toy breaks. Not having that toy anymore is the natural consequence. He doesn’t really need any additional punishment beyond you sticking to what you already said about not buying a new one.
You’ve heard the saying, “Let the punishment fit the crime,” right? That’s pretty much what we’re doing when we use logical consequences. Say Tommy broke his brother’s toy instead of his own. A logical consequence would be to make him use his own allowance to replace that toy for his brother. You could also give him age-appropriate extra chores to help him “earn” the money to pay for his brother’s toy.
5. Use time-in instead of time-out
On the surface, time-outs don’t really seem like “harsh” punishments, but they’re actually pretty traumatic for kids. Aha Parenting has a great article explaining why. The article explains that the “love withdrawal” associated with time-outs leads children to misbehave even more than they would if they received no punishment at all.
The author goes on to say that “Children act badly when they are dysregulated, and that they need to feel connected to calm down and act better. Timeouts disconnect the child from the adult, so they don’t help the child to behave better.”
So, instead of isolating your child as a punishment, spend time with them and help them calm down. This can be a great opportunity to connect and teach your child how to regulate their emotions.
6. Practice active listening and empathy
Kids act out for a reason. Granted, it’s not always what we adults would consider a logical or rational reason, but there’s always some sort of reason. The next time your child does something that they’re not supposed to, ask them why they did it. Then actually (and actively) listen to them. Don’t interrupt, and don’t make that “mom face” at them (you know exactly which face I mean, that one that says “This is bull and as soon as you’re done talking, I’ll tell you exactly why it’s bull”). Just listen.
When they’re done talking, acknowledge what they said. Let them know that you really heard them and empathize with them. Really try to see things from their perspective. Then go back to the 4th tip and set consequences that fit the “crime” while also taking their reasoning into account.
For example, going back to Tommy breaking his brother’s toy. You ask him why he did it. He tells you in his own preschooler way that he’s angry that his brother gets all of the attention now. HE (Tommy) was the baby, why did you have to go and have Timmy? It’s not fair!
At this point, some parents would snap and say “Life isn’t fair, so get over it.” Others would maybe explain that one day he’ll be grateful that he has a sibling to share his life with. Others still might just put Tommy in time-out until he apologizes.
I’m not saying any of those responses are particularly wrong (well, maybe the first one isn’t the best way to handle things). But consider this: not a single one of those punishments makes Tommy feel heard and understood or addresses the underlying reason behind Tommy’s anger. Does Tommy deserve some sort of consequence for breaking his brother’s toy? Yes, absolutely. But this little boy is trying to tell you that he feels left out and left behind. That needs addressing, too.
7. Take care of yourself
Last, but oh so very far from least, self-care is a BIG part of being a positive parent. As they say, you can’t pour from an empty cup. We’re far less patient and more “reactive” when we’re exhausted and frazzled.
Positive parenting benefits YOU and your child in the long run
I’ll leave you with one last quote from parenting expert Jane Nelson. She writes, “With wisdom, patience, and love, you can create a home where your child feels safe, secure, and free to grow and learn, and where she can become a responsible, respectful, and resourceful person—and where you will find joy in your parenting role.”
Positive parenting can have long-term benefits for both you and your child. Studies have shown that children who experience positive parenting are more likely to have better mental health, social skills, and academic success. So, take some time to reflect on your parenting approach and try to incorporate some of these positive alternatives to harsh discipline.
Remember, parenting is a journey, and it’s okay to make mistakes. The important thing is to keep learning and growing as a parent.