Harsh parenting – how to hit the moving target

Harsh parenting – how to hit the moving target
18 February 2010

However it is interpreted, there can be no doubting the connection between harsh physical discipline and risks to children’s healthy development.

The friction may indicate frailties in parenting, challenging behavioral problems in infancy or – as likely – some variable combination of the two.

Even less thoroughly understood are the dynamics behind the interaction, beyond the simple observation that disciplinary practices are not static and they are influenced by developmental competencies and fluctuating family circumstances.

A study by researchers at three US universities has begun to tease out the factors governing different developmental trajectories using data from two longitudinal studies, the Child Development Project (CPD) in Pittsburgh and the Pitt Mother-Child Project (PMCP) in Auburn and Indiana.

Their premise was that physical discipline becomes less developmentally appropriate as children mature. They hypothesized, for example, that where parents continued to resort to smacking in early adolescence, it indicated that they were not adjusting well to their children’s developmental changes – possibly as a result of their own disadvantage.

Led by Jennifer Lansford at Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy, the researchers found – much as predicted – that parents typically adjusted their disciplinary regime in response to their children's improving cognitive abilities, using less extreme measures (spanking, slapping, hitting with an object) with the passing years.

When physical discipline continued through childhood, by the time children were teenagers, behavior problems were more likely. Similarly, teenagers of parents who had stopped using physical discipline when their children were young were less likely to experience such setbacks.

"Given these findings, mental health specialists and others who work with families should encourage parents to refrain from using physical discipline," Lansford told the US Science Daily.

"They should also help parents to come up with alternate strategies – especially mothers who are at high risk of using harsh physical discipline because their children's behavior is challenging or they are dealing with a lot of stress in their environment."

"Low income, low educational attainment, single parenthood, family stress, and living in a dangerous neighborhood form a constellation of risk that increases the chances that parents will continue to use physical discipline with their children," Lansford added. "Parents are also more likely to continue using physical discipline with children who behave aggressively."

The researchers set another research hare running by acknowledging the impact of a wider range of parenting behavior.

“If decreases in physical discipline are accompanied by increases in harsh verbal discipline, then children may be exposed to aggressive discipline practices consistently, even if the specific form that it takes changes developmentally.”

So they argue in their report in the journal Child Development that future research might profit from linking the study of trajectories of physical discipline with the study of trajectories of other types of parenting, and trying to relate them all to children's successful adjustment.

Lansford’s team also recommend investigating reasons for the steep age-related decline in the use of physical discipline among some groups as a basis for work with other parents on discipline-related issues.

They conclude:

    Although several theoretical accounts describe how the parent–child relationship should change over time, few empirical studies have investigated such change. With this study, we now have preliminary data showing how parent–child relationships change in two developmental periods in a normative and high-risk, low-income sample.
    Furthermore, although numerous cross-sectional and longitudinal studies have demonstrated that parent–child interactions and relationship quality in general and parental discipline techniques in particular are important predictors of children's adjustment, few studies have investigated what may be the early childhood antecedents and outcomes of changes in parent–child relationships over time.

See: Lansford et al. “Trajectories of Physical Discipline: Early Childhood Antecedents and Developmental Outcomes” Child Development, 2009; 80 (5): 1385 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2009.01340.x

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