New research from Iowa State University suggests that strict parenting may result in an increased risk for poor physical health in children, as well as the increasing the possibility for obesity later in life.
For the purposes of the study, harsh parenting was defined by assistant professor Thomas Schofield as "parents who reject, coerce, are physically aggressive and are self-centered."
Study results show that such a parenting style results in a chronic stressful environment for the child. Increased exposure to such an environment is found to have lasting effects on the developing brain, not only in childhood but into early adolescence. According to previous research, negative biological responses are associated with chronic stress, including chronic release of hormones, inflammation and lower cardiovascular reactivity.
Attempts made by one parent at "good cop" parenting was not found to have enough of a counterbalance to the "bad cop" parenting style already in place, reports Kait McKinney for WhoTV.
"The best thing we can do is encourage parents to not be harsh. If we want to make sure we're protecting children's health and positive physical health into young adulthood, the best and safest conclusion is to avoid being harsh," Schofield said.
While study participants did not show differences in physical health or body mass index at the beginning of adolescence, suggesting the negative health effects had not been preexisting, they did tend to continue throughout early adulthood even after leaving their parents' homes, writes Elizabeth Anderson for Parent Herald.
Researchers believe the findings open up additional questions that need to be looked into further. For example, the negative effects on physical health resulting from the harsh parenting could be softened from a warm and nurturing coparent. However, in experiments which looked at the effect on body mass index, the health risk associated with harsh parenting increased as warmth from the second parent increased.
"Harshness leads to problems with physical health, and no matter how hard a spouse tries they may not be able to erase those effects," said Schofield. "Instead of saying, âI'm the law and my wife is the gospel' or something like that, better to acknowledge that in terms of harshness, your spouse is not going to be a buffer for the child, so behave responsibly."
The study is one of the first to have used data from observed parent-child interactions, as well as to have noted any changes in the child's health over the years spanning adolescence and early adulthood.
For the study, interactions between 451 two-parent families were videotaped by researchers, who then used the footage to determine parenting behavior. While no parent in the study physically hit their child during the taping, other signs of physical aggression were observed, including pinching and pushing.
A number of factors were controlled for in the study by researchers, including family per capita income-to-needs ratio, adolescent gender, parent education and family size. Other factors such as smoking, overeating, parent income, and family structure were not found to change the results.
According to Schofield, many parents may not be aware of their harsh behavior toward their children, but are merely treating them how they had been treated by their own parents.