Harsh parenting can adversely affect a child’s brain development

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  • A new study looked at how parenting practices can affect a child's brain development
  • They found that harsh parenting practices can lead to smaller brains in adolescence
  • These practices include shouting, hitting and shaking 

A new study, published in Development and Psychopathology, suggests that harsh parenting practices may have negative outcomes for children.

The study, led by Sabrina Suffren, found that harsh parenting practices, which include yelling, shaking, hitting and directing anger at children is associated with smaller brain structures in adolescence.

“The implications go beyond changes in the brain. I think what's important for parents and society to understand is that the frequent use of harsh parenting practices can harm a child's development,” Suffren said. “We're talking about their social and emotional development, as well as their brain development.”

Parenting practices and brain anatomy

A previous study found that the areas of the brain associated with emotional regulation and the surfacing of depression and anxiety (prefrontal cortex and amygdala) are smaller in children who suffered abuse. The present study looked at the same areas of the brain, except the children weren’t subjected to serious abuse, but rather exposed to harsh parenting.

Suffren and colleagues examined the data of 94 children aged between 2.5 and 9 years and divided them into four groups based on their levels of coercive parenting (high or low) and anxiety (high or low). 

The team observed that similar to cases where children were abused, adolescents who were subjected to harsh parenting practices also had smaller prefrontal cortexes and amygdalae.

Suffren said: “These findings are both significant and new. It's the first time that harsh parenting practices that fall short of serious abuse have been linked to decreased brain structure size, similar to what we see in victims of serious acts of abuse.”

“[A previous study] showed that harsh parenting practices could cause changes in brain function among children, but now we know that they also affect the very structure of children's brains.”

This study was the first of its kind to look at how parenting practices can influence a child’s anxiety and brain anatomy. The researchers also found a link between parenting practices and subclinical anxiety symptoms and suggested that these youths be followed up to identify who will develop an anxiety disorder. 

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