Dear Parents: Here’s How Harsh Parenting Could Negatively Affect Your Child


A new study in the Child Development journal has shown how harsh parenting can impact a child’s educational achievement in the long term based on how it affects relationships with peers, sexual behaviour and delinquency.

The study explains how being too firm, to the point of being harsh (i.e, yelling, hitting and shoving and using other verbal and physical threats as punishment) could negatively impact children’s ability to succeed in high school and college.

The lead author of the study, Rochelle Hentges, a postdoctoral psychology fellow at the University of Pittsburgh believes there is an evolutionary response to verbally and physically aggressive parenting.

Rochelle Hentges
Rochelle Hentges

According to CNN, she explains that the study involved more than 1,500 students in a large county in Maryland near Washington over a nine-year period, from seventh grade until three years after the students were expected to graduate high school.

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Students were given a questionnaire and were asked whether their parents yelled at them, hit them and/or shoved them to get a sense of how much physical or verbal aggression they experienced. They were also asked about their own relationships with peers, sexual activity and delinquency such as shoplifting.

The children who said in the seventh grade that they experienced harsh parenting were more likely to say in the ninth grade that their peers were more important to them than following their parents’ rules or doing homework.

These kids were more likely to engage in risky behaviors by the 11th grade, which included more sexual activity for girls and hitting and stealing for boys. These students were then more likely to drop out of high school or college.

The study found that harsh parenting in the seventh grade was indirectly related to educational achievement three years after high school.Hentges said:

“If you’re in this harsh or unstable environment, you’re kind of set up to look for immediate rewards instead of focusing on the long-term outcomes.

“The premise of that is like in our ancestral environment, if you had this unstable or high-danger environment, it wouldn’t make sense for you to put a lot of time and resources toward something that might be in the future if you’re not going to live to see that future.”

According to Hentges, harsher parenting also leads children to have less attachment to their parents and come to overly rely on their peers.

Kids who experience harsh parenting from a very early age are basically kind of getting a rejection message that they are not loved, and therefore would try and find that acceptance elsewhere especially towards their peers.

In the study, Hentges and her colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh factored out other issues such as race, income level, test scores and GPA, parental education levels and how much students valued education to try to home in on the impact of harsh parenting on the student’s ultimate educational success or failure.

The limitations to the study are that the research is based on reports only from students, not teachers or parents, and considered students from one geographic area.

More so, because it’s a longitudinal study that followed young people for many years, it was a challenge to track them, especially as they got older. Their data offered limited information in some areas, such as early sexual behaviour and how peers interact.

Though the researchers were focused on middle childhood and adolescence, the study suggests that a different research conducted with younger children will greatly aid in our understanding of this phenomenon.

The implication of this study for parents would mean trying to eliminate or reduce any verbal or physical aggression which would allow kids to grow up in a more supportive environment, so they could then reduce their over-reliance on their peers and the chances or engaging in risky behaviors.

The study also suggests that it is important for parents and educators to recognize why kids are doing what they are doing to try to stop it.

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Hentges opined that parents need to take steps to interrupt kids’ extreme dependence on peers and risky sexual behavior and delinquency, which can impact overall educational achievement. She insists that no matter how they were raised, what parents need to realize is that being too tough could have negative consequences.