Harsh discipline makes aggressive children worse

Parents should avoid harsh, combative ways of disciplining their aggressive children. That’s according to psychologists whose new research shows that harsh parenting makes children more aggressive in the long run.

Michael Sheehan and Malcolm Watson followed 440 children and their mothers for five years. On four occasions during that time, the mothers answered questions about their own style of parenting and their children’s behaviour. At the start of the study, the children’s average age was 10 years and by the final assessment their average age was 15.

The results revealed two-way influences between children’s behaviour and their mothers’ parenting style. On the one hand, children’s aggressive behaviour at younger ages predicted more disciplining by mothers, including more use of combative discipline (both verbal and physical) and more use of reasoning techniques. On the other hand, a greater use of harsh, aggressive discipline by mothers predicted increased future aggressive behaviour by their children.

Crucially, unlike aggressive parenting, the greater use of calmer reasoning techniques for disciplining children was not associated with a subsequent increase in the children’s aggression (although it didn’t reduce aggression either).

“Educating parents about positive, less harmful forms of discipline could help keep children (even aggressive ones) from becoming ever more aggressive adolescents,” the researchers said.

A weakness in the research, acknowledged by the authors, is that all their measures were from mothers’ self-report. One implication of this is that the observed associations could simply come from the fact that mothers who use more aggressive discipline are more likely to report their children’s future behaviour as aggressive.

Sheehan, M.J., Watson, M.W. (2008). Reciprocal influences between maternal discipline techniques and aggression in children and adolescents. Aggressive Behavior, 34(3), 245-255. DOI: 10.1002/ab.20241

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

UPDATE: On the topic of aggression, the A-level exam board OCR has just told me that they’re currently (May ’08) running a prize draw with the chance to win one of 25 BoZo dolls, similar to the BoBo dolls used in a seminal study on the transmission of aggression by Bandura and Ross (which happens to be one of the core studies in OCR’s syllabus).

3 thoughts on “Harsh discipline makes aggressive children worse”

  1. I would like see more info about children being 'harshly disiplined' in their very young years and changed by the time they are 3 years. Pleade help, I was a terrible post natel mother who has realised her terrible ways and would like to fix the damage that I have done!

  2. I figured that harsher treatment would generally cause a child to behave better because they were afraid of the consequences. But later their feelings and urges would build up until they had a big, probably violent, outburst.

    Or perhaps in a classroom environment they may feel they have no control and later seek a situation where they do have control, such as violence or bullying

  3. You can start repairing any damage done from today, teach by example, let your child see you 'calming down' if you've been upset, let them hear you reflect on your feelings calmly instead of acting on them. Check out Webster Stratton or Triple P online for further guidance, with time and consistency you can change a lot and work on forgiving yourself, you're only human!

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