New project to study harsh parenting to inform better interventions

IMAGE: KATARZYNABIALASIEWICZ/ISTOCK.COM
IMAGE: KATARZYNABIALASIEWICZ/ISTOCK.COM

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Research shows that harsh parenting results in children with lower self-esteem and behavior problems, but many parents still practice it. Penn State researchers were recently awarded a $2.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to improve the scientific understanding of harsh discipline and the role parents play in using it.

Harsh discipline is defined as the parent’s use of coercive and verbally aggressive commands as well as physical punishment to discipline children.

According to Erika Lunkenheimer, associate professor of development psychology and Social Science Research Institute and Child Maltreatment Solutions Network cofunded faculty member, harsh parenting is widely condemned by researchers and practitioners for its detrimental effects on children, yet is still practiced by many parents.

“There is a rich body of research on harsh discipline being detrimental to child development," said Lunkenheimer. "What we would like to better understand is what parent and relationship factors maintain its use and make it more stable over time.”

In particular, there has been little research into the individual and dyadic regulatory processes that drive harsh parenting during stressful moments.

“We need to identify the aspects of parent self-regulation that drive these behaviors so we can more effectively reduce harsh discipline through intervention,” Lunkenheimer said.

Lunkenheimer and her research team plan to identify whether particular combinations of individual characteristics and relationship patterns help to maintain harsh parenting.

“For example, we already know that parents who use harsh discipline are more impulsive than non-harsh parents, and that parent-child pairs in harsh parenting environments regulate one another in more harmful ways, such as through coercion.”

This research is aligned with a recent call to reduce the global problem of child maltreatment. In 2015, the United Nations set a new agenda to eliminate violence against children by 2030, which includes the harsh physical discipline of children.

“This will be a challenging mandate to meet, because harsh discipline is quite common, especially in certain cultures,” said Lunkenheimer.

The research team will look at parent-child pairs from the time the child is two years old, up to age five.

“We will assess families from the time harsh parenting typically peaks, around two years of age, and investigate how and why it tends to drop off in some parent-child pairs and remain stable in others," said Lunkenheimer.

The researchers will study parent self-regulation through self-report, observations and standard tests of executive functions such as memory or impulsivity. They will examine harsh discipline through self-report, interviews, computer-based testing, and reports of child maltreatment via Children and Youth Services. The researchers will also observe parent-child interactions, measuring parent-child interaction quality and parents’ and children’s biological, emotional and behavioral responses to stress at home and in the lab.

Other researchers on the project include co-investigators Melissa Sturge-Apple, professor of psychology, University of Rochester; Hannah Schreier, assistant professor of biobehavioral health, Penn State; and Sy-Miin Chow, professor of human development and family studies, Penn State; as well as consultant Michael J. MacKenzie, professor of social work, psychiatry and pediatrics, McGill University.

This story originally appeared in Penn State News.