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July 01, 2013

Harsh Parental Discipline May Not Harm Children Long-Term

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Most Mexican-American teens who were subjected to “harsh” discipline but who also perceived their mothers as loving and supportive did not develop aggressive or delinquent behaviors over time, according to a new study published in the journal Parenting: Science and Practice. While controversial, these results differ from previous research that has shown parents who tend to use harsh discipline practices like shouting, screaming or spanking their children when they misbehave regularly leads to increased aggressive behaviors in adolescents.

“While these results may seem counterintuitive, we examined the issue from a new angle to understand the role of a mother’s love and support on a child who experiences harsh discipline,” said Miguelina Germán, Ph.D., attending psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center and lead author. “Many of these children may perceive this type of discipline as the parent trying to protect them from engaging in delinquent behaviors commonly found in their surroundings, or they associate it as normal within their Latino culture and do not view the discipline as their mother rejecting or hating them.”

This first-of-its-kind study looking purely within the Mexican-American community included 189 families and was conducted from 2003 to 2008 at Arizona State University. All of the children (102 girls and 87 boys) were followed from the seventh to the eighth grade, the time at which aggressive and delinquent behaviors tend to increase. Parents and children completed surveys at the beginning of the study and again one year later. Children were asked to respond to statements like “My mom screamed at me when I did something wrong,” and “My mom spanked or slapped me when I did something wrong,” to measure harsh discipline, and comments such as “My mother saw my good points more than my faults” and “My mother spoke with me in a warm and friendly voice,” to measure acceptance and warmth. Harsh discipline differs from physical abuse which is considered an intentional injury that results in fractures, burns, or bruises.

Overall, the study found children’s aggressive and delinquent behaviors were predicted by the interaction between the amount of love and support they received from their mothers and the harsh discipline. Kids who felt loved and supported by their mothers were protected from the negative effects of harsh discipline over time, in contrast to those who generally did not feel supported by their mothers, experienced harsh discipline and developed problems with aggressive behaviors. 

“Harsh parental behaviors do not necessarily lead to negative outcomes among Mexican-American youths,” said Dr. Germán. “The key learning is that harsh discipline isn’t always harmful for a child’s development as long as they receive love and support, too.”

Dr. Germán is an expert in Latino mental health issues, adolescent suicidal behavior, and parent-child relationships. She is an assistant professor of Pediatrics and of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, an attending psychologist in the Healthy Steps Program at Montefiore Medical Center, and research director of the Adolescent Depression & Suicide Program at Montefiore which provides treatment to teenagers with multiple problems including depression, suicidal behavior and family difficulties. 

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