Parents who get angry at their children on a repeated basis can harm the physical development of the child’s long-term brain structure, leading to effects similar to those of serious abuse, according to a new study.
Published in the Journal of Development and Psychology, the new research focused on children between the ages of two and nine. It found that yelling, hitting, or shaking children at a young age can result in stunted brain growth that goes well into adolescence.
The researchers examined parenting techniques and children’s anxiety levels and then compared the findings to MRI scans of the children’s brain structures when they reached the ages of 12 to 16.
“These children were constantly subjected to harsh parenting practices between the ages of 2 and 9,” said Sabrina Suffren, lead author of the study. “This means that differences in their brains are linked to repetitive exposure to harsh parenting practices during childhood.”
While some of these parenting practices are not uncommon to see around the world, the study suggests that such implications “go beyond changes in the brain”.
“I think what’s important is for parents and society to understand that the frequent use of harsh parenting practices can harm a child’s development,” said Suffren. “We’re talking about their social and emotional development, as well as their brain development.”
The research highlighted past studies which have shown that children who experienced severe forms of abuse consequently have a smaller amygdalae and prefrontal cortexes. These structures are linked to emotional regulation and are both subject to the unfolding of depression and anxiety later on in life.
The study is the first of its kind to try and identify the links between harsh parenting practices, children’s anxiety, and the anatomy of their brain structure.
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