Study shows long-term brain impacts on children of ‘harsh’ parents

Harsher parenting can have an impact on children’s brains into their teenage years, a recent study shows.

Yelling, shaking, hitting and getting angry at children repeatedly has been found to be linked to smaller structures in the brain, according to research conducted at the University of Montreal and the CHU Sainte‑Justine Research Centre in partnership with researchers from Stanford University.

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A press release from the University of Montreal’s official news channel announced the results of the study.

It noted that harsh parenting practices are common and even socially acceptable worldwide. A study reported by The Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit public policy organization, reported that 81% of U.S. parents said that spanking their children is sometimes appropriate, for example.

But harsh parenting can have impacts that last beyond childhood.

“The 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,” lead author and neuropsychology researcher Sabrina Suffren, Ph.D., said in a statement. “We’re talking about their social and emotional development, as well as their brain development.”

Serious abuse, including physical and emotional abuse, has been associated with anxiety and depression later in life.

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For the recent study, researchers noticed smaller prefrontal cortexes and amygdala in adolescents who had repeatedly experienced harsh parenting practices in childhood. This was consistent with the findings in previous studies for the aforementioned brain structures in children. Plus, this was found to be the case despite children not experiencing more serious abuses.

The prefrontal cortex and amygdala are key parts of the stress response and how it affects learning and memory. They also play pivotal roles in regulating emotion and the development of anxiety and depression.

“These findings are both significant and new. It’s the first time that harsh parenting practices that fall short of serious abuse have been linked to decreased brain structure size, similar to what we see in victims of serious acts of abuse,” said Suffren said.