Does tough love work?

Behind the Headlines

Friday April 19 2013

Children need a mix of emotional warmth and clear boundaries

“Smacking does children no harm if they feel loved, study claims,” reports The Daily Telegraph.

The Telegraph looks at a US study examining whether there was a relationship between harsh parental discipline practices (such as smacking) and subsequent adolescent behavioural problems, including aggression and antisocial behaviour.

In particular, the researchers wanted to see whether the child’s perception of their parent (or caregiver’s) feelings of warmth tempered effects that harsh discipline (verbal or physical) might have on their risk of behavioural problems.

The results from a modestly sized group of low-income Mexican-American families were as the researchers expected. Children who felt the lowest levels of emotional warmth from their mothers and reported harsh discipline, were more likely to develop behavioural problems. When they felt more warmth, harsh discipline was no longer associated with the development of behavioural problems.

However, there are important limitations to this study, including the small, very specific population sample being assessed. These results may not hold true in the UK. There are also likely to be many other environmental, social and psychological factors involved in the complex relationship between parental behaviours, family relationships and child behaviour.

Most childcare experts would support the notion that all chidren need an upbringing that combines emotional warmth with a consistent framework of discipline. While the benefits of harsh discipline on a child’s behaviour remain unclear, in the absence of a loving warmth it appears that there may be some harm. In particular, how harsh physical discipline impacts on a child’s behaviour is still a matter of serious debate.

 

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from Montefiore Medical Center, Bronx, New York, and Arizona State University and was funded by The National Institute for Medical Health.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Parenting: Science and Practice.

The Daily Telegraph’s coverage of the study is broadly accurate and it also went to the trouble of including a dissenting view about the merits of smacking. A spokesperson for the NSPCC is quoted as saying: “Smacking is not an effective form of punishment and undermines the trusting relationship between a child and their carer … [there] are other more constructive methods to teach … children the difference between right and wrong”.

The Mail Online and Daily Express’s reporting of the study is much less representative. Both news organisations make the claim that this study ‘proves’ that harsh discipline ‘works’ – each implying a benefit. This is not the case. The study suggests that harsh discipline, delivered in the context of a warm parental/carer relationship does no harm. Doing no harm is not the same as providing a benefit. So it should not be concluded that there are no harms from harshly disciplining a child.

Reporting on this study also only focused on describing harsh discipline as slapping or smacking. But the study included both verbal and physical forms of harsh discipline, and did not look at the effects of these separately.

 

What kind of research was this?

This was a cohort study that looked at whether there was a relationship between harsh parental discipline practices and adolescent behavioural problems one year later in low-income Mexican-American families.

There is a breadth of literature suggesting that harsh discipline can increase the risk of a child externalising behavioural problems (e.g. aggression, antisocial behaviour), but there is also some research that suggests these behavioural problems do not occur when there is a good parent-child emotional bond. This previous research looked at African-American families and families in Asian countries, and for this reason the researchers in the current study wanted to look at the affects in ‘Latino’ families.

The researchers wanted to gain greater insight into whether ‘maternal warmth’ (or ‘emotional tone’ of the relationship) changes the relationship between harsh discipline and behavioural problems.

That is, the researchers wanted to test their theory that greater parental love and warmth could temper the effects of harsh discipline.

The nature of the factors being studied (discipline and maternal warmth) means that only an observational cohort study, such as this, is likely to be feasible in studying their effects. A trial in which families were randomised to give ‘harsh’ discipline or show less warmth would not be ethical.

The main limitation to this type of observational cohort study is that it is not possible say for certain whether or not other psychological and social factors are involved in the complex relationship between parental behaviours, family relationships and child behavioural problems.

 

What did the research involve?

The study included 189 Mexican-American adolescents (54% of whom were female) and their caregivers. They were recruited from five, low-income public schools in the Phoenix metropolitan area in the US. The majority (86%) lived in two-parent households, and 66% of the caregivers were born in Mexico.

The current study used data collected at two assessment points – when the children were beginning 7th grade (aged 12.3 on average), and when they were completing 8th grade (aged 13.5 on average). At both assessment points, interviewers conducted surveys with parents or caregivers and adolescents on parental discipline and warmth, and on behavioural problems.

Maternal warmth and harsh discipline were measured on an eight-item scale, adapted from the ‘Acceptance Subscale of the Children’s Reports of Parents’ Behavior Inventory’. This is an ‘interview checklist’ designed to provide information on children’s and adolescents’ perceived view of their parents’ behaviour. For example, in this study, adolescents were asked to rate (using a numerical scale – where 1 = almost never or never, to 5 = almost always or always) how often the following had happened during the previous month:

For warmth:

  • “My caregiver told or showed me that she liked me just the way I was”

For harsh discipline:

  • “My caregiver spanked or slapped me when I did something wrong”
  • “My caregiver got so mad at me, he/she called me names”

Externalising behavioural problems (such as aggression or antisocial behaviour) were assessed by mothers using the ‘Child Behavior Checklist’. This is a similar type of checklist used to assess parental perception of their child’s behaviour.

Factors that could influence results (called potential confounders) were taken into account in analyses including child gender, family structure and socioeconomic status.

 

What were the basic results?

In their rather brief summary of their results, the researchers say that, as they expected, harsh discipline combined with maternal warmth did not lead to a significant increase in the risk of the child developing behavioural problems.

And conversely, harsh discipline combined with low levels of perceived maternal warmth did lead to an increase risk of the child developing behavioural problems.

These interactions remained significant even after taking into account the child’s level of behavioural problems at the start of the study and the other confounders measured.

 

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers conclude that to understand how harsh discipline may influence the development of behavioural problems in Mexican-American adolescents, researchers need to consider other factors that may affect youths’ perceptions of their parents’ feelings and behaviour (such as maternal warmth).

 

Conclusion

The current research suggests that – among young Mexican-American adolescents – perception of their mother’s feelings of love and warmth may temper the risk of adverse effects  associated with perceived harsh discipline. These adverse effects, specifically, were their risk of displaying behavioural problems (such as aggression and antisocial behaviour being reported by a caregiver/parent).

However, there are important limitations to consider:

  • This is a very small, select sample of a Mexican-American population. It is difficult to say whether these findings would apply (be generalisable) outside of this population.
  • Although the researchers attempted to adjust for other factors that could affect the results, such as child gender and family structure, this may not fully remove their effects. There are likely to be many environmental, health-related, psychological and social factors that may be involved in the complex relationship between the three factors of parental discipline, family relationships and risk of child behavioural problems.
  • The study assessed only the children’s perceptions of maternal warmth and harsh discipline, and the mother’s perception of the child’s behaviour. It did not include asking other sources to get an external view on these observations. It also did not assess the effect of perceived parental warmth.
  • By only considering the ‘detrimental’ effect of harsh discipline as ‘externalising’ behavioural problems in the child, and only at one year later, this research gives no indication of the wider psychological or health effects that disciplining practices may have on children into later adolescence or adulthood.
  • The authors note that their sample would not be likely to include the full spectrum of parental ‘harsh discipline’. Families where the parents providing very harsh discipline that would be considered abuse and result in child protection services would be unlikely to be included. The sample also seems unlikely to have included children with very severe behavioural problems.

Because of these limitations the study certainly should not be interpreted to mean that any level of harsh discipline is not harmful, provided there is maternal love. The UK press has focused reporting the study results as pertaining to slapping or smacking as ‘harsh discipline’. However, this was only one of the behaviours that qualified as ‘harsh discipline’ in this study, the other was being called names. The study did not specify how many, if any, of the children reported slapping or smacking.

Overall this study sheds little light on the issue of parental discipline, or particularly slapping or smacking, and effects on child behaviour in a UK setting.

Most childcare organisations, such as the NSPCC, do not recommend smacking children as a way of teaching them the difference between right and wrong as “it just teaches children to be violent”.

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on Twitter.

Links to the headlines

Smacking does children no harm if they feel loved, study claims. The Daily Telegraph, April 18 2013

Why strict parenting 'won't harm children': Harsh discipline such as verbal threats or spanking are offset by child's feeling of being loved. Mail Online, April 19 2013

Why ‘tough love’ slapping works. Daily Express, April 19 2013

 

Links to the science

Germán M, Gonzales NA, Bonds D, et al. Maternal Warmth Moderates the Link between Harsh Discipline and Later Externalizing Behaviors for Mexican American Adolescents. Parenting: Science and Practice. Published online April 16 2013

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Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

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Media last reviewed: 20/08/2013

Next review due: 20/08/2015

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