MONTREAL — Parents who have a short fuse and often find themselves angrily yelling at their children could be doing more than just hurting the child’s feelings. According to one new study, shouting at kids frequently can actually make their brain shrink during their teenage years.
Scientists say that “harsh parenting,” which falls below the standard of more serious abuse, are common and even considered socially acceptable by many around the world.
Previous studies have already shown that children who have experienced severe abuse have smaller prefrontal cortexes and amygdala. These two brain structures that play a key role in emotional regulation and the emergence of anxiety and depression.
“The implications go beyond changes in the brain,” says lead author Sabrina Suffren, a professor at the Université de Montréal in Canada, in a statement. “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. We’re talking about their social and emotional development, as well as their brain development.”
Serious child abuse such as sexual, physical and emotional abuse, neglect and even institutionalization are linked to anxiety and depression later in life. In this latest study, researchers observed that the same brain regions were smaller in adolescents who had repeatedly been subjected to harsh parenting practices in childhood, even though the children did not experience more serious acts of abuse.
“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,” says Suffren, who completed the work as part of her doctoral thesis at UdeM’s Department of Psychology. “A study published in 2019 showed that harsh parenting practices could cause changes in brain function among children, but now we know that they also affect the very structure of children’s brains.”
One of this study’s strengths is that it uses data from children who had been monitored since birth in the early 2000s by the school’s Research Unit on Children’s Psychosocial Maladjustment (GRIP) and the Quebec Statistical Institute. As part of this monitoring, parenting practices and child anxiety levels were evaluated annually while the children were between the ages of two and nine. This data was then used to divide the children into groups based on their exposure — whether low or high — to persistently harsh parenting practices.
Suffren worked with her colleagues to assess the children’s anxiety levels and perform anatomical MRIs on them between the ages of 12 and 16. “Keep in mind that these children were constantly subjected to harsh parenting practices between the ages of two and nine,” she explains. “This means that differences in their brains are linked to repetitive exposure to harsh parenting practices during childhood.”
This study is the first to try to identify the links between harsh parenting practices, children’s anxiety and the anatomy of their brains.
It was conducted at Université de Montréal and the CHU Sainte Justine Research Centre in partnership with researchers from Stanford University.
The findings of the study were published in the journal Development and Psychology.
SWNS writer Chris Dyer contributed to this report.