Parents who repeatedly get angry at their children can harm the physical development of their brain structures in a similar fashion to how those structures are impacted by serious abuse.
While serious abuse and neglect are already known to stunt the growth of victim’s brains, the impact of so-called “harsh parenting” practices below that threshold has not previously been studied.
Now new research from the University of Montreal – published in the journal Development and Psychology – has found that some socially acceptable “harsh parenting” practices also result in smaller brain structures.
Victims of serious abuse and neglect often exhibit smaller regions such as the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala.
The implications of the new research, conducted by Dr Sabrina Suffren, are that “frequent use of harsh parenting practices can harm a child’s development” as well, she said.
The study used data from children who had been monitored since their birth in the early 2000s by the University of Montreal’s research unit on children’s psychosocial maladjustment.
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 reporting produced data which was then used to divide the children into groups based on their exposure to persistently harsh parenting practices, and then this data was compared with MRI scans of their brain structures.
“This means that differences in their brains are linked to repetitive exposure to harsh parenting practices during childhood,” said Dr Suffren who worked with her colleagues to assess the children’s anxiety levels and perform anatomical MRIs on them between the ages of 12 and 16.
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 is the first time that socially acceptable “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 Dr Suffren.
She added that 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”.