A recent study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found that there may be a connection between harsh parenting strategies and antisocial behavior in children.
Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan, and Michigan State University analyzed 227 sets of identical twins and looked at small differences in parenting styles and compared each twin's experiences to see whether or not these differences correlated with the likelihood of kids showing signs of antisocial behavior.
To make the results as accurate as possible, moms and dads filled out 50-question surveys about what their home environment was like. They also assessed their levels of "harshness" and "warmness" by ranking 24 statements like, "I often lose my temper with my child" and "My child knows I love him/her." Researchers then evaluated children's behavior based on their mothers' answers to questions regarding whether or not they exhibited 35 "callous-unemotional traits," factors researchers use to predict antisocial behavior.
"We felt there must be something we could change in the environment that might prevent a susceptible child from going down the pathway to more severe antisocial behavior."
The findings determined that the twin who experienced "stricter or harsher treatment" and "less emotional warmth from parents" had a greater risk of exhibiting aggression and callous-unemotional traits, such as a lack of empathy or emotional insensitivity.
Rebecca Waller, an assistant professor in Penn's Department of Psychology and the study's lead researcher, agreed that harsh parenting strategies can affect a child's behavior in the long run.
"Some of the early work on callous-unemotional traits focused on their biological bases, like genetics and the brain, making the argument that these traits develop regardless of what is happening in a child's environment, that parenting doesn't matter," she said. "We felt there must be something we could change in the environment that might prevent a susceptible child from going down the pathway to more severe antisocial behavior."
What's the takeaway for parents? How you treat your kids during childhood can potentially shape their future behavior.
"The study convincingly shows that parenting — and not just genes — contributes to the development of risky callous-unemotional traits," said Luke Hyde, an associate professor in Michigan's Department of Psychology. "Because identical twins have the same DNA, we can be more sure that the differences in parenting the twins received affects the development of these traits."
Although the researchers aren't necessarily blaming parents for their children's antisocial behavior, they hope their finds can lead to breakthroughs in intervention practices down the road.
"From a real-world standpoint, creating interventions that work practically and are actually able to change behaviors in different types of families is complicated," said Rebecca. "But these results show that small differences in how parents care for their children matters. Our focus now is on adapting already-successful parenting programs to include specific interventions focused on callous-unemotional traits as well."