'Bad' Parenting Causes Psychiatric Woes

Common behaviors raise risk 29%, study says

MONDAY, May 14 (HealthScout) -- You're in the grocery store checkout line, and your toddler throws a tantrum because you won't buy her candy. You get angry, but do you verbally abuse her? Hit her? Use guilt?

These responses, though commonplace, are seen by psychologists as poor parenting behaviors. Regular use of any one of those behaviors raises your child's risk of developing psychiatric problems by almost 30 percent, says a new study. And the more behaviors you practice, the greater the likelihood your child will suffer later.

"It's very important that parents pay attention to how they raise children and do the best they can to avoid the types of things we found to be associated with psychiatric disorders. Be careful to show children a lot of love, to communicate with your children, to spend a lot of time with your children," says the study's lead author, Jeffrey G. Johnson, an associate professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University. "We're certainly not trying to blame parents. What we're trying to do is identify behaviors parents can change."

In the study, published in the May issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, Johnson and others describe 14 maternal and 9 paternal "maladaptive parental behaviors," or bad parenting practices, including everything from mothers who show little affection to their children to fathers who don't supervise their children well. Regular use of just one of the practices increases your child's odds of a psychiatric disorder later in life by 29 percent, Johnson found, and the risk rises more with each additional practice.

That means that if you regularly use two of the practices, your child's overall risk of a psychiatric order is 58 percent higher than a child whose parents don't use any of the bad parenting behaviors, Johnson says. And that's regardless of whether you yourself have a psychiatric problem.

Psychiatric disorders included anxiety disorder, depressive disorder, disruptive disorder, personality disorder and substance use disorder.

The news is not all bad, Johnson says. Parents have many choices in how they deal with problems in children, he says, as, for example, in the grocery store tantrum.

"A maladaptive behavior might include slapping the child, scolding the child in public, in a way shaming them, saying they're bad for doing such acts, humiliating them," Johnson says. "A more adaptive behavior would be to speak calmly to the child, to explain that you can't have what you want, redirecting the child to something else."

In the study, Johnson and his colleagues tracked 593 predominantly white children in upstate New York from when they were, on average, 6 years old through their early 20s. About 31 percent ended up with psychiatric disorders, Johnson says. Of the 261 children whose parents used none or only one of the bad parenting practices, 19 percent ended up with a psychiatric disorder. Of the 253 whose parents used between two and five bad parenting practices, 34 percent ended up with a disorder. And of the 79 whose parents used at least six bad parenting practices, 68 percent ended up with a disorder, Johnson says.

You needn't look far to find a parent who's practicing "maladaptive behavior," Johnson concedes. Smoking in front of children, for instance, is considered a maladaptive behavior, as are inconsistent enforcement of rules and use of guilt to control behavior.

"Many of these maladaptive parenting behaviors are relatively common in our society, and the reasons are probably historical, to some extent. Some behaviors may not be understood to be maladaptive; they may be thought to be ways of disciplining children," he says. But the frequency with which such parenting behaviors appear doesn't mean they're healthy, he says.

"Rather than relying on disciplining and shaming a child for the bad things they do, parents would be better off developing a strong relationship with the child from the beginning," Johnson suggests.

The study is a wake-up call for psychologically healthy parents, Johnson says. For those who themselves have a psychological disorder, the news is not bad. Your children are no more likely to end up with psychological disorders than those whose parents are healthy -- as long as you practice good parenting techniques.

Other research suggests some children may have a genetic predisposition to psychiatric disorders, says David Jones, senior director of prevention and children's mental health for the National Mental Health Association in Alexandria. Va. Perhaps maladaptive parenting may just add to the likelihood that the child will end up actually developing the disorder or even lesser but still-significant problems, like emotional disturbances, Jones says.

In any case, Jones says, parents who know they have a psychiatric disorder should be heartened by Johnson's study. "If someone is seeking treatment and getting quality treatment, for certain it enhances their well-being and their children's."

Johnson says he also hopes adults with psychiatric disorders can use the study's research to explore their own childhoods. The goal, he says, would not be to endlessly blame your parents, but to find your way out of your disorder.

"Blaming parents is always maladaptive itself," he says. "You want to discover what went wrong and finds ways of overcoming it."

What To Do

You can learn more about psychiatric disorders and where to get help at the National Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association. And for all kinds of tips on healthy parenting, try the ABC's of Parenting.

Read other HealthScout articles about research on parenting.

SOURCES: Interviews with Jeffrey G. Johnson, Ph.D., associate professor of clinical psychology, Columbia University, New York; David Jones, M.S., senior director of prevention and children's mental health, National Mental Health Association, Alexandria, Va.; May 2001 Archives of General Psychiatry
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