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Study finds harsh maternal discipline can leave daughters vulnerable to anxiety and depression

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A new study in Research on Child and Adolescent Psychopathology finds harsh parenting practices result in increased rumination making children more vulnerable to anxiety and depression. Interestingly these findings did not hold true in cultures where harsh parenting is the norm. Nevertheless, the results may further our understanding of factors that serve as pathways to mental illness in childhood and adolescence.

One theory about the origins of anxiety and depression posits that the disorders emerge due to failure to regulate emotions. According to Anne‐Marie Iselin and her colleagues, emotional regulation can be defined as “people’s attempts to influence emotions, defined as time-limited, situationally bound, and valenced (positive or negative) states.” During adolescence, when more intense emotional responses develop, emotional regulation becomes critical.

Rumination, or an “internally passive, perseverative, and unproductive process in which the person dwells on their negative mood, including its meaning, what caused it and what might occur because of it (Nolen-Hoeksema et al., 2008),” is considered an artifact of poor emotional regulation. Previous studies connect rumination to depression and anxiety in adolescents.

Harsh parenting practices include corporal punishment and verbal and psychological aggression. Prior studies have found that these parenting practices are linked to increased adolescent rumination, especially in cultures where harsh parenting is not the norm. Therefore, Iselin and her colleagues sought to determine if those adolescents experiencing harsh parenting experienced more rumination and higher rates of anxiety and depression. The research team also hypothesized that this relationship would be weaker in cultures where harsh discipline is more common.

Subjects in the study were those participating in the Longitudinal Parenting Across Cultures study and were located in Italy, Columbia, and the United States. In total, 567 mothers, 428 fathers, and 566 children were evenly distributed in the three locations. Data was gathered three times when the children were 10, 12, and 13 years old.

Parents completed a measure of parental discipline, with questions about their personal discipline tactics and what they knew about discipline techniques within their culture. In addition, the children completed measures of rumination as well as symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Data analysis revealed that harsh maternal discipline was related to higher rates of rumination and higher scores on depression and anxiety assessments for girls more than boys. Paternal harsh discipline seemed to have no consequence for male or female children.

In addition, harsh maternal discipline and its relationship to rumination, anxiety, and depression decreased somewhat where harsh discipline was more normalized, but it did not disappear completely. These findings may suggest that mother-daughter relationships are an important factor in female anxiety and depression during adolescence.

The researchers acknowledged that the study had some limitations. First, they only examined the relationship of rumination to anxiety and depression; there are likely other factors that play a role in their development. Second, the parental measures of harsh discipline were self-reported, subjecting the results to bias. Finally, the children participants may have different perceptions of what is considered “harsh discipline,” making the parental measure less valid in this context.

Despite these concerns, the research team feels they have made substantial progress in uncovering the environmental circumstances that may leave adolescent girls vulnerable to anxiety or depression. They conclude, “Intervention and prevention efforts mitigating negative parenting behaviors while considering norms and enhancing adolescents’ emotion regulation abilities during early adolescence could ultimately have far-reaching effects that enhance the psychological well-being of children around the world.”

The study, “Pathways from maternal harsh discipline through rumination to anxiety and depression symptoms: Gender and normativeness of harsh discipline as moderators“, was authored by Anne‐Marie R. Iselin, Laura DiGiunta, Carolina Lunetti, Jennifer E. Lansford, Nancy Eisenberg, Kenneth A. Dodge, Concetta Pastorelli, Liliana Maria Uribe Tirado, Dario Bacchini, Eriona Thartori, Irene Fiasconaro, Giulia Gliozzo, Ainzara Favini, Emanuele Basili, Flavia Cirimele, Chiara Remondi and Ann T. Skinner.


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