How to be a less ‘hostile parent’ – as report finds links with long-term mental health risk for children

How To Be A Less ‘Hostile Parent’ – As Report Finds Links With Long-Term Mental Health Risk For Children
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By Imy Brighty-Potts, PA

Hostile parenting and harsh discipline leads to an increased risk of lasting mental health problems in children, a new report has found.

According to researchers from the University of Cambridge and University College Dublin – who looked at data from 7,500 children – parenting that involves frequently shouting at, isolating, and physically punishing young children, left them 1.5 times more likely to be at “high risk” of developing poor mental health by age nine.

Of the children in the study, about 10 per cent were found to be in a high-risk band for poor mental health, which included symptoms of anxiety, aggression, and social withdrawal.


“The fact that one in 10 children were in the high-risk category for mental health problems is a concern and we ought to be aware of the part parenting may play in that,” said Ioannis Katsantonis, a doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge.

“We are not for a moment suggesting that parents should not set firm boundaries for their children’s behaviour, but it is difficult to justify frequent harsh discipline, given the implications for mental health.

“There is clearly a danger that parenting style can exacerbate mental health risks. This is something we can easily take steps to address.”

dad shouting at child
Hostile parenting could harm children’s mental health (Alamy/PA)

We talked to Dr Marianne Trent – clinical psychologist and creator of the Feel Better Academy, who previously worked within the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) – to find out how parents can think about their own styles of discipline and avoid hostile patterns.

1. Think about what your own experiences of being parented were like

Trent says it can be helpful to spend some time reflecting on your own upbringing and how you were parented. Can you spot patterns? How did that affect you? Could you do things differently?


“People may be parenting in a hostile style because of how they were parented,” Trent explains. “You also may be grieving or struggling with your mental health, which will limit your flexibility and make you less tolerant.

“What did it look like for your siblings as well? We may parent how our siblings are parented,” she adds. “Look at the family dynamic. Was it good enough? Are some aspects impacting on our own parenting?”

2. Address your behaviour during and after

“When you have come out of the other side of something you think may have been hostile with your child, think about what your natural response was in the moment,” says Trent. “When we most feel like sending our children away from us, they may need to come closer, because they are struggling to manage their feelings.



“If you were shouted at or sent away as a child, your first go-to may be doing that for your child,” she adds. “Be aware of that – next time you go to send them to their room, take a breath and accept that this is a sign you are both struggling to manage your feelings, and you may need to actually get closer and work on it together.”

3. Think about anger as a secondary emotion

While anger can arise for parents, Trent says it’s never really the first thing in the picture – there’s often other underlying emotions coming into play.

parent shouting at son
Take a moment to pause and think about what’s really going on emotionally (Alamy/PA)

“Something else always comes before anger,” she says, adding as an example: “If we are at a roundabout, we get cut up and honk our horn, it may be a feeling of anger, when actually if we dig down, it may be because we felt unsafe. We don’t know how to express that primary emotion, and it often comes out first as shouting and anger.

“Try and think after an incident of anger, whether you can tap into the primary emotion,” she suggests. “Maybe with your children, it was a feeling of embarrassment or disrespect. We may have similar triggers that evoke hostile emotions.”

4. Think about illogical and logical consequences

You may feel a need to introduce consequences for certain behaviours – but think about the message you’re sending. A consequence that’s logical and enables your child to learn is helpful. Harsh, illogical ‘punishments’ are a different matter.

“If an iPad gets thrown at you, you may want to take it away, and that is logical,” Trent explains. “Similarly, say your child is being repeatedly cheeky to a teacher or other adult, the logical way to fix that is not a hostile punishment but instead to encourage fixing of a ruptured relationship.

“Encourage them to have an awareness of their emotional impact on others, and encourage them to be properly repentant,” she adds. “Forcing an apology isn’t going to mean anything. Allow things to cool off and encourage them to use their compassionate brain to repair that rupture.”

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