Tough love brings double the trouble

A severe approach to parenting can increase children's propensity to misbehave at school, say researchers

Adi Bloom

Children who are harshly and inconsistently disciplined by their parents are more likely to misbehave at school than children whose parents are fair and temperate, new research reveals. And children with depressed mothers or abusive fathers are also more prone to acting out and displaying antisocial behaviour.

Academics from the Helping Children Achieve project, run jointly by King's College, London, and the Institute of Psychiatry at The Maudsley, questioned 278 families with children aged between four and seven. All the families lived in inner-city areas. The researchers consistently found a link between negative, overly harsh parenting and children's antisocial behaviour in school.

The 25 per cent of parents who most often used negative discipline were twice as likely to have children with severe behaviour problems than any of the other parents. Similarly, their children tended to have a poorer, less diverse vocabulary than the other children.

Meanwhile, parents who used positive parenting methods, praising their children appropriately and providing consistent discipline, tended to raise helpful, sociable children with a high level of concern for others.

The researchers also examined other factors that might affect pupils' behaviour. They found that children from single-parent families were no more or less likely to be antisocial than those from two-parent families. Similarly, the level of maternal education made no difference at all on how well-behaved children were likely to be.

Parents of white British children reported more severe antisocial behaviour than those from ethnic backgrounds. But, the academics say: "This may be because white British children are worse behaved at home, but not at school, or because white British parents were more prepared to admit difficulties."

However, children with depressed mothers were more likely than others to misbehave at school. Children whose mothers were the victims of domestic violence were more inclined to act up at school. "These findings show the importance of taking account of maternal well-being in relation to child problems," the researchers say.

The researchers also examined children's own characteristics. Those who displayed symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, such as restlessness and an inability to sustain attention over a length of time, were also likely to misbehave in school. "This influence was independent of parenting and maternal well-being or partner violence," the researchers say.

"It is easy to ... pick up child inattention and restlessness, which ... is also a risk factor for poorer outcomes, especially educational. This is important, since there are effective interventions for inattention and restlessness."

Indeed, the research proves that child misbehaviour can be predicted and picked up through basic questioning. Given the link that the researchers have established between harsh parenting and antisocial children, both at home and at school, pupil misbehaviour may enable teachers to identify parents who could benefit from some form of intervention.

For example, mothers with depression could be offered relevant therapeutic or medicinal treatment. And parents who struggle to maintain effective, positive discipline at home could be offered parenting classes.

"Considerable evidence exists that parenting programmes can be effective ... in helping parents to reduce coercive parenting and improve child behaviour," the academics say. "There is the opportunity to improve children's life chances through directly intervening with programmes that are effective in changing parenting styles."


Parents' involvement - or lack of involvement - in their children's lives can affect the way those children behave at school.

Antisocial behaviour is a major problem across the developed world. Researchers from London's Helping Children Achieve project examined existing research on this topic. They found that severe, persistent antisocial behaviour affects between 5 and 10 per cent of children in the western world.

Childhood misbehaviour is linked to adult crime, and to drug and alcohol misuse, unemployment, mental- health issues and poor physical health in later life.

Research has suggested that parental behaviour can affect children's behaviour and misbehaviour, both at home and at school. For example, children with warm, openly loving parents tend to have fewer behavioural problems than those whose parents withhold affection.

Uninvolved parents, who take little interest in their children's activities, tend to raise antisocial, misbehaving children. Similarly, parents of misbehaving children tend to be permissive, inconsistent and rarely positive about their children. They also tend to use violence or criticism as methods of disciplining their offspring.

"A child learns behaviour from interaction with significant people in their environment, particularly parents," the Helping Children Achieve academics say, citing earlier research into the subject. "These behaviours are maintained through modelling and reinforcement."

Equally, parents who persistently highlight undesirable behaviour can unwittingly help to perpetuate this behaviour, purely by rewarding it with attention. When parents then try to appease the child, the vicious circle is perpetuated.

In families where the focus is always on negative behaviour, good behaviour can often go unrecognised. Parents rarely show good, non-confrontational conflict resolution to their children.

"These patterns ... result in an escalation of negative behaviour on the part of the child, which in turn reinforces the parent's withdrawal and harshness towards the child, as well as the child's problematic behaviour," the researchers say.

"Therefore, parents who are inconsistent in their approach towards their child can unintentionally promote negative child behaviour, which can lead to a mutual escalation into negative behaviour from both."


How is Parenting Style Related to Child Antisocial Behaviour? Preliminary Findings from the Helping Children Achieve Study. Department for Education.


The Helping Children Achieve project by King's College, London, and the Institute of Psychiatry at The Maudsley.


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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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