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Harsh parenting techniques 'could impact a child's brain development'

Blond girl crying at the doctor's

When: 19 Jan 2017
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WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Experts evaluated the anxiety levels in children who had been exposed to harsh parenting techniques.

Children who are regularly shouted at, hit or shaken could develop smaller brains in adolescence.

Harsh parenting techniques have been put under the microscope in a new study to determine if there is a link between this type of behavior and a child's development. In many places around the world, harsh parenting is acceptable, but experts believe it may have a serious impact on young people.

"The implications go beyond changes in the brain," said lead study author Sabrina Suffren, Ph.D., at Université de Montréal and the CHU Sainte-Justine Research Centre. "I think what's important is for parents and society to understand that the frequent use of harsh parenting practices can harm a child's development.

"We're talking about their social and emotional development, as well as their brain development."

Previous studies have shown that sexual and emotional abuse, as well as neglect, have been linked to depression and anxiety in later life. Child victims of these types of abuse were shown to have a smaller prefrontal cortex and amygdala, both of which play an important role in the regulation of emotions and anxiety and depression.

This new research has also concluded that these areas of the brain were smaller in adolescents who had been subjected to harsh parenting practices in their childhood.

We're talking about their social and emotional development, as well as their brain development.

–Sabrina Suffren, Ph.D., at Université de Montréal and the CHU Sainte-Justine Research Centre

"These findings are both significant and new. It's the first time that harsh parenting practices that fall short of serious abuse have been linked to decreased brain structure size, similar to what we see in victims of serious acts of abuse," Suffren added.

The study annually evaluated the anxiety levels of children between the ages of 2 and 9, and the children were then divided into groups based on how exposed they had been to harsh parenting. Anxiety levels were analyzed again when the children were between the ages of 12 and 16, and anatomical MRIs were also performed.

The research was conducted in partnership with researchers from Stanford University and was published in the Development and Psychology journal.

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