Preschool children who receive severe physical discipline by their parents stand a good chance of engaging in overly aggressive behavior during their school years, Lehigh University researchers say in an article to be published in the February issue of the journal Child Maltreatment.
The Lehigh research is the nation's longest continuing study of child abuse and neglect by parents.
The first round of the study, in 1976-77, gathered data from among 457 preschool children and their families. Data was collected from a total of 374 of the 457 children in 1980 and 1982, when the children were between 6 and 11 years old.
In both studies, researchers interviewed parents and observed them interacting with their children. The researchers studied abusive and non-abusive families representing a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. The focus was to determine if developmental differences could be identified in children who were severely disciplined in their preschool years.
In their article, Roy C. Herrenkohl, distinguished university service professor at Lehigh, and M. Jean Russo, a Lehigh research scientist, say evidence points to a strong link between child rearing and early childhood aggression.
"Infants and preschoolers whose early socioemotional needs are not appropriately met develop expectations that care is not available and that others cannot be trusted or caring," the researchers say. "Consequently, these children may view themselves as unworthy of such care and become angry in the expectation that their needs will not be met. This sense of deprivation gives rise to frustration and anger.
"Overly severe physical discipline in early childhood is one type of violent behavior experienced at a time when the child is learning to interact with the world. The experience of harsh, physical discipline both terrorizes and humiliates the child, adding to the sense of worthlessness and providing a model for coping in social interactions.
"The child who is already angry in response to negative, inadequate nurturance and is seeking protection from a coercive family and a threatening world might be particularly susceptible to using aggressive behavior."
This is especially true if the child is raised in a low socioeconomic environment, where parents have fewer material resources and experience higher levels of stress. Children from these environments also are less likely to have positive models of social interaction outside the nuclear family, the researchers say.
In contrast, more-affluent parents are more likely to have experienced positive parenting themselves and have sufficient skills and resources to cope with stress. Their pre-school children are less likely to develop aggressive behavior in later years, the researchers say.
Herrenkohl and Russo, citing various other studies, say early intervention programs have been designed to enhance the quality of a parent's relationship to their child. These include programs that guide mothers toward better self-care; home-based programs that help care-takers moderate coercive child-rearing practices; and elementary school-based programs that teach positive interpersonal skills.