According to a new study, children who live with strict parents are more susceptible to developing depression in adulthood and adolescence.
Researchers at the University of Leuven, Belgium, analysed the DNA of a group of teens. Half of the participants reported having good parenting while the other half reported being strict. Specifically, the research team looked at levels of DNA methylation — a process by which a chemical is added to a DNA molecule without changing the structure of the molecule itself. Methylation decreases the chances that a gene can be read and translated into a specific protein.
“The DNA remains the same, but these additional chemical groups affect how the instructions from the DNA are read,” explained Dr. Evelien Van Assche, who presented the findings at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology Conference in Vienna. These findings are not yet peer-reviewed nor published.
Teens who reported strict parenting had more DNAmethylation than those who reported positive parenting. Studies in the past have shown that there is a direct link between increased methylation levels and depression.
Many of the teens who reported strict parenting — including physical punishment, psychological manipulation, and excessive rigidity — also showed symptoms of subclinical depression.
“Those who reported harsher parenting showed a tendency towards depression, and we believe that this tendency has been baked into their DNA through increased variation in methylation,” explained Van Assche. “We are now seeing if we can close the loop by linking it to a later diagnosis of depression and perhaps use this increased methylation variation as a marker to give advance warning of who might be at greater risk of developing depression as a result of their upbringing.”
Although the possibility of a link between depression and strict parenting seems promising, more research is necessary. Because the study included a smaller number of teens than the 50 that were involved, more testing is necessary to see if strict parenting predicts depression later in life. Additionally, the study only finds a correlation between strict parenting and depression, so it can’t prove that the parenting tactic caused the depression.
The results indicate that childhood stress may cause DNA changes in a wider sense. “In this study, we investigated the role of harsh parenting, but it’s likely that any significant stress will lead to such changes in DNA methylation,” said Van Assche. “So in general, stresses in childhood may lead to a general tendency to depression in later life by altering the way your DNA is read.”
Van Assche’s findings coincide with previous research that has shown a relationship between physical punishment and depression and anxiety, aggression, lower academic performance, and violence toward women later in life.
As more research shows its harmful effects, strict parenting is losing popularity. Parents are now looking for more gentle, intuitive and respectful parenting methods.
Parents still spank, but not as often as their parents. According to the Journal of the American Medical AssociationIn 2020, 35% of parents spanked children, compared with 50% in 1993.
Research continues to confirm the harm that physical punishment and harsh parenting can cause over time. Experts hope that parents will stop using harsh punishments. Since 1998, American Academy of Pediatrics has disapproved of physical punishment. However, it has changed its position in recent years to advise against harsh verbal discipline.
“Effective disciplinary strategies, appropriate to a child’s age and development, teach the child to regulate his or her own behavior; keep him or her from harm; enhance his or her cognitive, socio-emotional, and executive functioning skills; and reinforce the behavioral patterns taught by the child’s parents and caregivers,” reads the AAP statement on effective discipline.
“The AAP recommends that adults caring for children use healthy forms of discipline, such as positive reinforcement of appropriate behaviors, setting limits, redirecting, and setting future expectations. The AAP recommends that parents do not use spanking, hitting, slapping, threatening, insulting, humiliating, or shaming.”
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