Kids who live with strict parents are more likely to develop depression in adolescence and adulthood, according to a new study.
Researchers from the University of Leuven in Belgium analyzed the DNA of a cohort of teens, half of whom reported good parenting and half of whom reported strict parenting. 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 makes a gene less likely to be read and eventually translated into a 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. The findings have not yet been peer-reviewed or published.
The teens who reported strict parenting had more DNA methylation than those who reported good parenting. Previous research has shown a clear link between increased methylation 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.”
The possibility of linking depression to strict parenting is promising, but more research is needed. The cohort involved in the study was comprised of less than 50 teens, so more extensive testing is needed to determine if strict parenting is a predictor for 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 are indicative that childhood stress in a broader sense may result in DNA changes. “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.
Strict parenting has fallen out of favor as more and more research confirms its deleterious effects, with many parents exploring more gentle, intuitive, and respectful forms of parenting.
That said, parents do still spank, just not as much as their parents did. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, in 2020, 35% of parents spanked their children, compared to 50% in 1993.
As research confirming the long-term harm caused by physical punishment and other forms of harsh parenting continues to pile up, experts hope that more parents will move away from harsh punishments. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has been discouraging physical punishment since 1998 and, within the last few years, has updated its position to include advising against harsh verbal discipline as well.
“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.”