Harsh Parenting and Childhood Aggression Can Create Vicious Circle

If your intuition tells you that harsh parental discipline is likely to have opposite the intended effect, you’d be correct. But a new study by researchers in Turkey suggests that besides being counterproductive, harsh discipline can lead to a vicious circle where children become more aggressive and parents become harsher.

With the study, psychologists from two Turkish universities looked to clarify the cause-and-effect between harsh parental discipline and childhood aggression. Does harsh discipline make children more aggressive, or do aggressive children make parents harsher?

The answer, it turns out, is both.

In the study, which involved 1009 children, the researchers tracked childhood aggression and parental discipline over the course of five years. By analyzing the long-term trajectories of harsh discipline and childhood aggression, the researchers were able to shed light on which seems to cause which.

They found that harsh discipline predicts future increases in childhood aggression. At the same time, childhood aggression also predicts future increases in harsh parenting, suggesting that a vicious circle can emerge in which harsh parenting makes children more aggressive, which then makes parents harsher, and so on.

According to the authors of the study, these findings are consistent with the idea that “parenting behaviors and childhood aggression mutually influence one another.”

What’s less clear is why this is the case.

One possibility suggested by previous research is that parenting behavior shapes what kind attachment children form with their parents, which in turn influences children’s behavior.

For example, one study found that attachment security mediated the relationship between maternal criticism and childhood aggression. In other words, children with more critical mothers formed less secure attachments with their parents, and having less secure attachments with their parents led children to become more aggressive.

There’s more research to be done here, but one thing is clear: harsh parenting is at the very least counterproductive and may actually lead to an escalating cycle of harsh discipline and childhood aggression.

Image: Flickr/Sandy Sarsfield under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


  1. Jill Salmen on March 2, 2017 at 9:54 pm

    I received very harsh parenting and yet was a very good daughter. I became terrified of anything going wrong as I knew I’d get the beating. As a child I vowed to never have children so my mother would not be able to get ahold of them. When I became older I did not have children for fear I would become my mother and hurt them. I’m 53 now and this makes me so sad.:(

    • Neil Petersen on March 6, 2017 at 3:35 pm

      Jill, thanks so much for sharing your story. It’s important to bring awareness to the damage harsh parenting can cause so we can do as much as possible to stop it from happening to future generations.

  2. Scotie on July 25, 2017 at 5:36 pm

    I thought this would be more obvious.
    Children see, children do. It’s been this way since we were basically apes carrying sticks.