Putting children through the same kind of treatment that police use with criminals isn't an especially effective parenting strategy, at least for parents interested in the physical well-being of their son or daughter, according to a new study published in Social Science and Medicine.
Harsh treatment of a child, or playing "bad cop," during the first two decades of his or her life can lead to increased chances of poor physical health and obesity in adulthood.
Attempts to counterbalance that negative reinforcement with a warmer parenting style, or acting like "good cop," won't necessarily reverse those ill effects. In fact, that sort of treatment can increase health risks.
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For the study, a team of researchers from Iowa State University, the University of California – Davis and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) followed a total of 451 children from adolescence into adulthood.
In addition to having participating family members fill out questionnaires, observers watched interactions between parents and their children, and rated moms and dads based on parental warmth. The children participating in the study also underwent periodic physical health assessments between ages 12 and 20.
Children who grew up in harsher households tended to carry more weight and be in poorer physical health. They didn't start out that way, however. Researchers observed these differences were not initially evident at the beginning of the study. Even after the children turned 18 and moved out of their parents' houses, which was the case for 70 percent of participants, the negative effects lingered.
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Exposure to chronic and severe stress throughout adolescence has a detrimental effect on both mind and body, affecting white blood cell activity, hormone release, cardiovascular reactivity and more, previous research has shown.
"he body shifts to a high-vigilance state that leads to a ‘weathering' effect on health, including premature aging and early onset of chronic disease," the authors of the latest study write.
In contrast to harsher parenting methods, a warmer parenting approach has been shown to promote physical health, thanks to the reduction in stress.
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A nurturing approach by one parent can have a buffering effect against the negative health outcomes linked to harsher handling. But when measuring BMI, the researchers found that as warmth from the coparent increased - in other words, as one parent worked harder at playing "good cop" - the health risks associated with a firmer hand rose.
"Harshness leads to problems with physical health, and no matter how hard a spouse tries they may not be able to erase those effects," said lead author Thomas Schofield of Iowa State University. "Instead of saying, ‘I'm the law and my wife is the gospel' or something like that, better to acknowledge that in terms of harshness, your spouse is not going to be a buffer for the child, so behave responsibly."