Harsh Parenting Styles can affect a child’s brain size

Again becoming angry, hitting, shaking or yelling at children is linked to smaller brain structures in adolescence, according to a new study published in Development and Psychology. It was conducted by Sabrina Suffren, PhD, at Université de Montréal and the CHU Sainte Justine Research Center in partnership with researchers from Stanford University.

The strict parenting practices covered in the study are common and even socially appreciated by most people in Canada and around the world.

“The effects go beyond changes in the brain. I think what’s important for parents and society is to understand that frequent use of hard-core parenting can harm a child’s development,” “said Suffren, lead author of the study. “We’re talking about their social and emotional development, as well as their brain development.”

Emotions and brain anatomy

Child abuse (such as sexual, physical and emotional abuse), neglect and even institutionalization have been linked to anxiety and depression later in life.

Previous studies have already shown that children who have suffered abuse have smaller prefrontal cortexes and amygdala, two structures that play a key role in emotional regulation and the manifestation of anxiety and depression.

In this study, researchers found that the same brain regions were smaller in adolescents who had repeatedly experienced parental abuse in childhood, even though the children had not been abused.

“These decisions are both important and new. This is the first time that abusive, abusive parenting practices have been linked to reduced brain structure size, similar to what we see in people. Suffren, who completed her work as part of her doctoral dissertation at UdeM ‘s Department of Psychology, led by Professors Françoise Maheu and Franco Lepore, said.

She said a study published in 2019 showed that “hard parenting habits can cause changes in brain function among children, but now we know that they also affect the true brain structure of children.”

Children were monitored from birth at CHU Sainte-Justine

One of the strengths of this study is that it used data from children surveyed since birth at CHU Saint-Justine in the early 2000s by the Université de Montréal Research Unit on Child Social Injustice (GRIP) and the Institute Statistical Quebec. The study was commissioned and conducted by GRIP members Dr. Jean Séguin, Dr. Michel Boivin and Drs. Richard Tremblay.

As part of this study, parenting practices and levels of children’s anxiety were assessed annually while the children were between the ages of 2 and 9. These data were then used to divide the children into groups based on their time. disclosure (low or high) to be strict at all times parenting practices.

“Keep in mind that these children were always under the control of strict parenting practices between the ages of 2 and 9. This means that brain differences are linked to the repetition of rigorous parenting practices during childhood. , “said Suffren, who worked with colleagues to assess children ‘s anxiety levels and perform an anatomical MRI on them between the ages of 12 and 16.

This study is the first to attempt to identify the links between hard parenting habits, child anxiety and brain anatomy.


Suffren, S., La Buissonnière-Ariza, V., Tucholka, A., Nassim, M., Séguin, JR, Boivin, M., Kaur Singh, M., Foland-Ross, LC, Lepore, F., Gotlib , IH, Tremblay, RE, & Maheu, FS (2021). Prereontal cortex and amygdala anatomy in childhood with persistent levels of hard parenting practices and signs of subclinical anxiety over time during childhood.
Development and Psychopathology, 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0954579420001716

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