In an age when the formula for success seems infinitely regressive—when having a good career means going to a good college, which requires acing your way through a top high school, middle school and even preschool—the onus is on the parent to push, push, push. We want our children to get a foot in the door before they even know how to tie the shoe that's on it. But should we encourage our children through tender praise, or do we embrace the “tiger mom” strategy of punishment and criticism?
New research suggests that parents who stoke their children with harsh scolding may also be saddling them with anxieties that last a lifetime. In a survey published last November, researchers collected childhood memories from more than 4,000 adults of all ages and correlated them with the participants' self-reported mental health. The findings suggest that children with authoritarian parents will have a harder time adapting to adversity later in life.
According to recent work by Greg Hajcak Proudfit, a clinical psychologist at Stony Brook University, punitive parenting has such a powerful and persistent effect because it trains a child's brain to overly emphasize mistakes.
When we goof up, our medial prefrontal cortex—just behind the center of the forehead—produces a predictable electrical pattern called the error-related negativity, or ERN. The ERN is thought to be the brain's way of pulling us back on track so that we won't make further careless mistakes. Evidence suggests that genetics can account for variations in the strength of the ERN among individuals, but Proudfit's work indicates that exposure to harsh criticism also comes into play.
In a study co-authored by his graduate student Alex Meyer, Proudfit measured the ERN of nearly 300 children at age three and again at age six while giving them puzzles to work on in the company of their parents. The interactions that he observed varied greatly on a scale that most would consider normal; none of the parents were abusive. The parents were rated on how controlling they were (for example, stepping in immediately if a child made a mistake) and how warm they were when they gave feedback.
Proudfit also asked the parents to describe their feedback strategies, whether they were more likely to offer encouragement when the child made a mistake or to come down hard. A group of punitive parents emerged who were high in control and low in warmth—a critical, hostile style.
Both the self-reported and observed critical, hostile parenting predicted larger ERNs three years later. Furthermore, the children with punitive parents and high ERNs were more likely to show signs of anxiety disorders on their second visit.
According to Proudfit, children who are exposed to harsh criticism learn to internalize parental feedback until the ERN, normally a convenient caution sign, instead becomes a trigger for anxiety.
“Of course, everybody makes mistakes,” Proudfit says. “But if you're punishing yourself more or responding to your mistakes more than the next kid, then that may be the trajectory of risk that leads you into an anxiety disorder.”