Mental Effects of Harsh Discipline

Mother angrily disciplining her child

globalmoments / Getty Images

Figuring out the right way to discipline your children is one of parenting's greatest quandaries. While we can all agree that child abuse is wrong, opinions are more varied when it comes to practices like spanking, yelling, or even putting kids in time out.

In general, harsh parenting uses tactics like aggressiveness, raised voices, guilt trips, shaming, and blaming. But the latest research says that even if these practices seem to work to modify kids' behavior at the moment, the long-term effects are just not worth it.

Plus, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends against both spanking and yelling, in favor of a positive learning approach. Here's what you need to know about harsh discipline.

What Is Considered Harsh Discipline?

Harsh discipline is any sort of disciplinary practice that seeks to make a child feel bad. This includes spanking or slaps on the wrist, but it also encompasses non-physical discipline that inflicts emotional and mental pain, such as yelling, name-calling, berating, shaming, or public embarrassment.

Harsh discipline differs from abuse because it is used intentionally and within perceived reason. When parents use harsh discipline, they choose certain practices because they believe they work or are necessary to address certain behaviors. Abusive behavior may be more erratic and can happen without any intent to correct a child's behavior. Extreme punishments also may be abusive.

Beating and bruising a kid is abuse; spanking is harsh discipline. Calling a kid worthless regularly is abuse; telling them you're embarrassed to be their parent when they do something wrong is harsh punishment.

Mental Effects of Spanking

The ongoing debate that asks if spanking is "really that bad" finds its answer in the research. Children whose parents used corporal punishment showed more depression, anxiety, angry outbursts, and physical aggression as adolescents. Outwardly aggressive behaviors in childhood have been linked to crime and violence later in life.

Steven Powell, MD

Spanking is an aggressive act—children who witness spanking will often model many of the same behaviors toward others. This can be quite confusing for young minds to understand and to understand when aggression is appropriate.

— Steven Powell, MD

Repeated use of physical punishment also can affect the parent-child relationship. Children whose parents spanked or hit as a form of discipline showed less warmth toward their parents during adolescence. They were also less likely to try and solve conflicts with their parents, presumably because they felt less safe expressing their autonomy.

"[Using corporal punishment also leads to] issues with self-esteem and shame can be damaging for those who are frequently spanked. The shame and issues with self-esteem can negatively affect the overall mental health of the child," says Steven Powell, MD, a psychiatrist and the clinical specialty advisor of Hims & Hers.

Mental Effects of Non-Physical Harsh Discipline

Corporal punishment like spanking is on the decline in the United States, but many parents do not realize that harsh verbal discipline like yelling and shaming similarly elevates stress hormones and affects brain development.

"The brain cannot tell the difference between a physical and an emotional threat," explains Lauren De Marco, LCSW-C, a psychotherapist and owner of Indigo Counseling.

Harsh verbal discipline creates a shame cycle that damages self-esteem and takes a toll on the parent-child relationship.

"Children who receive yelling and shaming as a form of punishment also experience serious psychological consequences," says Orlesa Poole, LICSW, LCSW-C, a social worker and positive parenting coach with Managing Motherhood Psychotherapy. "They are likely to internalize the behavior of their parents and see themselves as deserving of the yelling and shame. The harsh parenting techniques damage the child’s security in the parent-child relationship as well as the child’s self-esteem."

These mental effects of internalizing shame are far-reaching. For instance, children who have been disciplined harshly have less confidence in their ability to problem-solve and regulate their own emotions, Poole explains.

"They also are more likely to act out and behave aggressively when faced with challenging situations [and] more likely to suffer from childhood depression and lifelong psychological issues," she says.

Guilt and resentment associated with harsh verbal discipline also can impact the parent-child bond. When emotions become the punishment, it takes a big toll on the relationship, explains Laura Goldstein, LCMFT marriage and family therapist in the DC-metro area.

"A child may feel guilty for having elicited such a strong emotion. As they grow into adolescence, this guilt often evolves into strong resentment," she says.

Learned Behaviors

Parents teach their children with their actions, whether intentionally or not. Consequently, a model of aggressive behavior often means that a child is then more likely to repeat the behavior with their peers or as an adult in their personal relationships.

"To me, the biggest consequence of harsh parenting on children is normalizing the behavior," says Poole. "It’s basic social learning theory—children repeat what they see. If a child sees their parents handling intense emotions by lashing out through yelling, shaming, or hitting, the child learns that aggression is an acceptable way of handling anger."

Harsh Discipline Doesn't Work

Proponents of harsh discipline often point to the fact that it does modify behavior. They cite unsafe behaviors like running away from a parent or going into the street as cases where harsh discipline is worth it. But does it really teach lasting obedience?

The simple answer is no. Negative reinforcement does not accomplish that goal. During studies involving in-home visits, the majority of children resumed a negative behavior within 10 minutes of being spanked for it.

Laura Goldstein, LCMFT

The problem with punishment as a behavioral modification strategy is that it doesn’t teach a new, more desired behavior.

— Laura Goldstein, LCMFT

Likewise, shaming, hitting, or yelling at a child activates the fight, flight or freeze response.

"[This] biologically-based brain response is meant to protect us from a threat in our environment," says De Marco. "[Going into fight, flight, or freeze] inhibits a child's ability to use executive functioning skills and think logically about what they are being corrected for or what behaviors are being asked of them."

What to Do Instead

Obviously, parents do need to use some sort of discipline to teach children how to function in the world and to keep them safe. The AAP promotes a positive approach to discipline.

Reinforcing appropriate behaviors, such as pointing out when a child shows kindness or a sense of responsibility is a positive parenting technique, as is setting clear limits like a consistent bedtime.

When children do misbehave, redirection helps teach them what to do instead. If kids have a messy room, we can show them step by step, how to clean it. With plenty of practice and positive reinforcement, they will develop responsibility.

When a child hurts another child, whether physically or emotionally, we can talk to them about how to make others feel good while modeling compassion. Instead of dolling out punishment, we can help them fix the problem and learn how to do better.

A Word From Verywell

Changing your parenting techniques isn't always as straightforward as just deciding to do it. If you were raised with harsh discipline, it's easy to fall back on your parents' practices, especially in high-pressure moments.

Reaching out to a child therapist who uses positive discipline or finding a professional to help you reverse your own generational behaviors can help you be the parent you want to be.

Was this page helpful?
6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Sege RD, Siegel BS, Council on Child Abuse and Neglect, Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. Effective discipline to raise healthy childrenPediatrics. 2018;142(6):e20183112. doi:10.1542/peds.2018-3112

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. AAP recommends positive discipline rather than physical, verbal punishment

  3. Bender HL, Allen JP, McElhaney KB, et al. Use of harsh physical discipline and developmental outcomes in adolescenceDevelopment and Psychopathology. 2007;19(1):227-242. doi:10.1017/S0954579407070125

  4. Liu J. Childhood externalizing behavior: theory and implicationsJ Child Adolesc Psychiatr Nurs. 2004;17(3):93-103. doi:10.1111/j.1744-6171.2004.tb00003.x

  5. American Academy of Pediatrics. American academy of pediatrics updates policy on corporal punishment.

  6. Reebye P. Aggression during early years — infancy and preschoolCan Child Adolesc Psychiatr Rev. 2005;14(1):16-20.