Were you raised by a harshly critical parent? Then you may have a hard time adapting to adversity, new research shows.

The journal Scientific American recently reported on an extensive new study that indicated “punitive parenting has such a powerful and persistent effect because it trains a child’s brain to overly emphasize mistakes.” – Child Psychologist Greg Hajcak Proudfit, Stony Brook University, quoted in “Harsh, Critical Parenting May Lead to Anxiety Disorder Symptoms,” Scientific American, May 1, 2015.

The research showed that an overly critical approach to parenting raises a child’s “error-related negativity” levels—and their subsequent anxiety levels about life itself:

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.

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 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. – Ibid.

With the criticism of controlling, low-warmth parents, the research showed, children became fearful, overly apprehensive and prone to anxiety disorders. Parents who interacted with their children in a warm, less controlling and more encouraging way produced psychologically and spiritually healthier children.

This research supports the parenting approach the Baha’i teachings recommend:

Let the mothers consider that whatever concerneth the education of children is of the first importance. Let them put forth every effort in this regard, for when the bough is green and tender it will grow in whatever way ye train it. Therefore is it incumbent upon the mothers to rear their little ones even as a gardener tendeth his young plants. Let them strive by day and by night to establish within their children faith and certitude, the fear of God, the love of the Beloved of the worlds, and all good qualities and traits. Whensoever a mother seeth that her child hath done well, let her praise and applaud him and cheer his heart; and if the slightest undesirable trait should manifest itself, let her counsel the child and punish him, and use means based on reason, even a slight verbal chastisement should this be necessary. It is not, however, permissible to strike a child, or vilify him, for the child’s character will be totally perverted if he be subjected to blows or verbal abuse. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 124.

Abdu’l-Baha counseled parents to “use means based on reason,” and never to vilify a child. Harsh criticism of children may seem to work in the moment, but it has lasting negative effects, perverting the child’s character—and, we now know, actually altering the child’s brain chemistry and instilling anxiety and fearfulness in the adult that child becomes.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

3 Comments

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  • Melanie Black
    Sep 29, 2017
    As both a patient and a mental health professional, I would say this is probably true. I was a sensitive child (who along with my siblings) developed all kinds of problems. However, the Baha'i Faith, which is very loving and compassionate, is extremely healing. We can't discount the power of spiritual healing because in todays world, many people come from wounded backgrounds and need love, sincerity, truth, and compassion desperately.
  • Steve Eaton
    Sep 29, 2017
    Thank you, David. Probably most
    trauma victims through the ages have feared their emotional torment
    would be more than temporary. Since a few years ago, we know that
    mental trauma actually causes extra
    growth of the anxiety I mediating parts of our brains.
    • William Bender
      Oct 01, 2017
      I believe that gentleness goes a long way!