A new study has confirmed a fact that many have long suspected to be true. Parents who are harsh to their kids perpetuate a cycle of bullying that is unlikely to stop outside of the home. The 2019 study, which was published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, followed a total of 1409 kids throughout grades 7-9 and discovered that those with “derisive” parents had far harder time fostering healthy relationships with kids their own age. Not only were such kids more likely to become the victims of bullies outside the home, but they were also more likely to become bullies themselves. Here we’ll take a closer look at exactly what “derisive” means and how different parenting techniques can have unintended consequences.

The fear-driven parenting tactic

The study defines derisive parenting techniques as “behaviors that demean or belittle children.” This can include the use of sarcasm, put-downs, and downright hostility by parents towards their own kids. Typical of “fear-driven” reinforcement, these types of parents generally rely on emotional or physical tactics in an attempt to manipulate their children into doing what they want. While this may work in the short-run, it can also leave kids with some pretty hefty emotional damage.

“Inappropriate interpersonal responses appear to spread from parents to children, where they spawn peer difficulties,” explains Brett Laursen, a professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University and a co-author of the study. “Specifically, derisive parenting precipitates a cycle of negative affect and anger between parents and adolescents, which ultimately leads to greater adolescent bullying and victimization.”

Some parents may feel that being extra hard on their kids will lead to tougher or better-behaved children. As Laursen explains, however, it generally only leads to angrier children. The research found that kids raised in derisive homes are less likely to develop into emotionally healthy teens and are at a greater risk for poor mental health. They tend to carry around a great deal of internalized negative emotion which can boil over into hostility of aggression towards other children.

A parent-child relationship is not only important in and of itself, but because of the huge impact that it has on teaching kids how to relate to others. A child who has been made to feel worthless or less-than by their parent is more likely to assume that this is the reception they’ll get from the rest of the world as well. Thus, such kids often end up either over asserting themselves as a bully in an attempt to avoid being further bullied themselves.

On the other end of the spectrum, the child may feel a defeated acceptance over their own perceived unworthiness and have a hard time standing up for themselves, thus becoming a prime target for bullies. Either way, such children are robbed of the healthy self-confidence that helps them interact in a healthy way with others their own age. Some kids even become what the study refers to as “victim-bullies” who experience both scenarios. As if this news isn’t bad enough, the study also pointed out previous research that supported the fact that kids from derisive homes are also at a higher risk for behavioral problems and suicidal thoughts.

“Implications from our study are far-reaching: Practitioners and parents should be informed of the potential long-term costs of sometimes seemingly harmless parenting behaviors such as belittlement and sarcasm,” explained study senior author Daniel Dickson, from the department of psychology at Concordia University in Montreal. “Parents must be reminded of their influence on adolescents’ emotions and should take steps to ensure that adolescents do not feel ridiculed at home.”

The dangers of being too uninvolved

So does this mean that you’re better off being a doormat and letting your kids do whatever they want? No! Equally important studies have found that an uninvolved parenting style can be just as damaging. Children who don’t get enough healthy parental guidance and support tend to show weaker development in nearly every aspect of their lives. Parents who more or less leave their child to their own devices can produce kids who have poor emotional and social skills, trust issues, weak cognitive development, and an increased risk of substance abuse. Kids who don’t grow up with the valuable support of parents tend to develop a fear of ever really trusting or becoming dependant on anyone at all and are often “loners” or emotionally reserved.

The key to great parenting

As with most things in life, finding the middle ground is the key to raising happy, healthy kids. Rather than being harsh on one end or too uninvolved on the other, great parents understand that it’s important to be affectionate with their children while also maintaining appropriate boundaries. Keep in mind that if you’re raising a child, you are constantly teaching them how to behave whether you mean to or not. You are your child’s first and strongest role model. How you interact with others and utilize self-discipline is highly likely to rub off on them for better or for worse. It’s also important to provide your children with your attention, the reassurance that you love them unconditionally, and your guidance as they learn to navigate the world around them.

By playing with your kids, guiding them in their relationships with other children, and providing them with a strong support system at home, you’re likely to have less behavioral problems to deal with later on. That said, kids are kids and are all still learning. Of course, they’ll make mistakes and it’s your job to help steer them back in the right direction. So when it comes to discipline, just keep in mind that correcting your child shouldn’t be the same as belittling them or making them feel worthless. Approach them in the same way that you’d like someone to correct you if you were the one who had made a mistake.