Strict parenting may increase a child’s predisposition to suffer from depression, new research suggests
A study conducted by researchers from the University of Leuven posited that raising children in an extremely strict manner and environment alters their brain, which could manifest in depression later in life.
In a press release, lead researcher Dr. Evelien Van Assche explained: “We discovered that perceived harsh parenting, with physical punishment and psychological manipulation, can introduce an additional set of instructions on how a gene is read to become hard-wired into DNA. We have some indications that these changes themselves can predispose the growing child to depression. This does not happen to the same extent if the children have had a supportive upbringing.”
The findings were based on the research team’s analysis of 23 Belgian boys and girls between 12 and 16 who reported experiencing harsh upbringings from their parents. The parents reportedly exhibited manipulative behavior and imposed extreme strictness or physical punishment on their children. The scientists then compared the data to that of a similar number of children matched by age and gender whose parents were reportedly supportive and raised them with some freedom.
Using genome mapping, the researchers found that the first group exhibited increased variations in “methylation,” a biochemical process in DNA linked with depression. DNA methylation occurs when a small chemical molecule is added to DNA and alters the way it interprets instructions.
Measuring methylation ranges at over 450,000 places in each child’s DNA, the scientists found that those who had strict upbringings registered increased ranges of methylation.
Dr. Van Assche noted that while the DNA remained the same, the additional chemical groups affected how the DNA instructions were read.
“Those who reported harsher parenting showed a tendency towards depression, and we believe that this tendency has been baked into their DNA through increased variation in methylation,” she shared. ‘We are now seeing if we can close the loop by linking it to a later diagnosis of depression and perhaps use this increased methylation variation as a marker, to give advance warning of who might be at greater risk of developing depression as a result of their upbringing.”
She added that any significant childhood stress could lead to a higher risk of depression later in life.
The implications of the findings could also hint at the potential effects of “tiger parenting,” a form of strict parenting commonly associated with Asian households often implemented by parents who are highly invested in their children’s future success.
According to a 2020 study, Asian American college students were more likely to be diagnosed with depression than students of other racial backgrounds.
Other research on the subject similarly linked strict parenting to depression, as well as anxiety and aggression.
The Leuven University team, which presented their discovery at the 35th European College of Neuropsychopharmacology annual conference in Vienna, Austria, noted that their findings could pave the way to a screening program that helps identify individuals vulnerable to depression.