Environmental adversity and children’s early trajectories of problem behavior: The role of harsh parental discipline.


This study was performed to examine the role of harsh parental discipline in mediating and moderating the effects of environmental adversity (family socioeconomic disadvantage and adverse life events) on emotional and behavioral problems across early-to-middle childhood. The sample included 16,916 children (48% female; 24% non-White) from the U.K.’s Millennium Cohort Study. We analyzed trajectories of conduct, hyperactivity, and emotional problems, measured at ages 3, 5, and 7 years, using growth curve models. Harsh parental discipline was measured at these ages with parent-reported items on the frequency of using the physical and verbal discipline tactics of smacking, shouting at, and ‘telling off’ the child. As expected, family socioeconomic disadvantage and adverse life events were significantly associated with emotional and behavioral problems. Harsh parental discipline was related to children’s trajectories of problems, and it moderated, but did not explain, the effect of environmental risk on these trajectories. High-risk children experiencing harsh parental discipline had the highest levels of conduct problems and hyperactivity across the study period. In addition, harsh parental discipline predicted an increase in emotional symptoms over time in high-risk children, unseen in their counterparts experiencing low levels of harsh parental discipline. However, children in low-risk families were also negatively affected by harsh parental discipline concurrently and over time. In conclusion, harsh parental discipline predicted emotional and behavioral problems in high- and low-risk children and moderated the effects of family poverty and adversity on these problems.