The Relationship Between Harsh Parental Discipline and Auditory Processing Abilities

Research Paper (undergraduate) 2017 12 Pages

Psychology - Developmental Psychology



Abstract .. 2

Introduction .. 2

Methods .. 8

Results .. 9

Discussion .. 10

Appendix .. 11

References .. 12


Childhood maltreatment is the root cause in 45% of childhood onset psychiatric disorders. An important discovery in this area of research is that maltreatment in the early years of life alters brain development and thus cognitive performance. This study measured the relationship between parental discipline styles and performance on the dichotic listening task in college students. The results indicated that no significant relationship existed between these variables.


Adverse life experiences, whether they occur in adulthood or childhood, can have significant impacts on the quality of life for individuals. For example, there have been findings that indicate exposure to familial trauma reduces executive functioning including poor performance on tasks related to auditory attention (Deprince, Weinzierl, & Combs, 2009). Impairment of auditory processing ability can have serious negative implications in oral language and learning and interfere with other cognitive abilities necessary for development (Murphy, et al., 2012). Another study indicated that parental verbal abuse, witnessing domestic violence and sexual abuse appear to specifically target brain regions (auditory, visual and somatosensory cortex) and pathways that process aversive experiences (Teicher & Samson, 2016). These findings suggest that abuse and other aversive experiences may have a more direct effect on psychiatric illness. An important limitation within the literature is that very few studies have directly investigated cognitive processing differences, specifically auditory attention, in those who have experienced childhood maltreatment. Following the findings of these studies, it is possible that those who experience harsh parental discipline may differ in auditory processing ability measured by the dichotic listening task.

Over the years, researchers have identified many definitions of variables related to parenting, especially parental discipline. Smith (1967) described the word “discipline” as the methods parents use to discourage inappropriate behavior and gain compliance from children. Kendziora and O’Leary (1993) defined parenting as anything parents do that may affect their children. Not all parents discipline their children the same way and some styles of discipline lead to more negative outcomes than others. For example, another study suggests that harsh, overreactive parenting leads to more disruptive behavior problems in children (Arnold, O’Leary, Wolff, &Acker, 1993). Other styles of parental discipline such as authoritarian parenting styles (controlling, forceful, punitive, less nurturing and no emotional warmth) are associated with high levels of child aggression and other behavioral issues (Baumrind, 1966). These styles of discipline would be seen as maladaptive. Maladaptive parental discipline refers to discipline tactics that are ineffective and have negative child outcomes (Locke & Prinz, 2002). In addition to being ineffective, maladaptive discipline can include corrective tactics that are harsh. Harsh parental discipline includes a variety of aspects, including physical punishment that is intended to cause bodily pain or discomfort to a child as a form of correcting behavior and verbal punishment such as yelling or insulting. As discussed above, harsh styles of discipline are linked to negative child outcomes and it is thus important to discuss how these styles of discipline affect children.

Abusive parents use harsh discipline strategies more often than non-abusive parents (Trickett & Kuczynski, 1986). Key breakthroughs in research on childhood abuse include findings that abuse alters brain functioning and development. One example to support this claim is a research review conducted by Teicher and Samson (2016).) These researchers hypothesized that abusive experiences would activate an outpouring of stress hormones andneurotransmitters which would affect the development of vulnerable brain regions. They suggested a theory that early exposure to childhood maltreatment modifies the brain to ultimately survive and develops alternative pathways to increase the chances of survival in what is presented as a danger-filled environment. Psychopathology then emerges due to the incongruence of the world the brain was modified to survive in and the world that is actually present later on in life (Teicher & Samson, 2016). Through their meta-analysis of the literature on the topic, the researchers concluded that childhood maltreatment has a potentially causal relationship with alterations in brain functioning and structure (Teicher & Samson, 2016) They established their conclusion based on studies of animals exposed to early life stress who exhibited similar results to the human subjects and other studies have shown a link between the severity of the adverse exposure and the magnitude of the brain changes. Their literature review and findings support the assertion that childhood maltreatment does in fact have a relationship with alterations in the brain.

Dannlowski et al. (2012) investigated the claim that exposure to childhood maltreatment showed a strong association with the development of PTSD and depression. The researchers hypothesized that adults who suffered childhood maltreatment would demonstrate similar neurological changes as PTSD and depression patients. Dannlowski et al. (2012) measured the subjects’ amygdala responsiveness and hippocampal volume. The results of this study indicated a strong relationship between high scores on the CTQ and amygdala responsiveness as well as reduced hippocampal volume as measured by voxel-basedmorphometry (Dannlowski, et al., 2012). The researchers concluded that their results indicated that these abnormalities may mediate adverse childhood experience and the development of emotional disorders. Both the amygdala and hippocampus are parts of the limbic system in the brain. These structures play important roles in processing emotional responses and memories. It makes sense that abnormalities in these areas may impair cognitive abilities such as the performance on tasks related to executive functioning.

Because of the evidence that indicates exposure to childhood maltreatment may affect the brain and thus impair cognitive functioning, it is important to thoroughly investigate this topic in relation to the current study . Other researchers have examined executive functioning abilities in relation to familial trauma (DePrince, et al., 2009). This is an important topic to examine in relation to childhood abuse and harsh parental discipline. Executive functioning abilities are important to be able to process and use information in the environment. These are necessary for children to perform developmental tasks that enable them to safely navigate their social environment. In this a study conducted by DePrince, et al. (2009), familial trauma was operationally defined under different subcategories of abuse and neglect including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and witnessing domestic violence. DePrince, et al. (2009) predicted that the experimental group (children with familial trauma exposure) would perform worse on executive functioning tasks than the control groups children with no trauma exposure and children exposed to non-familial trauma exposure, such as car accidents, natural disasters, etc. The researchers measured auditory attention, inhibition, working memory, processing speed, and interference control through a series of assessments. Guardians were asked to report current traumatic and posttraumatic symptoms of the children using the UCLA PTSD Index (DePrince, et al.,2009). The results of this study indicated that children exposed to familial-trauma performed more poorly on executive functioning tasks, including auditory attention than children exposed to non-familial or no traumas (DePrince, et al., 2009). Based on the findings of this study, it seems likely that there may be an interaction between executive functioning and other variables that might influence performance on tasks related to it, such as auditory attention and processing, The current study will examine factors related to auditory processing as measured by the dichotic listening task.

There is evidence that suggests a relationship between auditory processing and childhood mal treatment. An earlier study conducted by Allen and Oliver (1982) measured the effects of child neglect, abuse, and language development. Researchers used three groups of maltreated children, an abused-only group, a neglected-only group, and an abused and neglected group and a non-maltreated group as a control (Allen and Oliver, 1982). Using the Preschool Language Scale, abuse and neglect were used to predict auditory comprehension and verbal ability. Researchers found that child neglect was found to significantly predict auditory comprehension and verbal abilities. Children who experienced neglect did more poorly on these tasks, indicating that neglect had an impact on the development of these skills. As demonstrated in DePrince et al. (2009)’s study, children who were faced with exposure to adverse life experiences, specifically traumatic events perpetrated by family members, performed worse on a task of auditory attention. If a child cannot tune out distracting noise or distinguish important auditory stimuli from unimportant auditory stimuli, it may extremely difficult for that child to pay attention or recall verbal information. Auditory processing is an important variable to measure because the literature suggests that disorders and abnormalities in auditory processing impairs oral language and learning (Murphy, et al., 2012).

Studies have shown that these abnormalities can arise from risk factors including a lack of environmental stimuli (Murphy, et al., 2012). These risk factors are present for at-risk children (Murphy, et al., 2012). Thus, it is important to examine whether there are differences between children in vulnerable social situations and children who are not.

One method that has been used to measure auditory processing ability is the dichotic listening task. A study in which this method was used was done by Murphy (et al., 2012) which suggests there are differences in auditory processing abilities between children who have been neglected and those who have not. Because we have already established that the brain changes in response to neglect and abuse, this poses a question on what types of cognitive differences may be apparent due to these brain changes. Murphy, et al. (2012)’s study measured cognitive attention by using several different tests including the non-verbal dichotic task. This study found that there was indeed a difference between the neglected group of children and the non-neglected group of children. Almost 97% of the neglected group fit the criteria for an Auditory Processing Disorder and performed much worse on the dichotic listening task than the non-neglected group.

Dichotic listening tasks essentially measure selective attention which is the mechanism that allows people to control which stimuli are accepted and which are ignored (Hugdahl, 2011). A common example of selective attention is focusing on a specific conversation at a cocktail party, when a large amount of different auditory stimuli is presenting at once. (Hugdahl, 2011). Selective attention is important for many aspects of life because different stimuli simultaneously presenting at any given time is common in daily living. In a dichotic listening paradigm, different stimuli is presented simultaneously to both ears (Hugdahl,2011). This can be done either through non-verbal sounds or verbal sounds such as syllables or digits. It may be of interest to investigate whether there is a relationship between parental discipline styles and performance on verbal dichotic listening. Because most of the stimuli we are presented throughout our daily life is verbal stimuli, it would be relevant to investigate these two variables to discern whether or not there is a difference.

Overall, the literature seems to suggest that there is a relationship between changes in the brain and childhood maltreatment. These changes can impact cognitive abilities. It is of interest in the current study to examine other cognitive abilities in relation to childhood maltreatment such as auditory processing. While the few studies that have been conducted on this topic have mainly focused on auditory processing and executive abilities related to auditory attention in children, there has been no investigation into whether maladaptive parenting styles and auditory processing have a relationship that may carry into young adulthood. Because we know that individuals exposed to maltreatment have exhibited structural and functional differences in sensory related areas in the brain and that auditory comprehension is worse in neglected children than in non-neglected children, it was expected that a relationship between parental discipline style and performance on auditory processing tasks such as dichotic listening exists. The goal of the current study was to examine whether was a relationship in the auditory processing of information between college students who report higher incidents of maladaptive parental discipline in their childhood and those who do not.


The current study was part of a larger study which measured other variables that may affect performance on the dichotic listening tasks. A sample size of 24 Stevenson University students was used. Based on the demographics of Stevenson, we expected to have more female participants as Stevenson University has a high female to male ratio. The only exclusion criterion was anyone less than 18 years old. Researchers recruited participants through in-person recruitment. Researchers also asked the chair of the psychology department to send out a mass email to psychology majors to inquire about participation. Participants were randomly assigned a number ranging from 1 to 80. Participants were then randomly assigned to complete a survey packet and computerized dichotic listening tasks using the Inquisit 5 software by Millisecond.

The dichotic task presented two auditory stimuli consisting of nonsense sounds simultaneously to each ear. The participant was then prompted to identify the sound they heard under 3 possible conditions. The first condition asked participants to choose the sound they heard best (non-forced attention condition), the other two conditions asked participants then focus specifically on either their left or right ear, first as decided by a computerized block randomized order, then they focused on the opposite ear.

To determine if a relationship existed in cognitive control of auditory processing per parental discipline style, parental discipline style was measured based on the average responses to the Child-Parent Conflict Tactics Scale. The scale asked participants to respond to whether statements about parent or primary caregiver behaviors during a conflict applies to their experiences. Sample statements included “My parents/caregivers have physically pushed me in the past during an argument or as a form of punishment.” Participants chose a response ranging from 1 to 5, such that 1 means the statement never occurred and five meaning the statement occurred very frequently. Several factors that were measured in this 16-item scale. The score from each factor are summed to provide a single parental discipline experience score. These factors were physical aggression, emotional aggression, nonviolent discipline, and neglect. Ear advantage scores were then analyzed according to the category of parental discipline experience and forced auditory attention by use of bi-variate correlations.


A Pearson’s r was computed to assess the relationship between parental discipline style and performance on the dichotic listening task. The total percent of correct scores in the left-forced condition, in which a participant is told to specifically listen to stimuli in one ear, was computed and analyzed against discipline style. No statistically significant correlation between these two variables was found [r =.184, N=24, p = .391]. Additionally, the relationship between total percent of correct scores of the right-forced condition and parental discipline style was also computed. Again, no significant correlation was found between these two variables [r=.063, N=24, p=.768]. Finally, levels for discipline ranging from low, mild, and harsh were computed by summing the total score on the Child-Parent CTS. If participants’ total score was less than 16, they fell into the low category, 48 were in the mild category, and scores higher than 48 were in the high category. Table 1 (Appendix A) summarizes the results of the bivariate analyses. Overall, no significant statistical relationship existed between dichotic listening performance and parental discipline style.


The results of this study were unexpectedly not significant; however, the design of the study posed difficulties in recruiting participants, leading to an abnormally small sample size of only 24 students. Due to the small sample size, it was unlikely that any relationship between variables would be significant. Additionally, the population at Stevenson University is majorly college students who mostly have not been harshly maltreated during their childhood. Thus, measuring harsh discipline such as emotional abuse and neglect, becomes more difficult because there is a disproportionate amount of students who have not been abused. 100% of the students in this study fell under the “low” level of discipline, meaning they did not score higher than 16 on the Child-Parent CTS scale. Due to this limitation of the sample, future research suggestions would be to utilize more valid scale to measure parental discipline, especially in populations that have not specifically been abused or neglected. The results of this study refute the findings of other studies that were previously discussed. Due to the outcome, further investigation is warranted. A more sound research design and larger sample size may yield more representative results. Due to the limitations present in this study, it is difficult to ascertain whether the results presented are representative of the population.


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Teicher, M., & Samson, J. (2016) Enduring neurobiological effects of childhood abuse and neglect. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 57(3), 241-266

Allen, R., & Oliver, J.M. (1982). The effects of child maltreatment on language development. Child Abuse and Neglect, 6(3), 299-305.

Murphy, CFB, Pontes, F., Stivanin, L., Picoli, E., Schochat, E. (2012). Auditory processing in children and adolescents in situations of risk and vulnerability. Sao Paulo Medical Journal,130(3), 151-158.

DePrince, A.P., Weinzierl, K.M., Combs, M.D. (2009). Executive function performance and trauma exposure in a community sample of children. Journal of Child Abuse & Neglect, 33, 353-361.

Kendziora, K.T., O’Leary, S.G. (1993) Dysfunctional parenting as a focus for prevention and treatment of child behavior problems, Advances in Clinical Child Psychology, 15, 175-206.

Locke, L.M., Prinz, R.J. (2002). Measurement of parental discipline and nurturance. Clinical Psychology Review, 22, 95-929.

Smith, N. (1967). Psychology and child discipline, Journal of Child & Family, 6, 29-41.

Dannlowski, U., Stuhrmann, A., Beutelmann, V., Zwanzger, P., Lenzen, T., Grotegerd, D., Domschke, K., Hohoff, C., Ohrmann, P., Bauer, J. (2012). Limbic Scars: Long-Term Consequences of Childhood Maltreatment Revealed by Functional and Structural Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Biological Psychiatry, 71(4), 286-293.

Arnold, D. S., O’Leary, S. G., Wolff, L. S., & Acker, M. M. (1993). The Parenting Scale: A measure of dysfunctional parenting in discipline situations. Psychological Assessment, 5(2), 137-144.

Trickett, P.K., & Kuczynski, L. (1986). Children’s misbehaviors and parental discipline strategies in abusive and nonabusive families. Developmental Psychology, 22(1), 111- 125.

Baumrind, D. (1966). Effects of Authoritative Parental Control on Child Behavior, Child Development, 37(4), 887-907.

Teicher, M. H. et al. (2003). The neurobiological consequences of early stress and childhood maltreatment. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. 27, 33–44.


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Title: The Relationship Between Harsh Parental Discipline and Auditory Processing Abilities