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Does PTSD in refugees result in harsh parenting methods?

A recent study investigated the leading factors for PTSD in refugees, and how it affects parenting behaviors and children’s well-being.

There are well over 20 million refugees worldwide to this date. The majority of these are children. The life of a refugee is characterized by hardship and turmoil. Whether it is their past life still affecting them, or their current post-migration struggles taking a toll, there is a strong pattern of mental illness within the community.

Specifically, when considering the high post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) levels, the situation becomes somewhat alarming. Past studies have found a connection between parental PTSD and the decline in the children’s mental health. To this date, there has been little effective research conducted specifically on refugee populations.

A recent study, conducted in Australia, collected data on 394 refugee caregivers and 660 of their children. As a longitudinal study, the researchers followed the subjects over a long period of time (two years) and conducted interviews to determine their mental well-being as well as their parenting behaviors. In addition, they collected information about their children’s mental health.

PTSD symptoms linked to harsh parenting

Published in The Lancet Public Health, the study found a direct relationship between parental PTSD symptoms and a tendency towards harsher parenting. The harsher parenting style has been shown to directly link to emotional problems, hyperactivity, conduct problems, and peer problems in their children.

Caregiver trauma was seen as a significant factor relating to parental PTSD and their children’s mental issues. It is also important to note that, even several years after migration, refugees have shown significant PTSD levels (38%). Further, symptoms of PTSD tended to persist for several years during the study, which suggests a certain chronicity within this population.

Study cannot conclude PTSD causes harsh treatment

What makes this study stand out is the large sample size. Indeed, many previous studies that have looked at these relationships involved a much smaller sample. It is also important to note that while this study cannot conclude that PTSD causes harsh parental treatment, it does demonstrate how parental styles connect between PTSD and the child’s problems.

Subsequently, it is important to note that several factors in children’s mental well-being were associated with parental PTSD. This may be the result of other causes, such as substance abuse, social withdrawal, interpersonal problems within the family, etc.

A relevant issue in this study is the fact that parental measurement often does not reflect cultural differences. Therefore, it is possible that the researchers’ methods of determining harsh parenting fall short of the relative cut-offs.

Better therapeutic systems needed for refugees

Nonetheless, this novel study does show a significant relationship between stressors in the environment and parental behavior. The implications of such findings a need for better therapeutic systems directed at refugee populations. If PTSD in parents goes untreated, it could pose risks to the well-being of their children, and thus propagating the problems.

Written by Maor Bernshtein

Reference: Bryant, Richard A, et al. “The Effect of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on Refugees Parenting and Their Children’s Mental Health: a Cohort Study.” The Lancet Public Health, vol. 3, no. 5, 2018, doi:10.1016/s2468-2667(18)30051-3.

Maor Bernshtein
Maor Bernshtein
Maor is currently working on his BSc in psychology from York University in Toronto, Canada. He is interested in psychological research and likes to analyze results and apply them to everyday life. Maor has previously volunteered for The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and is passionate about bringing psychological knowledge back to the people. He hopes that others can benefit from psychological insights through his work and improve their overall life and well-being.


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