Error-related negativity (ERN) is a physical phenomenon that occurs when you make errors in mental tasks. ERN is indicative of performance monitoring at the neuronal level and is measured using an electroencephalography (EEG).What this means is that whenever a subject is unsure of their performance, ERN levels spike. Past studies have proposed that punishment is associated with exaggerated ERN levels.

A new study published in the July 2014 issue of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience investigates how strong the relationship between punishment and ERN really is. “The processes by which harsh parenting is linked to risk for anxiety problems have been understudied," writes Dr. Rebecca J. Brooker, who hopes to define a relationship between the two. To do so, Brooker and her team monitor the behavioral development of a group of toddlers over the course of two and a half years as well as review the parenting styles of each participant.

The Study

Fearfulness is the reaction made in response to anticipated danger or frightening moments. For example, fearfulness can be measured in feelings of anxiety that may come after answering a question you think you've answered incorrectly. The first half of the experiment involved two-year-olds watching a two-minute long puppet show. The puppet show was used to measure fearfulness in the toddlers. Fearfulness during age two and a half was determined based on:

  • Latency to freeze
  • Duration of facial fear
  • Duration of bodily fear
  • Duration of freezing
  • Duration of proximity to mother

The children returned to the lab two years later when they had reached the age of four and a half. Each child was equipped with a 128-channel Hydrocel Geodesic Sensor Net for EEG measuring. During this visit, children were told that they would receive a sticker to place on a treasure map for every task that they completed, and all children were rewarded with a small prize afterwards regardless of number of tasks completed.

Brooker measured fearfulness during this age based on the child's positivity, negativity, reactivity to people and objects, and persistence with laboratory tasks. An examiner rated the child using a five-point scale on the aforementioned during each task.

ERN levels were also measured during the second visit. Children were asked to participate in a game in which they had to focus on one fish amongst a group of other fish. They were asked to feed the one fish and were rewarded with a smiley face when done correctly, and reprimanded with a sad face when done incorrectly.

The Results

During the course of the experiment, Brooker assessed parenting responses to negative behavior with the Coping with Children's Negative Emotions Scale (CNES). Parents were asked to respond to various hypothetical situations and their answers were rated on a point scale.

Cross referencing the data collected from the children and the parents, the following information was extrapolated:

  • Parents of males reported greater harsh parenting than parents of females.
  • Greater fearfulness and harsher parenting at two years of age predicted greater fearfulness and greater ERN amplitudes at age four.
  • Greater fearfulness and harsher parenting predicted less efficient neuronal processing during preschool.

What Does Harsh Parenting Say About Anxiety?

Roughly one third of children grow up to have an anxiety disorder. The data from Brooker's study reveals that harsh parenting style is one factor that contributes to increased fearfulness. Harsh parenting is defined with high levels of:

  • Control
  • Coercion
  • Punitive Behaviors
  • Punishment Administration

In extreme levels of performance monitoring induced by harsh parenting, many reflect symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder. According to the DSM-5, Social Anxiety Disorder is defined by excessive, constant concern about negative evaluation. The key to reducing the risk of adult-set anxiety in adolescents may be softer, less stressful parenting styles.

Date of original publication:
Updated on: October 23, 2015


Rebecca J. Brooker, Kristin A. Buss. Harsh Parenting and Fearfuness in Toddlerhood Interact To Predict Amplitudes of Preschool Error-Related Negativity. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.dcn.2014.03.001