Laid back parenting style can lead to problems for some children

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture
Parenting
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Although granting children more autonomy is currently in vogue in the parenting world, it might be the wrong approach for some children. While some kids are wired towards greater self-regulation, others do better with more parental intervention.

A study published this week in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology found that kids who lack self-control feel more anxious if their moms favor a laissez-faire style of parenting. On the other hand, kids who have greater self-control, but whose mothers didn't allow them much autonomy, tended to be more anxious and depressed.

Children whose mothers’ parenting style fit well with their temperament had half as many symptoms of depression as those whose moms’ parenting style wasn’t a good fit, says study co-author Liliana Lengua, a University of Washington psychology professor and mother of three.

“The results show that how much parents need to step in … really does depend on the kid,” says co-author Cara Kiff, who’s working on her Ph.D in psychology at the University of Washington.

For the study, the authors recruited 214 mom-child pairs from elementary schools near their Seattle campus. At the beginning of the study, the kids were in grades three through five. Their average age was 9.

Once a year for three years, trained interviewers visited the moms and kids in their homes to observe the mothers’ parenting styles and to evaluate the children’s personality traits and levels of depression and anxiety over time as measured by standard questionnaires completed by the kids.

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The researchers wanted to see how warm or hostile the moms were and how much they allowed their kids to guide the conversation, which relates to how much autonomy, or independence, they give their kids. As for the kids, the researchers watched to see how well they could control their own emotions and actions.

The study underscores the importance of stepping back and really assessing your child’s temperament, versus having a one-size-fits-all parenting philosophy. If your child shows an ability to control himself from doing something on impulse, power through unpleasant but necessary tasks or refrain from saying the first thing that comes to mind when he is upset, then he might do better with more hands-off parenting. A child like this might be propelled into anxiety by an overly hovering or micromanaging parent.

If, however, your child veers towards the other end of the spectrum, micromanaging might come in very handy – in order to get things accomplished and for the better mental health being of the kid. Wielding your authority just might make your child feel more secure and contained. Structure will help him with emotional regulation.

“It’s not that the parent is totally responsible for depression and anxiety,” Lengua says. “The good news for parents is there are things they can do to help reduce those symptoms.”

As with most things, the earlier you start, the better the outcome. Trying to get a hold of a 14-year-old is profoundly more difficult than trying to control a 4-year old.

“The main take-home message,” Lengua says, is that “it’s not one size fits all. The same parenting might not work with each child.” Even children within the same family can turn out very different, as most parents can attest. Tailoring parenting style between children of different temperaments can be a formidable task, but will probably serve them best in the long run.

Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology: DOI: 10.1007/s10802-011-9539-x
"Temperament Variation in Sensitivity to Parenting: Predicting Changes in Depression and Anxiety"
Cara J. Kiff, et al.; August 2011

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