Kids' anxiety, depression halved when parenting styled to personality

When it comes to rearing children, just about any parent will say that what works with one kid might not work with another. Parents use all sorts of strategies to keep kids from being cranky, grumpy, fearful or moody, while encouraging them to be independent and well-adjusted.

But which parenting styles work best with which ? A study by University of Washington psychologists provides advice about tailoring parenting to children's personalities.

At the end of the three-year study, the found that the right match between parenting styles and the child's personality led to half as many and anxiety symptoms in school-aged children. But mismatches led to twice as many depression and anxiety symptoms during the same three years.

The study was published online Aug. 1 in the .

"This study moves away from the one-size-fits-all approach to parenting, and gives specific advice to parents on how to mitigate their child's ," said Cara Kiff, lead author and psychology resident at the UW School of Medicine. "We're considering characteristics that make children vulnerable to anxiety and depression, and factoring in how that shapes how kids react to different parenting approaches."

"We hear a lot about over-involved parents, like 'tiger moms' and 'helicopter parents,'" said co-author Liliana Lengua, a UW . "It is parents' instinct to help and support their children in some way, but it's not always clear how to intervene in the best way. This research shows that parenting is a balance between stepping in and stepping out with guidance, support and structure based on cues from kids."

Kiff, Lengua and Nicole Bush, a co-author and postdoctoral fellow at University of California, San Francisco's Center for Health and Community, studied interactions between 214 children and their mothers during interviews at home. An almost even mix of boys and girls participated in the study and were, on average, 9 years old when the study began.

The children and their mothers met with the researchers once a year. The researchers observed as the pairs discussed neutral topics, such as a recap of the day's events, and common problems, like conflicts over homework and chores. During the conversations, the researchers noted , including warmth and hostility, and how much mothers allowed their child to guide the conversations – an autonomy-granting parenting style.

The researchers also measured the children's anxiety and depression symptoms and evaluated their personality characteristics. They paid particular attention to effortful control, the kids' abilities to regulate their own emotions and actions, which is associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety.

At the end of the three-year study, the researchers found that

  • Children with greater effortful control had fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression compared with other kids in the study, and those symptoms usually remained low regardless of parenting style.
  • When children were higher in effortful control but their parents used higher levels of guidance or provided little autonomy, those children showed higher levels of depression and anxiety.
  • Children with low effortful control had less anxiety when mothers provided more structuring and less autonomy.
  • Children low in effortful control doubled their anxiety symptoms if they had mothers who provided little control.

Lengua, who is also the director of the UW Center for Child and Family Well-Being, said the study shows how parents can use their child's personality and temperament to decide how much and what type of help to give. For some kids, particularly those who have trouble regulating their emotions, more help is good. But for kids who have pretty good self-control, too much parental control can lead to more anxiety and depression.

The results were somewhat surprising, Lengua said, because parents of children at this age are typically told to give their kids more autonomy as they learn to navigate social situations and make decisions about schedules and homework. This can butt against parents' intuition to assist kids through trickier situations.

" should be there to help – but not take over – in difficult situations and help their learn to navigate challenges on their own," Lengua said.

Related Stories

Depression May Be Lifelong Parent Trap

Feb 06, 2006

Parenthood is wonderful, joyful, rewarding and depressing. A study by Florida State University professor Robin Simon and Vanderbilt University's Ranae Evenson found that parents have significantly higher levels of depression tha ...

Recommended for you

Report advocates improved police training

Aug 29, 2014

A new report released yesterday by the Mental Health Commission of Canada identifies ways to improve the mental health training and education that police personnel receive.

Meaningful relationships can help you thrive

Aug 29, 2014

Deep and meaningful relationships play a vital role in overall well-being. Past research has shown that individuals with supportive and rewarding relationships have better mental health, higher levels of subjective well-being ...

Learning to read involves tricking the brain

Aug 29, 2014

While reading, children and adults alike must avoid confusing mirror-image letters (like b/d or p/q). Why is it difficult to differentiate these letters? When learning to read, our brain must be able to inhibit ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Nairb
not rated yet Aug 01, 2011
Interesting research, and probably significant to parenting.

BUT, how do parents apply this to more than one child. If the oldest child needs more support and less freedom than a younger child, how do you explain this to the older child without them feeling picked upon or less "loved" or less "capable" than their younger sibling?