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Child a handful? Laid-back parenting can make matters worse

Kids with poor self-control whose moms parented in a laissez-faire way had higher rates of depression and anxiety, found a new study that looked at the impact of parenting styles on kids with different temperaments.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

If Ian McDougall had his way, he’d do his homework on the bus or in the cafeteria — anywhere but at home. That is, if he did it at all.

But Ian, 10, has no choice in the matter. As soon as he gets home from school, mom Jennifer McDougall makes him sit down and complete his homework while she hovers close by.

“If I did not provide very strict parameters for when homework is going to be done and how it’s going to be done, it would never get done,” says McDougall, who happens to teach fifth grade, the same grade Ian will soon enter in Media, Pa.

McDougall is onto something, a new study of moms and children suggests. Although granting kids autonomy is often considered a good thing, for some, it could not only be the wrong approach, but actually increase the child’s anxiety and depression, the authors found.

The 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.

In fact, children whose moms’ 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 children ages 12, 8 and 4.

“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.

In particular, 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.

Their study has limitations, the authors acknowledge. For one, dads’ participation wasn’t required, and many of the moms were single parents. The researchers collected information about fathers in only 40 percent of the families, too few to compare with the mothers. For another, the scientists didn’t examine whether kids whose temperament appeared to fit well with their mom’s parenting style were more successful in the classroom or on the playground.

How to find the right parenting style?
So how can you figure out what parenting style works best for each of your kids? “I think parents feel like they have a good understanding of where their kids are at,” Lengua says. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right, she adds.

You might want to step back and take a hard look at your children, Lengua suggests. “Can they stop themselves from doing things on an impulse? Can they power through things they don’t want to do?” And do they refrain from saying the first thing that comes to mind when they’re upset?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then your child might do better with more hands-off parenting. But if your child falls closer to the other end of the behavioral spectrum, don’t be afraid to wield your authority.

“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.”

The earlier you start, though, the better, she says. “Trying to control your kids starting when they’re 14 is much harder than getting a handle on it when they’re 4, 5, 6 or even earlier.”

“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.”

Not even with each child in the same family, she says. “Siblings can be very different. I always consider myself lucky that I was a temperament researcher before I had kids. All three of them are amazingly different.”

McDougall, who’s married to a school principal, would agree with that. Her younger son, 7-year-old Dylan, is a voracious reader and has always loved school. Unfortunately, though, he started taking after his big brother in the homework department this past year, so he now gets the same after-school treatment.

Says McDougall, “I know that I can’t have a hands-off approach with my kids.”