The idea that there is a right or wrong way to bring up children is challenged by findings that reveal how certain parenting styles work better than others. Parenting needs to be tailored to children’s personalities say psychologists and psychiatrists. The right parenting style can lead to half as many anxiety and depression symptoms in school-aged children whereas mismatches lead to twice as many.
At the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, psychiatrist Michael Liebowitz, M.D., reported that parental overprotectiveness brings out the worse in children. An unusually high proportion of panic patients, he says, report having had overprotective parents. Overprotectiveness results in children experiencing stress in situations that others find un-threatening and this can continue into adulthood.
Psychologist Doreen Arcus, Ph.D., found two basic parental philosophies in middle-class loving parents. The first views their child as sensitive and needing to be protected from stress. They tend not to set firm limits on behavior and use distraction as a way of stopping or preventing their child from behaving in ways deemed inappropriate. The second views discipline as education and this requires the child to accommodate their environment: so a child playing in the trash, for example, would be told “no” and why they must stop. This child learns the boundaries and how to extinguish their fear response - the first child does not.
Parents who allow children to cope with day-to-day stressors, but who offer emotional and practical support, help their child to develop resilience and strategies for coping. Overprotective parents who take responsibilities away from their child increase the risk of childhood anxiety disorders developing.
The ability of a child to regulate their own emotions and actions is associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression. Some children appear to develop this “effortful control” regardless of parenting style and therefore have fewer symptoms of anxiety or depression.
Children are more likely to show symptoms of anxiety and depression when their parents use high levels of guidance or who provide little scope for their child to develop independent action or freedoms. This is the case even in children who show signs of effortful control.
The capacity for children to regulate their own emotions and actions varies considerably. In children with low effortful control whose mothers provide structure but less autonomy, anxiety levels are low. This appears to counter the idea that all children need autonomy to learn how to adapt to challenges. Children with low effortful control do seem to benefit from a little extra help and structure.
Children low in effortful control have double the anxiety symptoms if they have mothers who provide little control. In summary, children who have difficulties regulating their emotions and behaviors require and benefit from extra parental intervention. Children who have good levels of self-control have an increased risk of anxiety and depression if parents are over-controlling.