Parenting Style and Childhood Anxiety

Medical Reviewer

What makes a good parent? Some people feel they're born for the task but for most others it feels more like a case of trial and error. The pace of change is so rapid that every new generation now lives in a world that is quite different to that experienced by their own parents. Granted, we can all look to our own upbringing, but partners may have very different experiences that don't always tally when it comes to what's best for the kids.

Many parents have  looked to others for guidance on how best to raise  their children. Dr. Benjamin Spock is probably the most notable and influential example of such childcare experts. Spock sold over 50 million copies of his book Baby & Child Care and quite literally became a legend in his own lifetime. It's easy to forget quite how much Spock's ideas changed the way people viewed parenting. Spock gave parents permission to be their own experts in the way they nurtured and brought up their children. Later in his life Spock would be accused by some of fostering a new generation of spoiled and self-centered children, but that's another story.

Today, psychologists talk about parenting styles and how these have an important  bearing on the development of the child. Parenting styles can be classified in different ways but  an easy approach is to consider  three broad types. The 'permissive parenting style' is characterized by a lack of boundary setting or the requirement that behavior is appropriately mature. Secondly, the 'authoritarian parent' is emotionally cold, inflexible and frequently severe in dealing with perceived errors or bad behavior. Thirdly, the 'authoritative parent' sets clear boundaries but they are also responsive to needs, supportive and assume high standards of behavior (e.g. Baumrind, 1991).

In relation to the development of anxiety in children, the spotlight has fallen on the effect of parenting styles. A recent blog for the website PsychologyToday reports the views of Harvard psychologists Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., and Doreen Arcus, Ph.D., well known researchers in the field of child development, that "parents' actions affect the probability of anxiety disorder in the child". Kagan states that the parents in their study are all middle-class and loving but within that context, "two philosophies are represented. One is, 'I have a sensitive child that I must protect from stress.' So this parent, finding the child playing in the trash tends not to set limits with a firm 'Don't do that,' but distracts the child. As a result, the child does not get the opportunity to extinguish the fear response." Kagan contrasts the previous scenario with the authoritative parent who has no difficulty in lifting the child's hands out of the trash and saying 'No. No trash' in which a clear boundary is established. The same blog also mentions a report by Michael Liebowitz, M.D., Head of Columbia University's unit for panic disorders. Liebowitz told the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in Philadelphia that he finds an unusually high proportion of panic patients report having overprotective parenting in childhood.

Research to emerge from parenting styles shows a remarkably consistent pattern in the way children develop. For example, children whose parents are authoritative rate themselves, and are rated by objective measures, as more socially and instrumentally competent. Children and adolescents from authoritarian families tend to perform moderately well in school and avoid problem behavior, but they have poorer social skills, lower self-esteem, and higher levels of depression. Children and adolescents from indulgent homes are more likely to be involved in problem behavior and perform less well in school, but they have higher self-esteem, better social skills, and lower levels of depression.

Baumrind, D. (1991). The influence of parenting style on adolescent competence and substance use. Journal of Early Adolescence, 11(1), 56-95. (2009) Parenting Style May Foster Anxiety.