Flexible Parenting Reduces Depression and Anxiety in Kids

A study published in  The Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology has proven what attuned parents already know: “what works for one child doesn’t work for another”.

While parenting advice often focuses on the need for structure and consistency, research suggests that a parent’s ability to be flexible is far more important in raising a well-adjusted child.

Children whose parents are attuned to the child’s temperament–or personality–and tailor their parenting according to the child’s needs are half as likely to develop symptoms of depression and anxiety compared to children whose parents do not take their children’s temperaments into account.

For example, when it comes to deciding how much independence or autonomy a child should have, the child’s disposition should guide the parenting decision. Some youth may flounder if given ever increasing amounts of independence, while others may rise to the challenge.

Researchers tracked 214 families whose children were in the third to fifth grades, with an average age of 9 for 3 years. ,They visited the families monthly, and instructed parents and children to have two conversations: the first a neutral chat about their day and the second a dicier discussion about a challenging topic — chores, for example, or homework.

Researchers assessed the interactions based on factors including the warmth and engagement of the parent, negative affect — being harsh or critical toward the child — and to what extent a parent granted a child autonomy or took the lead in the conversation. They also asked parents and children to describe the children’s temperament.

Each year, researchers gauged children’s symptoms of depression and anxiety. When all the information was combined, they found that certain temperaments combined with specific parenting approaches made kids more — or less — likely to develop anxiety and depression.

  • Most significantly, children who displayed more effortful control — the ability to self-regulate, focus and stay on task — had greater symptoms of anxiety and depression if their mothers were more authoritarian or controlling.  The study’s principal investigator, Lilliana Lenguna, explains that children who are capable of making healthy decisions and are not trusted to do so, do experience this as a lack of trust in their judgment and abilities.
  • Conversely,  children with less effortful control displayed less anxiety when their mothers provided guidance and structure, and their anxiety symptoms doubled if their mothers were more laissez-faire (left the kids to make their own decisions). Again, Lenguna explains, that while a parent’s goal should be to help their children navigate life’s challenges independently, children who have more trouble with self-management and self regulation need more structure and guidance to get there.  Parents might need to respond by defining a situation more clearly, offering more instruction and possible solutions, and rewarding their child for cooperation and success.
  • Children with low levels of fear whose parents related to them gently had the lowest levels of depression.
  • Low-fear kids whose parents interacted harshly with them had the highest levels of depression.
  • Surprisingly,  fearful kids with parents who tended to be more critical also had low levels of depression.  Lenguna is able to explain this in a way that makes sense. With fearful children, it is important to balance validating their emotions without over-supporting their worries and fears  (such that parents validate and strengthen those fears).
  • Not suprisingly, among kids who are prone to irritability and frustration, researchers found that parental anger and criticism led to an increased likelihood of depression and anxiety. This supports what is probably intuitive to most parents: If a child tends to be irritable and frustrated, it is important for the parents to manage their own negative emotions to reduce their children’s risk for anxiety.


Temperament Variation in Sensitivity to Parenting: Predicting Changes in Depression and Anxiety

Cara J. Kiff, Liliana J. Lengua and Nicole R. Bush

Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, Vol 39 August 2011