Parenting Matters, Especially for “Difficult” Kids

Some temperamental types are more sensitive to positive and negative parenting.

Posted Nov 25, 2016

We’ve been all over the map when it comes to the view of how much parenting style matters in the development of child behavioral problems and disorders.  From older days when cold mothering was thought to be the cause of autism to newer genetic hypotheses of behavior that make parenting sound almost irrelevant, we seem mostly to be moving towards a more balanced view that appreciates the crucial role of parenting in the context of many other mutually interacting factors.

Adding to this perspective, a new study attempts to combine the data of 84 other research studies that have examined the degree to which a child’s temperament modifies (or doesn’t modify) the association between parenting style and levels of child behavioral problems, cognitive skills, and social ability.  Parenting style was quite broadly divided into positive and negative, with negative parenting typified by more hostility and controlling behavior and positive parenting relating to more warmth and supervision. 

The main finding was that children whose temperament is more “difficult” (they were easily upset, less able to self-regulate) both benefit more from positive parenting and suffer more from negative parenting.  These effects were found for all of the domains examined, including behavioral problems, prosocial behavior, and cognitive/academic ability.

Interestingly, this study complements some new genetic findings that seem to indicate that certain genes that have been labelled as “risk” genes for things like depression and anxiety may be better conceptualized as genes that relate to a child’s sensitivity to his or her environment.

One reason why this study is so important is because it flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that children with more difficult temperaments have something “biological” going on that is not going to respond to “psychological” interventions like parenting and instead need things like medications.  It argues instead that we should be redoubling our efforts to support and guide parents of these challenging kids because the task is not only more difficult but also, it seems, because these children are more responsive to parent behavior “for better or for worse.”  It’s also important to state what this new study does NOT say, namely that child behavioral problems are the result of bad parenting.  The study also is not an invitation for parents of easier kids to let them go on autopilot. 

My home child psychiatry clinic has tried to embrace these ideas for years as part of a model called The Vermont Family Based Approach.  Here, we try to focus on parenting not from the assumption that child behavior problems result from bad parenting but rather that mothers and fathers of temperamentally more challenging kids require super-parenting skills that for most us, myself included, do not come naturally.   

@copyright by David Rettew, MD

David Rettew is author of Child Temperament: New Thinking About the Boundary Between Traits and Illness and a child psychiatrist in the psychiatry and pediatrics departments at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.

Follow him at @PediPsych and like PediPsych on Facebook.


Slagt M, et al. (2016). Differences in Sensitivity to Parenting Depending on Child Temperament: A Meta-Analysis.  Psychological Bulletin 142:1068-1110.