Research on One-Size-Fits-All Parenting

Tailoring parenting to personality

Posted Aug 03, 2011

A recent study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology (Aug. 2011) suggests that tailoring parenting style to a child's personality can reduce the incidence of depression and anxiety symptoms by as much as half in school aged children. Conversely, mismatches in parenting style and personality were shown to lead to the presentation of twice as many depression and anxiety symptoms in the same three year period for the population studied.

While it's no news to parents that what works with one child might not work with another, this study points directly to a move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to parenting, and gives parents some specific direction on how to potentially mitigate a child's anxiety and depression.

Psychologists at University of Washington School of Medicine were looking at characteristics that make a child vulnerable to anxiety and depression, and also considered how these vulnerabilities shape the way children react to different parenting styles. They observed the interactions between 214 children and their mothers during interviews conducted in the home over a three-year period. The participants were an average of 9-years-old when the study began, with an almost equal mix of boys and girls.

Researchers observed the discussion of neutral topics, such as reviews of the day's events, as well as common problems, like conflicts over homework and chores. During the interactions, they noted the characteristics of various parenting styles, such as warmth and hostility, as well as how much the child was allowed to guide the conversation.

Children's anxiety and depression symptoms were measured, and an evaluation of personality characteristics undertaken. Particular attention was paid to the children's ability to regulate both their emotions and their actions -- termed effortful control -- something that is associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression.

At the conclusion of the study, researchers found that children who exercised greater effortful control had fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, as compared to other children in the study. In general, these symptoms remained low for this segment of the study group regardless of parenting style. When children displayed greater effortful control, but parents interjected higher levels of guidance and diminished autonomy, the children displayed higher levels of depression and anxiety.

On the other hand, children with lesser effortful control displayed less anxiety when parenting style was more structured and afforded less autonomy. Without this same imposition of structure, children low in effortful control showed double the anxiety symptoms.

Liliana Lengua, PhD, co-author of the study and director of the University of Washington's Center for Child and Family Well-Being proposes that the study shows how parent's can use an awareness of their child's personality to decide how much and what kind of guidance and help to provide.

Ultimately, the study suggests that for some children -- particularly those who have difficulty regulating their emotions -- more guidance is beneficial, while for children with a stronger aspect of self-control, too much parental control can lead to an increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression. The findings are somewhat counterintuitive to common parenting practice with this particular age group, where parents are typically advised to give children autonomy in learning to navigate social situations and decision-making.

© 2011 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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