Tuned-in parents cut kids’ depression

U. WASHINGTON (US) — When raising children, tailor-made parenting that is in tune with the individual child beats one size fits all.

A new three-year study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology says the right match between parenting styles and the child’s personality led to half as many depression and anxiety symptoms in school-aged children. And mismatches led to twice as many depression and anxiety symptoms during the same three years.

“This study moves away from the one-size-fits-all approach to parenting, and gives specific advice to parents on how to mitigate their child’s anxiety and depression,” says Cara Kiff, lead author and psychology resident at the University of Washington.


“We’re considering characteristics that make children vulnerable to anxiety and depression, and factoring in how that shapes how kids react to different parenting approaches.”

“We hear a lot about over-involved parents, like tiger moms and helicopter parents,” says co-author Liliana Lengua, professor of psychology.

“It is parents’ instinct to help and support their children in some way, but it’s not always clear how to intervene in the best way. This research shows that parenting is a balance between stepping in and stepping out with guidance, support, and structure based on cues from kids.”

Kiff, Lengua and co-author Nicole Bush, a postdoctoral fellow at University of California, San Francisco, studied interactions between 214 children and their mothers during interviews at home. An almost even mix of boys and girls participated in the study and were, on average, 9 years old when the study began.

Researchers met with the children and their mothers once a year and observed as the pairs discussed neutral topics, such as a recap of the day’s events, and common problems, like conflicts over homework and chores.

During the conversations, researchers noted parenting styles, including warmth and hostility, and how much mothers allowed their child to guide the conversations—called autonomy-granting parenting.

The researchers also measured the children’s anxiety and depression symptoms and evaluated their personality characteristics. They paid particular attention to effortful control, which is the children’s abilities to regulate their own emotions and actions and is associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety.

At the end of the three-year study, the researchers found that:

  • Children with greater effortful control had fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression compared with other kids in the study, and those symptoms usually remained low regardless of parenting style.
  • When children were higher in effortful control but their parents used higher levels of guidance or provided little autonomy, those children showed higher levels of depression and anxiety.
  • Children with low effortful control had less anxiety when mothers provided more structuring and less autonomy.
  • Children low in effortful control doubled their anxiety symptoms if they had mothers who provided little control.

The study shows how parents can use their child’s personality and temperament to decide how much and what type of help to give.

For some kids, particularly those who have trouble regulating their emotions, more help is good. But for kids who have pretty good self-control, too much parental control can lead to more anxiety and depression.

The results were somewhat surprising, Lengua says, because parents of children at this age are typically told to give their kids more autonomy as they learn to navigate social situations and make decisions about schedules and homework.

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