The right balance: How your level of control affects your child’s level of anxiety

NationalPost.com – Life
Aug 18, 2011.   By Katherine Dedyna, Postmedia News

A mantra of modern mothering has it that kids should be independent and self-sufficient, and that’s all to the good. But unless that goal takes into account the personality and self-control level of the child, an unforeseen result could be increased anxiety and depression, a major new study has found.

That goes for helicopter mothers hovering to meet every need, free spirits who want kids to find their own way, and managerial types who make it clear that organized behaviour is expected — whether that’s the child’s strong point or not.

“Parents should be comfortable taking cues from the child,” says lead author Cara Kiff, a psychology resident at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle.

Even though increased structure and guidance could make all the difference to kids whose weak point is self-regulation, “it goes against popular culture,” Kiff says. Yes, parents always want to know where their kids are and what they’re doing, but they also want their kids to be highly self-reliant at solving problems and doing what’s asked on their own.

Children with low levels of so-called effortful control of their feelings and actions who did not get the direction they needed from mothers exhibited twice as much depression and anxiety, according to three years of research by University of Washington psychologists.

Kids who are over-controlled when they are already good at independently managing their emotions and behaviour also showed symptoms of anxiety and depression. The findings were based on analysis of videotaped at-home interactions between 214 children, aged nine on average, and their mothers.

“Parents want the best for their children, but the needs and strengths of the child will determine whether [parents] need to step in or step out,” Kiff says. If a creative child requires help getting out the door on time, try to come up with an entertaining way, not a punitive way, to encourage that, she suggests.

The children and their mothers met once a year with researchers, who observed them discussing neutral topics — such as a recap of the day’s events, and conflicts, such as homework and chores. The researchers took note of how much mothers allowed their children to guide the conversation, an example of “autonomy-granting parenting style” and how much warmth and hostility they showed when discussing problems.

Negative vibes from a frustrated or hostile mother can make kids who don’t fear punishment exhibit more symptoms of depression, they found.

In evaluating the children, the researchers measured the children’s symptoms of anxiety and depression, and paid close attention to the effort and ability children put into regulating their own emotions and actions — in itself linked to lower levels of depression and anxiety. In fact, kids with greater self-control generally had less depression and anxiety, regardless of parenting style.

Other findings include:

• More depression and anxiety when children were higher in effortful control, but mothers used higher levels of guidance or provided little autonomy;
• Less anxiety when children with low effortful control when mothers provided more structure and less autonomy.

“Parents should be there to help — but not take over — in difficult situations, and help their children learn to navigate challenges on their own,” co-author Liliana Lengua, a UW psychology professor, said in a news release.

The study was published online Aug. 1 in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.

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