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Finding the Balance: Matching Parenting Style to Child's Personality

Good matches between parenting styles and a child's personality lead to half as many depression and anxiety symptoms in school-aged youth. Mismatches lead to twice as many symptoms.

As parents, we quickly learn that each of our children has a distinctive personality.  

One may easily adapt to changing circumstances while another tests every limit and uses the word "no" long after the "terrible twos" are chronologically over. A third may be a ball of physical energy and constantly on the go, while his or her sibling prefers to read or play quietly.

Some children are capable of a great deal of self-regulation with regard to school, home, and social tasks. They are able to easily decide on goals and select strategies for achieving them with a minimum of adult intervention.

Other youngsters need continuous adult supervision, guidance, and monitoring in order to successfully complete an activity. They may be dreamers, unchallenged, easily bored, or suffer from a syndrome such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).    

Still other kids fall somewhere in the middle of this autonomy continuum and require a moderate amount of parental encouragement and direction. 

Unfortunately, knowledge of children's personalities is only half of the equation when it comes to raising psychologically healthy kids.

A recent study found that good matches between parenting styles and a child's personality led to half as many depression and anxiety symptoms in school-aged youth. Mismatches led to twice as many symptoms during the three years of the study.*

What is your style of parenting?

Parenting Behaviors and Styles

As adults, we each have a distinct temperament and our own parenting style.

Approaches range from a laissez-faire philosophy supporting child autonomy to one favoring micromanagement and authoritarian control and vary in the degree of warm feelings and/or negative judgments communicated to our kids.  

We may believe a child does best with a minimum of adult involvement and that if our kids need our help, they will ask. Or in our eagerness to have our kids perform well, we may insist on high grades, daily practice sessions in music or sports, and/or rigorous study routines, to the exclusion of more "fun" activities. 

In the process, we may inadvertently be hypercritical and raise our voices in frustration when our performance expectations are not met. 

Parental styles range across the entire control continuum and may differ by situation. There may be high control with regard to school grades and a laissez-faire outlook with regard to how many hours a day a child may be on the computer.

The Study

Researchers at Washington University studied interactions between 214 children and their mothers. These sons and daughters were in the third to fifth grade when the study began. 

Mother and child were observed having two different types of conversations: the first on a neutral topic, such as how the day was going, and the second about conflicts over doing homework or chores. 

The researchers measured: 

  • Parenting styles with regard to hostility and warmth and how much the mother allowed a son or daughter autonomy to direct the conversation
  • Children's depression and anxiety symptoms
  • Children's personality characteristics
  • Children's ability to regulate their own actions and emotions or what they labeled  "effortful control"

 The Findings

After three years of observation and measurement, the researchers reported that: 

  • Children able to self-regulate their own actions and emotions and stay on track for a given task showed higher levels of anxiety and depression when parents used high levels of guidance or allowed little autonomy
  • Children with low ability to self-regulate their own actions and emotions had less anxiety when mothers provided strong structuring of activities and allowed less autonomy
  • Children with low ability to self-regulate their own actions and emotions doubled their anxiety symptoms when mothers were more laissez-faire and provided little control

As stated earlier, levels of depression and anxiety for children with parents in sync with their child's temperament were half those of peers without such parental awareness. 

There is no reason to believe that these findings do not also apply to local families.

Implications

The message of this study is clear: listen to your child and honor the level of emotional and behavioral autonomy when helping him or her navigate childhood and adolescence. 

If your child has difficulty managing his or her actions and emotions with regard to certain tasks, it is appropriate to help make the situation clearer, offer options to achieve the goal, be present as he or she completes the task, and be lavish with praise.   

Remember it is perfectly normal that your daughter or son may have autonomous skills in one area and need your assistance in another. She may read voraciously and write prolific poems but be unable to meet deadlines for school projects. He may have memorized the batting averages of the entire Phillies team and still not be passing math. 

Finally, if you have more than one child, recognize that each may differ radically in ability to self-regulate actions and emotions. Don't be afraid to use different parenting styles with each of your kids, even when they cry loudly that you aren't being fair.

 * http://www.washington.edu/news/articles/kids2019-anxiety-depression-halved-when-parenting-styled-to-personality. The study was authored by Cara J. Kiff, Liliana J. Lengua and Nicole R. Bush and appeared in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, Vol 39 August 2011. The title is "Temperament Variation in Sensitivity to Parenting: Predicting Changes in Depression and Anxiety."

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