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Parenting and Temperament: Does "Goodness of Fit" Matter?
Why do some young children experience anxiety and depression? Are they "born" that way or is it a result of their environments and experiences? Why do some children become less anxious or depressed as they grow while others stay the same or feel worse? Is there something parents can do to help their children? Is there something that parents are doing that hurts their children? And are some parents better equipped to deal with children with difficult temperaments?
A group of researchers recently looked at the interaction between a child’s temperament and their mothers’ style of parenting. They wondered if temperament independently predicted which children became depressed or anxious, and they wondered further whether there were features of parenting that could make symptoms better or worse over time.
Temperament is the innate behavioral style of an individual and it is believed to be biologically- based although it can be modified by the environment and experiences. Temperamental traits persist into adulthood and are expressed in a person’s behavior and personality. Reactivity and self-regulation are major components of temperament. The temperamental characteristics of specific interest to these researchers were fear, irritability, positive affect (mood) and effortful (self) control. The aspects of parenting styles that they examined were warmth, negativity, guidance and structure, and autonomy granting (willingness to give a child age appropriate independence and decision making opportunities)
Information about temperament, parenting style, and depression and anxiety symptoms was obtained from group of 214 families. Three sets of standardized interviews and observations were each conducted a year apart. Anxiety and depression symptoms in the children were identified at the start of the study and assessed at each yearly interval. The occurrence and persistence of symptoms was compared with the four aspects of a child’s temperament and the nature of maternal parenting style.
The researchers predicted that maternal parenting style would predict children’s depression and anxiety symptoms. They expected that low maternal warmth would more strongly predict depression and high maternal control was expected to more strongly predict anxiety. They further proposed that a child’s temperament would impact the effect of parenting and that children with the negative temperamental traits of high fear or irritability or low positive affect or effortful control would be more susceptible to negative parenting.
Some of their findings supported their hypothesis, and some were surprising.
For some types of children, parenting characteristics seemed to impact whether the symptoms of anxiety and depression improved, worsened, or stayed the same over time. For example while children with low effortful control began the study with more anxiety, their symptoms were only maintained when their mothers reacted with high negativity. Children with low effortful control also began the study with more depression. When their mothers exhibited low guidance, their levels of depression increased significantly.
Children with low effortful control also showed more anxiety. But, low autonomy granting in their mothers was associated with a marked decrease in anxiety symptoms. This suggests that these children actually benefited from fewer choices and more structure that may provide them with a comforting sense of external control. The researchers suggest that low autonomy granting is not always a problematic parenting trait but one whose impact depends on a child’s temperament.
Interestingly when fearful children had mothers with low negativity, their depression increased. The researchers speculated that the fearful children may have interpreted their mothers’ behaviors as invalidating and rejecting of their emotional response rather than calming and reassuring . This exemplified the study finding that a child’s temperament poses a risk for depression and anxiety and that parenting style can affect both the occurrence and course of depression and anxiety. For some children, their temperamental characteristics increase or decrease their effect that parenting has on their emotional development.
Children with difficult temperaments and children who are anxious and depressed are challenging and parents may feel responsible yet uncertain how to effectively help their children. Parents may benefit from discussing their child’s temperament and their own parenting style with their health care provider or therapist to achieve a "good fit" between the two. It is important to remember that there is no single answer or one right way to parent and that children have innate temperamental profiles that are as unique to them as their physical appearance. The goal is to provide age and developmentally appropriate discipline to allow children to develop the skills that will serve them in adulthood.
More information on temperament: http://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/gradeschool/pages/How-to-Understand-Your-Childs-Temperament.aspx
August 22, 2011