One of the hardest things about being a parent is how random it is. Each child is different, and each parent is, too. And the quality of the fit between parent and child is a big factor in how effective a parent's efforts to help that child deal with the ups and downs of adolescence end up being. Good things happen when parents take the time to adjust their parenting to match a particular child's set of reactions.

Kids respond to the stress of entering middle school differently, and a study by University of Illinois researchers found some fifth- and sixth-graders benefit from having a parent coach them through the rough spots, offering suggestions for ways to handle the more intense social scene at this age. But some don't.

When a parent gives a highly reactive kid more space and time to work through a stressful peer situation in their own way, it tends to be more beneficial.

One reason not all kids benefit from the same types of parental coaching has to do with the fact that they respond to stress differently. Their distinct levels of growing independence are also a factor. Some children need more support from their parents; others do better when parents are more hands-off. One size does not fit all, the study found. Parents need to figure out what works for their children. Within the same family, one sibling may do better with more guidance and another with far less.

To identify what mothers do or say that is particularly helpful to their children, the team examined how mothers' advice to their child during actual conversations about stressful peer situations was associated with the amount of stress a child reported. Researchers observed conversations kids had with their mothers about stressful interactions with peers — such as problems with kids who were rude, or problems with a friend, being bullied, teased or hassled by other kids.

Mothers also had to consider hypothetical peer stress situations and report on how they would typically advise their child to respond. What would they do if, for example, their child were excluded from a gathering, or expressed anxiety about having to face a new group of peers, or were the target of bullying? In addition, they were asked about what they thought of a variety of coping strategies.

“As we're thinking about the transition to middle school, we're looking at the extent to which mothers are encouraging their child to use active, engaged coping strategies, like problem solving, help-seeking, or reframing or thinking about the situation in less threatening or negative ways,” said researcher, Kelly Tu, an assistant professor of human development and family studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

They also measured the preteen youths' physiological arousal during these problem-solving discussions. They recorded the electrical activity occurring in the skin on their hands when they were under stress — their skin conductance levels, known to be a marker of a person's physiological “fight or flight” response.

Kids who had higher levels of physiological arousal or anxiety showed more skin reactivity while recalling stressful experiences and talking it through with their mothers. Those with less reactivity during the problem-solving conversation with their mothers were more likely to be less sensitive and stressed about these topics.

These varying stress response patterns matter because they suggest different parenting approaches. Kids who were not as much troubled by difficult interactions with classmates seemed to benefit more from engaging with mothers' active suggestions, perhaps because they helped them tune in to social interactions better.

“We found that mothers' active, engaged coping suggestions were more beneficial for low reactive youth. Low reactive youth may not be attending to cues in these conversations about stressful or challenging peer experiences, and so they may behave in ways that are unexpected, non-normative, or inappropriate. But when parents give them specific advice for how to manage challenging peer situations, this appears to be helpful, ” Tu said.

On the other hand, this hands-on approach didn't work as well for kids who were sensitive and already aroused as a result of their interactions with peers. “…[S]elf-reliant suggestions actually predicted better adjustment for these kids. If you're anxious or stressed, and your parent is telling you to face the problem head on, that might actually create more anxiety,” Tu explained, adding, “But when a parent gives a highly aroused youth more autonomy about how to cope with the peer stressor, this seems to be more beneficial because parents are giving them more space and time to work through the situation in their own way.”

The study is published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.