Does parenting style reinforce anxiety in kids?


Last updated 3/27/2008 at Noon

Any parent can tell you that his or her child’s personality was always just “there.”

The sweet, smiling infant becomes the happy-go-lucky kindergartner.

The sour-faced foot-stamper morphs into, well, a four-year-old who thinks she or he is 18.

Even in the earliest stages of life, parents can see that their baby is shy or a people person.

So is personality set in stone from the womb or do we as parents have the power to change how our children react to the world?

In “Temperament in Context,” Theodore D. Wachs and Geldolph A. Kohnstamm write about a study which showed that parenting styles directly affect whether or not a naturally “reactive,” “inhibited” infant becomes an anxious, fearful child.

A reactive baby responds to his environment with more motor activity, crying and fretting than a low-reactive baby.

High reactive babies tend to become anxious kids.

Inhibited babies reach out less to others and prefer sameness in their environment. New places and people stress them out more than in uninhibited babies.

So for five years, researchers tracked 100 infants.

The researchers noted the babies’ natural temperaments and videotaped them at home with their parents and in various environments.

For the most part, nature trumped nurture. Shy babies became shy children. Extroverted babies became extroverted children.

But there was a surprise in store for the scientists (and probably the parents!).

Mothers who set firm limits for their children and expected age-appropriate behavior from them appeared to help their naturally reactive children grow past their fearfulness.

Fathers who showed less sensitivity to boo-boos and tantrums had children who reacted less dramatically and were able to calm or distract themselves more quickly.

Parents who responded to their children’s cries and tantrums by holding them or trying to distract them with something better (“Put down Mr. Kitty and Mommy will give you candy!”) ended up with older children who were not able to deal with frustration and setbacks without some external payoff.

The authors of the study, Jerome Kagan, PhD, and Dorren Arcus, PhD, told an annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in Philadelphia on fears and inhibitions that when parents imposed limits on their children’s behavior, none of the reactive infants were still fearful at age two.

“Parents’ actions affect the probability of anxiety disorder in the child,” reported Kagan.

Even more startling, psychiatrist Michael Lebowits, MD, said at the same symposium that “overprotectiveness brings out the worst in kids.”

Lebowits states that as head of Columbia University’s unit on panic disorders, he sees that an unusually high proportion of panic patients claim to have had overprotective parenting in childhood.

Kagan said that in the study “two philosophies are represented. One is ‘I have a sensitive child that I must protect from stress.’ So this parent, finding the child playing in the kitchen trash, tends not to set limits with a firm ‘Don’t do that’ but distracts the child. As a result, the child does not get the opportunity to extinguish the fear response.”

The parent who is more authoritative and sees disciplining a child as a way to teach him how the world works and how to better make his way in it, however, does not shrink from saying no to playing in the trash and then taking the child’s hand out of the trash can.

The child then has to learn to deal with the frustration on his own without depending on Mom to make it disappear.

“It’s a subtle difference – but a profound one,” says Arcus.


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