Most of us realize that parenting influences how children behave and impact their future choices regarding education, lifestyle, and health. How much of an effect does parenting really have? One thing many people don’t realize is that being a parent can influence their health, too. Is it beneficial? Are there downsides to becoming a parent?
Most people underestimate the impact that parenting has on health. Many parents understand that their role is to ensure their children are healthy, safe, and equip them with the skills and resources they’ll need to succeed as adults. Parental and family support helps children cope with adversity, especially if they encounter stigma or prejudice associated with their race/ethnicity, gender, disability, sexuality, weight, or socioeconomic status.
Due to its various influences, developmental psychologists have long been interested in how parents affect child development. It’s challenging to find the cause-and-effect links between the specific actions of parents and the later behavior of children. This is evidenced by the fact that some children raised in dramatically different environments have remarkably similar personalities later in life. The opposite is true with children who share a home and are raised in the same environment but grow up to have very different personalities.
In the 1960s, a now well-known study was conducted with more than 100 preschool-age children. Using naturalistic observation, parental interviews, and other research methods, the researchers were able to identify critical dimensions of parenting, such as disciplinary strategies, warmth and nurturing, communication styles, and expectations of maturity and control. The study found that the majority of parents display one of three different parenting styles. Later research suggested adding a fourth style.
The four classes are authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, and uninvolved. Each one has different outcomes on children’s behavior. Since these studies, researchers have conducted numerous other ones looking at the impact of parenting styles on children, concluding that there are links between them.
In this style, parents establish strict rules that result in strict punishment if they aren’t followed. If parents are asked to explain the reasoning behind these rules, they often say, “Because I said so,” rather than providing a rationale. Children are expected to obey without question and not make errors. While these parents place high demands on their kids, they aren’t very responsive to them. Unfortunately, the lack of guidance on what to do or not do makes it very confusing.
The consequences are kids who are more likely to be afraid of new situations and suffer from low self-esteem and depression. These children rank lower in happiness and social competence as well. These parents are described as domineering and dictatorial. Some experts feel that authoritarian parents might suffer from anxiety. Instead of allowing their kids to make their own choices because it may make them anxious, they think, “If I can control my kids, I don’t have to worry.”
The other problem with this style is that it can result in anger issues. When you imagine all the shouting and demand-making that occurs, it’s easy to see how anger can well up inside. Anger is an emotion that has well-documented health consequences. When it gets out of control, it kicks off our fight-or-flight response. When this happens multiple times a day, the ensuing reaction is hugely detrimental to your health.
With this style, parents still have rules and guidelines that their children are expected to follow, but it’s more democratic. When children ask questions, parents are responsive by being willing to listen and provide answers. Children can see why the rules exist, understand that they are fair and acceptable, and strive to follow these rules to meet their own internalized sense of what is right and wrong. While parents expect a lot of their children, they provide warmth, feedback, and adequate support. When children fail to meet expectations, parents are more nurturing and forgiving.
These parents are assertive, unintrusive, and non-restrictive. They want their children to be proactive, socially responsible, self-regulated, and cooperative. The combination of expectation and support helps children develop independence, social skills, and resiliency while having better emotional health. In addition, children are more likely to have secure attachments with their parents. Since these parents are more reasonable, fair, and just, their children are more likely to comply with their parents’ requests.
A new subcategory of this style is positive discipline. This is when the parent attempts to show respect and kindness towards the child by focusing on finding the beliefs behind behaviors rather than just reacting to them. This style can reduce parental anxiety levels because you actually know your kids. You’re able to parent with confidence and balance, which helps you build confidence in yourself. Studies show that people who have self-confidence tend to be healthier and live longer.
This style is sometimes referred to as indulgent parents because they make very few demands of their children. Parents have low expectations regarding self-control and maturity, so they rarely discipline their children. Parents are responsive but are lenient by allowing significant self-regulation. They avoid confrontation with their children. Parents often take on the status of a friend. Kids respond to this style by being aggressive and impulsive and disregarding rules and limits. They also face a higher risk for substance abuse, depression, and anxiety. Typically, these children rank low in happiness and self-regulation.
Parents who use this style fulfill their child’s basic needs but are detached from their lives. These parents offer little to nothing when it comes to guidance, structure, rules, or support. There is very little communication. In extreme cases, these parents reject or neglect the needs of their children. This style tends to lead to the worst outcomes for children, with these kids becoming emotionally withdrawn and anxious. They have low self-esteem, no self-control, and are less competent than their peers. Also, they’re at greater risk for dangerous behavior than any other group.
A 2016 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology examined the link between parenting styles and inflammation and immune activation in kids. These are risk factors for developing illnesses later in life. The children that ranked highest were those who experienced uninvolved parenting. Experts assume that it’s because these kids have to self-manage beyond their capabilities. When children aren’t supervised, it opens them up to potential risks and bad choices, increasing their stress. Chronic stress is bad for anyone’s health.
A new concern in recent years is helicopter parenting. These parents want to rescue their kids. For instance, if a child forgets something at home or doesn’t finish their homework, their parent will do it for them. These are the same parents who hover over their kids at the park. Similar to authoritarian parents, helicopter parents have high levels of anxiety and a need for control. Often, they’re perfectionists who put intense pressure on themselves. They view their child as a reflection of their own success. Unfortunately, all that pressure puts the parent at risk for depression and burnout.
While there’s considerable evidence that parenting style is linked to specific behaviors pattern in children, it’s essential to realize that other variables, like a child’s temperament, can play a role. There’s some indication that a child’s behavior can impact parenting styles. For example, one study published in 2006 found that parents of children who exhibited problematic behavior began to show less parental control over time. This suggests that parents of difficult or aggressive children give up trying to control their kids.
Another aspect is cultural factors because these influence parenting styles and child outcomes. You also have to take into account the parenting styles of individual parents. This creates a unique blend in each family and can sometimes lead to children receiving mixed signals.
Other Considerations for Children
Kids learn how to behave from their parents. One area where this is evident is how a child responds to illness. Research shows how parents act when their child is sick indicates how they will act as an adult. Some parents react to a child’s complaints of illness with behaviors that encourage them to be sick, like rewarding them with toys or gifts, giving them special privileges at home, pampering them, letting them stay home from school even when symptoms are not severe enough to warrant it, not making them do chores when mildly ill, and taking them to the doctor frequently.
When these kids become adults, they go to the doctor often, stay home from work, and take longer to recover from illness because they’ve got a tendency to overestimate their own illness.
Another item that parents can significantly influence is mental health. Emotional suffering is inevitable since there are painful and uncomfortable moments during life. While most parents try to exhibit composure and empathy as much as possible, there are times when this is more challenging than others. Children are very perceptive and pick up on verbal and nonverbal emotional cues more than we realize.
The pandemic, school closures, the fight against racial injustice, the climate crisis, and political uncertainty have made it difficult for anyone to reasonably hold it together. However, it’s key to note that research shows children of parents with anxiety disorders are 4 – 6 times more likely to develop one, and children of parents with depression are 3 – 4 times more likely to have it. Often, these appear in childhood or adolescence due to genetics, biology, and the environment.
As children reach adolescence, parents have a new set of challenges to deal with as their child’s needs change. It’s a natural part of development for teens to detach somewhat from existing family bonds and focus more on their peers and the outside world. It’s up to parents to navigate the delicate balance between maintaining the familial bond and allowing teens to increase autonomy. Research shows that teens whose parents maintain a warm, communicative relationship with them have higher rates of socially competent behavior, take fewer drugs, and exhibit less anxiety or depression.
Family rituals are instrumental in this process. A great example is family mealtimes because they provide a setting in which emotional connections are strengthened. The keys are how the mealtimes are conducted, their regularity, and the value placed on them by the family. A further element that is beneficial to children is interacting with their grandparents. A recent study concluded that when children spend time with a grandparent, they have better social skills and fewer behavior problems, especially those living in single-parent or stepfamily households.
Ways to Create a Better Parenting Environment
Parents need to learn to cooperate and combine their parenting styles to create a cohesive approach to avoid sending mixed signals. If you’re the type of parent that feels you need to “rescue” your child, the next time you feel this way, step back and take a moment to think about everything you survived as a kid. Resisting the urge to constantly step in and save them teaches them that they can recover. This will provide you with feelings of pride, liberation, and calm. All of these emotions result in reduced levels of stress.
For parents who express anger, it’s vital to improve your self-awareness. By becoming aware of when and how your anger is triggered, you can hit the pause button and prevent automatic responses from occurring. Some experts recommend following the “Stop, sit, breathe” approach. This involves literally sitting down when you feel your anger mounting and counting down from 10 to 1 as you take slow, deep breaths. This will help you calm down enough to deal with the situation without losing your temper.
When it comes to health issues, you must set a good example for your child. One way to do this is by learning as much as you can about health, especially common childhood illnesses, and sharing it with your child in an age-appropriate way. This will help you not be scared and take your child to the doctor every time they’re sick. You can always call your child’s doctor with questions, but keep in mind that you won’t need to take your child to see them in most cases.
It’s also crucial to avoid overreacting to common illnesses with rewards or special privileges. If your child has a minor illness, they still can do their chores and school responsibilities. They can also be disciplined when necessary. Make sure that you maintain family routines when your child is ill. All of these things will help your child to learn how to react to illness.
When faced with challenging times, parents don’t always need to look calm because kids don’t need us to be pillars of strength. Instead, it’s more beneficial for them to see how unsettled we feel and how we deal with it constructively. Sometimes, situations can be managed without professional help, but other times they can’t. Either way, the emotionally healthy thing to do, which is also the most difficult, is to acknowledge our struggles in front of our children and model a healthy response. You can do this by taking the time to talk with your children about what’s going on in age-appropriate terms. It’s far scarier for a child to have a struggling parent who doesn’t talk about it than one who does.
Talking about challenges normalizes these feelings and shows children that it’s okay to acknowledge and express them and deal with them. Also, it lets children know that your stress and anxiety aren’t their fault. When it comes to mental health issues, nobody is to blame, and they’re like any other illness. If you have a child that gets anxious easily, you should respect but not indulge their concerns. Your goal should be to show them that you are confident that they can tolerate a stressful situation and be okay afterward. Knowing that you believe they can handle a situation often gives them the confidence to deal with it.
As a parent, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you need to take time for yourself. Some might view this as selfish, but it’s for everyone’s good. Some ways to get rid of stress are exercising, taking time off from work, calling a friend, or going to therapy.
Impacts of Being a Parent on Your Health
Did you know there are health benefits for people who have kids? There’s a strong link between having children and living longer. One observational study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health tracked 704,481 men and 725,290 women in Sweden born between 1911 and 1925. After calculating age-specific death risks for people with and without children, researchers found that people with at least one child were less likely to die than those who didn’t have any. It didn’t matter the gender of the children.
Once over the age of 60, for men, the increased life expectancy was two years, and for women, it was one and a half years. For those who were unmarried with kids, they had even more advantages. The scientists believe it could result from children providing social support that unmarried parents may otherwise lack. It’s important to note that since it was an observational study, no firm conclusions about cause and effect can be drawn.
A different study conducted at Brigham Young University examined how parenthood may help lower your blood pressure. The investigation involved 200 married men and women having their blood pressure monitored for 24 hours. It found that couples with children had significantly lower blood pressure than those without. Most people would assume that the daily hassles that caring for children entail would increase blood pressure. However, experts say that being a parent helps them derive meaning and purpose in their life, which is associated with better health outcomes.
One essential thing to note is that this doesn’t mean the more kids you have, the better your blood pressure will be. Also, the findings didn’t break down the results based on the number of children or the employment status of the parents.
Young kids are always asking a variety of head-scratching questions. While you might not know the answer to all of these queries, they get your mind turning as you attempt to formulate a plausible-sounding response. Besides, as your children get older, you’ll need to brush up on your education by relearning your multiplication tables and other useful data.
There are statistics from researchers at Taiwan’s Mental Health Foundation that support the claim that children may keep their parents sane well beyond their years. The organization interviewed 1,084 randomly selected senior citizens. The results showed that seniors with no children scored 6.4 points lower on a mental health questionnaire than those with children.
As many parents might have suspected, children can increase your happiness level. An analysis conducted by the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research found a direct correlation between children and happiness for parents over 40. The survey was comprised of 200,000 parents in 86 countries between 1981 and 2005. It was discovered that from age 40 on, parents with one to three children were considerably more content than childless couples.
After 50, parents were happier than childless couples regardless of how many kids they had. Part of this could be from the self-esteem boost your children provide. There’s a lot to be said for hearing positive pronouncements, like “you’re the best daddy in the whole world,” regularly. Children remind you to slow down and enjoy the simple things, such as gazing at the stars or lying on your back watching the passing clouds, doing these activities help you destress and reconnect with the world.
When it comes to parenting, moderation is key. It should allow children to be independent while being nurtured. A parent’s goal should be to provide support while their child is developing and gradually take it away. If this isn’t how you currently parent and you want to change your style, keep in mind that things might worsen before they get better. So, don’t be discouraged because there’s no universally “best” style. By developing a technique that allows for positive, healthy interactions between you and your child, you’ll both receive the benefits in the short and long term.