We all know how subjective most aspects of life are.  One’s perceptions carry an immeasurable amount of weight as we work to understand and interact with this world around us.  A recent study in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry demonstrated the importance of perceptions in looking at how kids view their parents.

Young and colleagues did a study on the perceptions of almost 1,700 11 year-olds regarding parents’ emotional neglect and control.  They then related the findings to the development of mental health issues at the age of 15 years.  Whether or not parents actually were emotionally neglectful and controlling was not known, but the researchers did demonstrate that merely perceiving parents as such significantly related to later psychopathology.

Based on 11 year-olds’ responses of “almost always” to items on a parenting questionnaire, the authors generated four parenting styles (percentages of the study participants follow each): optimal (20%), typical (54%), moderate (also known as tougher and stricter than the aforementioned styles; 23%), and neglectful and controlling (3% ).

The questionnaire included topics such as how helpful, loving, understanding, and controlling kids felt their parents were.  As could be anticipated, the “neglectful and controlling” group perceived their parents to be the least helpful, least likely to let them do things that they like, least loving, least understanding, least likely to allow them to make decisions, most likely to be controlling, most likely to treat them like a baby, and the least likely to make them feel better.

Regardless of gender, socioeconomic status, family structure, and previous psychiatric and social problems, the “neglectful and controlling” group was found to have significantly higher levels of psychiatric disorder at age 15, more than twice that of the “optimal” group.  Interestingly, the “typical” group had a moderate increase in odds for developing a disorder when compared to the “optimal” group.  Also, the “typical” and “moderate” groups had modest increases in symptoms related to anxiety, depression, conduct problems, and ADHD when compared to the “optimal” group. Those in the “neglectful and controlling” group far exceeded the others in psychiatric symptoms, however.

Regarding the “neglectful and controlling” group, the authors state that “the overwhelming experience of these children and young people is of being ignored and failing to have their needs met by their parents – but also of being controlled.”  They go on to cite previous research that found this group to be angrier and less compliant as older children.

What do these findings tell us?  While a lot of parenting is good enough, so to speak, there is a style that appears to lend itself to the development of a host of mental health problems in our children.  That would be the “neglectful and controlling” style described here.  What else do the findings tell us?  Our children’s perceptions of us as parents are important, which makes it critical for both parents and mental health professionals to know and understand what those perceptions are.

As I’ve stated before, talking and connecting with our kids is a must if we want to nurture them into emotionally healthy beings.  We also want to give them the space to make mistakes and learn from them, with us standing there ready to support them rather than rescue or overly control them.

For those of you who are curious about the “optimal” group.  Here is what these parents looked like, in the eyes of their 11 year-olds anyway.  They were the most helpful, most likely to let their kids do things that they enjoy, most loving and understanding, most likely to allow their kids to make decisions, second most controlling, least likely to treat their child like a baby, and most likely to help their child feel better.  Tall order?  Perhaps.  Worth it?  Probably.

Source: Young R, Lennie S, & Minnis H (2011). Children’s perceptions of parental emotional neglect and control and psychopathology. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, and allied disciplines, 52 (8), 889-97 PMID: 21438874

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7 Responses to Children’s Perceptions of Their Parents: Can They Predict Later Mental Health Issues?

  1. I’m a little dissatisfied with an interpretation of this study that places the entire blame for children’s later negative outcomes on poor parenting styles. It sounds like the research examined only children’s perceptions, rather than the parents’ actual behaviors. Isn’t it entirely possible that many of the children in the neglectful/controlling group perceive their parents as not giving them what they want because those children are holy terrors and giving them what they want would be disastrous? In this case, the parents could actually be very responsible, but the child’s inborn behavioral tendencies could be the cause of both the parent/child friction and the child’s later psychiatric or other difficulties.

    There’s been a long history of unfairly blaming poor parenting for problems in children which turn out ultimately to be beyond the parents’ control. One example of this is the now-discredited “refrigerator mothers” theory of autism and schizophrenia. It seems to me that it might behoove scientists to be very wary before jumping on another such bandwagon.

    • Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D. says:

      Anne,

      Thank you so much for your comment. Indeed parents do get blamed for some things that are out of their control. Your two examples are good ones. My understanding of the study is that it was not the intention of the investigators to blame parents for mental health issues in their children, but rather to examine a relationship between perceived parenting style and later mental health outcomes. Like most psychology research, the results were correlational rather than causational in nature. My hope is that the takeaway from the study is for parents to nurture the type of relationship with their children that welcomes open dialogue and helps both kids and parents understand the perspective of one another.

      As in all relationships, parent-child relationships involve a dynamic rather than one party being solely responsible for what transpires in that relationship.

      Again, thank you for writing in and for opening up this discussion.

      • It strikes me that it’s really hard to draw a clean line between, “Doing X can enhance your children’s development,” and, “If you don’t do X you’re ruining your children’s lives,” especially in such an emotional issue as parenting. For some people, those two phrases are probably seen as effectively synonymous. :)

  2. Marga says:

    Another issue at play is /why/ the parents are neglectful/controlling. They may be neglectful/controlling because they’re suffering from mental health issues themselves. A lot of psychiatric disorders have a genetic component and they do show up during adolescence. So it may just be genetics at play. It should be relatively easy to see if that’s the case, though, by comparing biological to adopted children.

  3. Jeff Mayer says:

    This is an informative study and I agree with the authors opinions based on the findings. However, I am curious about what appears to me to be a confusing discrepancy in their results. Isn’t the fact that the”optimal” group is found to be the second most controlling parenting group of the four groups a discrepancy seeing that the authors show in Figure 1 a congruence between the conventional “optimal” parenting group and the Latent Class 3 group which is labelled “not controlled?” I’m confused.

  4. Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D. says:

    Thank you for your comment, Jeff. I went back to the article and I think that the issue may lie in the omission of some important information: the questions that comprise both the care and the control categories. My guess is that the control variable is made up of more than “My parents try to control me.” It would make sense that items such as being allowed to make decisions and being treated like a baby would also fall under the “control” variable, in which case this group would appear to be low on the control spectrum.

    If you’d like to go to the main source, Robert Young was the primary investigator on the study and he can be contacted at r.young@sphsu.mrc.ac.uk . Please let us know if you learn any further information. It was a great question to pose!

  5. Michelle McFadden says:

    Perhaps, children that have a genetic vulnerability to mental illness may have perceptual difficulties that are evident prior to the mental health issue manifesting itself in later life. I work with a boy with anxiety. His anxiety/fear response is dis-proportionate to to the situation. He perceives the stimuli as negative and harmful even when it is not. Negative thinking patterns are reinforced by active avoidance of the undesirable stimuli. Perhaps these kids have a skewed perception of parents reinforced by thinking patterns stewing and brewing in their genetically vulnerable brains. . .not necessarily accurate.

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