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

By Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D.

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). Childrens 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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