Anyone who’s ever parented more than one child understands a fundamental truth: No two kids are alike.
Here’s what many parents don’t understand: We need to tailor our parenting styles according to each child’s individual needs and temperaments.
That’s what a study published last August in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology reports. “There’s a lot of parenting advice out there. It seems to be based on this one-size-fits-all approach that says you need to be really warm and give your kids freedom and independence,” says Cara Kiff, a psychology resident at the University of Washington (UW) and the study’s lead author. “But according to our research, you have some intuition about your kid’s strengths, weaknesses and overall characteristics — and when you take these into account, you’re going to be better off, and so will your kids.”
The study focused on how different parenting styles affect kids’ mental health based on their temperament. Researchers from the Department of Psychology at UW and the Center for Health and Community at the University of California-San Francisco interviewed and observed 214 families with children ages 8 to 12 years old in their homes. The role of fathers was not evaluated in the study.
The researchers rated children’s temperaments based on their levels of fearfulness, irritability and a characteristic called “effortful control,” which has to do with a child’s ability to regulate responses to external stimuli. They studied mothers’ parenting styles for levels of warmth, negativity, guidance and “autonomy granting,” meaning how much independence the mother gives her children.
They found that when a mother’s parenting style matched up well with her child’s temperament, the child experienced half as many symptoms of depression and anxiety.
For example, children who have a lot of self-control benefit when their mothers give them autonomy. At the same time, kids who are low in self-control benefit when their mothers provide more structure and guidance.
Some kids need less guidance
“For kids who already have their own self-control, parents who offer a lot of guidance and structuring may be providing overcontrol or overstructuring,” says the study’s co-author Liliana Lengua, Ph.D., a UW psychology professor. “It shows how the same parenting behaviors on a couple of occasions are having the opposite effects for kids with different temperaments and personalities.”
Ballard mom Gaylene Meyer notices this dilemma with her two sons, Evan, 9, and Emmett, 7. At bedtime, her older son needs prompts and reminders to finish brushing his teeth and to put on his pajamas, but her younger son gets ready for bed after the first request.
“Evan gets sidetracked; I’m finding I have to catch myself because I’m in the habit of reminding both kids,” she says. “Emmett gets mad when I keep reminding him because he’s already followed my directions.” Meyer feels birth order also comes into play. “You get used to the first one and then you build your parenting style based on that.”
Parenting each child differently
Meyer says that now that her younger son is getting older, she has to learn how to parent her two children differently. “One thing I’m struggling with now is that Evan needs a lot of external rewards to get things done and Emmett doesn’t,” she says. “It feels unfair to be giving only Evan these rewards. I have to figure out how to make this work.”
Anita Gurian, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine, says parents often recognize that their children have different temperaments — and they react differently to each child. “The match or mismatch between a child and parent determines the harmony between them,” she writes in an article on the NYU Child Study Center website. “Parents who are sensitive to their child’s temperamental style and can recognize the child’s unique strengths will make family life smoother.”
Lengua says the UW study results give parents permission to act differently with individual kids. She advises parents to pay attention to the characteristics of how fearful a child is, how easily frustrated and how much self-control the child might have. “These do seem to really interact with parenting in determining children’s mental heath,” she says.
Stacey Schultz is a freelance writer and mother of two boys, ages 8 and 5. Her website is staceyschultz.com.