Could Your Parenting Style Affect Your Child's Health?

How parent-child relationships can affect kids' immunity

It's not surprising that a parent-child relationship that's often filled with conflict or neglect would have a negative effect on kids' emotional or mental health; but did you know that parenting style may also have an impact on a child's physical health? Intriguing research has shown a link between the way a parent interacts with a child and physiological changes in kids.

One study, published in the Journal of Family Psychology in November, 2016, examined the link between parenting styles and inflammation and immune activation in kids, which are risk factors for later illness.

They found that one particular style of parenting that ranks high on the poor parenting monitoring scale, which is sometimes referred to as "uninvolved parenting" (not knowing where kids are or what they're doing; not disciplining; not showing warmth or being involved in kids' lives) was associated with higher immune system activation.

What Are Parenting Styles?

The four basic types of parenting styles defined by psychologists are authoritarian, permissive, authoritative, and uninvolved.

  • Authoritarian: Parents who tend to demand strict obedience and don't explain their rules or decisions to kids and punish children without showing much warmth or support are authoritarian. Kids who grow up with authoritarian parents are more likely to be afraid of new situations and suffer from low self-esteem, depression.
  • Permissive: Parents who are permissive generally don't discipline, enforce rules, set boundaries or control their kids' behavior. Kids whose parents are permissive tend to be impulsive and disregard rules and limits, be aggressive, and face a higher risk of substance abuse. They are also at a greater risk of depression and anxiety.
  • Authoritative: Basically the best of both worlds, this type of parenting involves parents seting rules and limits and giving kids consequences when they do not follow them. But authoritative parents are also emotionally responsive and warm, and make a habit of listening and communicating with their children. Kids whose parents use this style of parenting tend to grow up with better emotional health, social skills, and resiliency, and are more likely to have secure attachments with their parents.
  • Uninvolved: Parents who are uninvolved generally have little communication or involvement with their kids. They are not warm and responsiveness to kids' emotional needs, and don't pay much attention to supervising or disciplining kidsUninvolved parenting tends to lead to the worst outcomes for children, with kids ending up emotionally withdrawn, anxious, and at greater risk for dangerous and bad behavior as well as substance abuse.

The Link Between Immune System and Parenting Style

To investigate the effect of various parenting styles on kids' health, researchers at the University of Oregon examined saliva samples of 102 children who had an average age of 9 to look for levels of C-reactive protein, which measures general inflammation in the body, and secretory immunoglobulin A, which measures immune system activation. They asked the kids' parents to complete the Alabama Parenting Questionnaire, which measures five aspects of parenting style: positive parental involvement, positive discipline techniques, consistent use of positive discipline methods, use of corporal punishment, and monitoring and supervision. The results were clear: Higher scores on the poor parental monitoring scale were linked with higher levels of both inflammation and immune activation in the children.

What could be behind this link? One cause could be that parents are asking kids to self-manage beyond their capabilities, says study co-author Nicholas B. Allen, PhD, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oregon. We're not talking about examples of helicopter parenting run amok such as parents of college-age kids calling professors to argue about grades; but not supervising 9-year-olds at all to the point that parents don't know who their friends are or what they are doing is not only opening a child up to potential risks and bad choices, but making them stressed as well. And that kind of chronic stress can be bad for a child's health.

"When there are pathogens, immune system activation is good," says Dr. Allen. "But chronic activation is not a good thing."

The Parenting Style That's Best for Kids' Health

As with so many things in parenting and in life, moderation is key. The kind of hovering and over-involved parenting isn't good for kids because children need to experiment and be independent normally, says Dr. Allen. But withdrawn parenting, where the parents are not involved in kids' lives and do not have a strong bond with their child is clearly not good for kids' emotional, mental, or even physical development.

The parenting style that's best for kids' health is one that doesn't go too far either way, and allows independence and also provides nurture, says Dr. Allen. "You want to scaffold—temporarily provide support while a child is building and developing but slowly take it away."

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