Ron Rapee, Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Director of Macquarie University’s Centre for Emotional Health, is a leading researcher of childhood anxiety. He speaks to KidsMatter about the outcomes of his landmark study linking parenting style with anxiety and depression in shy children.
How do you see the relationship between a child’s sense of independence and their mental health and wellbeing?
“This was a long-term study that has included following children on several occasions over 11 years. In brief – we started with preschool children (average age of four) who were seen as especially shy and withdrawn. Half of the parents of these children went through a brief parent education program, called Cool Little Kids. The program involves six group sessions where parents learn skills to help increase confidence and independence in their children. The other half of the parents just went about life as usual. We then assessed the children one year later and again at two years, three years and, most recently, 11 years later (they were aged an average of 15 at this time).”
What were the key findings?
“At ages five, six, and seven, the children whose parents had been through the program had fewer anxiety disorders and less difficulty with anxiety than the others. At age 15, the differences were only shown for girls, but we found that girls whose parents had been through the program had fewer anxiety and depressive problems and reported less interference in their lives than girls whose parents didn’t get the program.”
Why do you think there was no noticeable improvement in teenage boys?
“We aren’t entirely sure why this was, but we think the reason is that all boys are parented to be independent. In other words, parents usually treat their boys with more expectations for independence than their girls, especially by the teenage years. So, in fact, allowing boys to be independent may be just as important for boys as it is for girls, but the difference might be that parents tend to do this more naturally. The other possibility is that we know that girls tend to develop more anxiety and depression in middle adolescence than boys, so perhaps we just can’t see any effects of independence in boys because they have lower levels of these problems anyway. Because girls have higher levels, it gives us more room to see the effects.”
What kinds of parenting styles can undermine a child’s independence?
“Overprotective parenting, for one, can help to reinforce two clear messages to children: 1) the world is a dangerous place; and 2) you aren’t able to control the world and you need my help. Also, critical parenting can reinforce the message that ‘you aren’t good enough’ which, in turn, can undermine a child’s self-esteem.”
What strategies were taught to and implemented by the parent sample?
“In Cool Little Kids, we particularly focus on the first – overprotective parenting. We teach parents to gradually and gently encourage and ‘push’ their child to face things they are afraid of. Another key part involves helping parents to ‘let go’ and allow children more independence and the chance to make their own mistakes. We helped parents with suggestions to manage their own anxieties, especially focused on their children and their overprotection. We don’t yet have a lot of clear measures of these things, but we believe that it was these components of the program that helped the children build more confidence.”