Monday, June 27, 2011

Depression and Your Parenting Style: What it May Mean for Your Child

In a fascinating study that came out last month in the journal Psychological Science, researchers from the University of Maryland found that preschoolers with depressed mothers became more stressed out during mildly stressful experiences than children without depressed mothers, but only if their mothers exhibited a negative parenting style.

Let’s break it down. The researchers put preschoolers in mildly stressful situations when they participated in the research experiment, like interacting with a stranger or giving them a locked transparent box with a fun toy inside but no way to open it. They measured cortisol, a stress hormone, both before and after the stressful experiences. When we’re stressed out, our cortisol levels increase. The researchers found that the cortisol levels increased the most in kiddos who had moms who 1.Were depressed and 2.Displayed a negative parenting style.

What is meant by negative parenting style? I’m so glad you asked. In the kind of work I do, negative, or hostile, parenting is defined as parental behaviors that express anger, frustration, and/or criticism toward the child. At the extreme end, think put-downs, yelling, blaming. At the milder end, think sarcasm or frustrated insistence that a child do a task a certain way.

Back to the results. The researchers can’t say that depression and negative parenting caused the increase in stress for the kiddos- it’s just a correlation, or a linkage, but it’s still super interesting. But what’s hopeful to note is that, in this study, just having a depressed parent didn’t result in an increase in stress- the depressed parent had to have a negative parenting style. Which means we can focus on the parenting behaviors, which is very doable!

So if you think you might be depressed, besides getting help for yourself (because depression is one of the most treatable mental illnesses!), here are a few things you can do to make sure you’re giving your child your best:
  • Set a timer for 5 minutes and give your child that much undivided playtime. If 5 minutes is too long for you, set it for 3.
  • When playing with your child, repeat to yourself, ‘I can be flexible.’ Remember: letting your child take the lead is a good thing. Play doesn’t have to be structured to be fun!
  • If you find yourself drifting away mentally during play, find physical attributes about the toys to point out to your child (colors, letters, numbers, etc.). This will help you stay engaged and help your child learn!
  • Ask your child to ‘read’ a book to you.
  • Schedule structured outings away from home, like story time at your local library. Getting a fresh view will be nice for you, and not planning anything will take the pressure off.
  • Think about the words that come out of your mouth to your child. "If I had to make a general rule for living and working with children, it might be this: be wary of saying or doing anything to a child that you would not do to another adult, whose good opinion and affection you valued." -John Holt


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