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Giving Kids Choices Can Decrease Stress at Home During COVID-19

Mother and daughter smiling at the computer

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Key Takeaways

  • A recent study sought to find out which daily structure was more conducive to a positive, peaceful environment for parents sheltering in place with their children.
  • Allowing children autonomy had a positive impact on parents’ and children’s wellbeing.


A new study conducted by Leibniz Institute for Research and Information in Education explored parenting styles during the pandemic. Participants took a daily survey for three weeks that asked them how much control they gave their children over their day. The daily survey also looked at child and parental well-being. Those who allowed their children more choices reportedly experienced happier households.

To measure change over time, researchers conducted larger questionnaires before and after the 21-day diary period. They asked parents about their child's behavior, the family environment, and the parent's own stress and vitality levels.

According to Andreas B. Neubauer, postdoctoral research scientist, “We explored whether or not autonomy-supportive parental behavior would facilitate adaptation and better child well-being. We also explored whether such parenting behavior helps to create a positive emotional climate that benefits parents as well as children."

"The findings suggest that autonomy-supportive parenting behavior is positively associated both with better child well-being and higher parental need fulfillment," Neubauer says. Higher parental need fulfillment was in turn related to reduced parental stress.

It's important to note that the survey takers only reported on the youngest child in their household. Yet prior research suggests parenting style would impact other siblings too. A 2015 study examined mothers of elementary school-aged siblings. Children who received autonomy-supportive parenting not only reported greater satisfaction of their psychological needs but also had an autonomy-supportive interaction style with each other.

Dr. Florian Schmiedek

Our findings from the daily questionnaires suggest that autonomy-supportive parenting is beneficial for the well-being of both children and parents.

— Dr. Florian Schmiedek



Dr. Florian Schmiedek, head of cognitive development at the Leibniz Institute states, "Our findings from the daily questionnaires suggest that autonomy-supportive parenting is beneficial for the well-being of both children and parents.”

Helping parents in their daily parental behavior choices might be an effective way to improve the family climate and child well-being in a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why Does Autonomy Work? 


According to the study, parental behavior has important consequences for childhood behavior and ability to adjust, and the study suggests there are benefits of giving choice instead of using “should” or “must” language. 

Holistic child psychologist Nicole Beurkens, PhD, explains the study by saying that, in a time of crisis, “when appropriate,” this style of parenting can be helpful. “In a crisis situation, there may need to be a reassessment of how control and autonomy are balanced. In order to preserve their own mental health, or simply to get their jobs done at home, parents may choose to give children more control over what they do, when they do it, and how they do it.”

One benefit is the effect on common power struggles, which can be stressful to both parents and children. “Kids who feel like parents are dictating their every move, and who feel like they have no control over anything, tend to act out or engage in power struggles in order to feel some sense of control," Beurkens says. "By giving them control over many inconsequential things throughout the day like what they wear, where they do their homework, what kind of break they want to take-it allows them to feel more in control, which fosters more positive feelings and less arguments and struggles with adults.

Finding a Balance

Balance is key. Beurkens explains, “A balance of parental control and child control—autonomy—is ideal to support the child’s development. This is called authoritative parenting. This looks different at various ages, but the general goal is for parents to be in charge of the things that support development, health, and safety while allowing children opportunities to make choices and exert control over their lives.”

Authoritative vs. Other Parenting Styles

There are quite a few studies that find the authoritarian parenting style leads to negative outcomes for children similar to neglectful parents. This style of parenting perpetuates that children are always going to do something wrong. These parents may be very controlling and use harsh punishments without explaining why the child is in the wrong.

Nicole Beurkens, PhD

The key is to have a balance of control and support that allows children to grow into mature, responsible decision-making over time. These kids tend to become adults who are emotionally and behaviorally regulated, get along with others, and are able to manage the ups and downs of life.

— Nicole Beurkens, PhD

Beurkens explains, "Children living with parents who are overly controlling tend to become overly compliant or rebellious as they grow up. They can struggle to make decisions for themselves, or they struggle to manage themselves appropriately with authority figures in the workplace and elsewhere.” This can also lead to anxiety and not having confidence in their own decision-making.

On the other hand, permissive and uninvolved parents, who let their children make most of the decisions, also hinder their children’s development. According to Beurkens, “They can have difficulty accepting rules or boundaries set by others at work and in their personal relationships, and they may be demanding or over-reactive when they don’t get their way, and tend to have more mood and anxiety issues.”

These parenting styles can be even more counterproductive during a worldwide crisis, which is out of the parent and the child’s control. “The key is to have a balance of control and support that allows children to grow into mature, responsible decision-making over time. These kids tend to become adults who are emotionally and behaviorally regulated, get along with others, and are able to manage the ups and downs of life."

This means that there is give and take, and some form of structure. Beurkens gives the example of letting your children control their screen time, but not letting them take electronics in their bedrooms at night, which would impact their sleep.

What This Means For You

Beurkens recommends that in a crisis situation, parents make an assessment of how they are balancing control and autonomy. “In order to preserve their own mental health, or simply to get their jobs done at home, parents may choose to give children more control over what they do, when they do it, and how they do it. This can be appropriate, as long as safety and health are taken into account. The bottom line is there is no one-size-fits-all [solution], especially during times of crisis.”

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  1. Neubauer AB, Schmidt A, Kramer AC, Schmiedek F. A little autonomy support goes a long way: daily autonomy‐supportive parenting, child well‐being, parental need fulfillment, and change in child, family, and parent adjustment across the adaptation to the COVID‐19 pandemic. Child Dev. 2021. doi:10.1111/cdev.13515

  2. van der Kaap-Deeder J, Vansteenkiste M, Soenens B, Loeys T, Mabbe E, Gargurevich R. Autonomy-supportive parenting and autonomy-supportive sibling interactions: the role of mothers’ and siblings’ psychological need satisfaction. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2015;41(11):1590-1604. doi:10.1177/0146167215602225

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