Could Your Parenting Style Affect Your Child's Health?

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It's not surprising that a parent-child relationship filled with conflict or neglect would have a negative effect on kids' emotional or mental health, but parenting style can 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.

A 2016 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology looked at the link between parenting styles and inflammation and immune activation (which are risk factors for later illness) in kids.

The researchers found that one particular style of parenting ranks high on the poor parenting monitoring scale: uninvolved parenting.

In the study, 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 in kids.

What Are Parenting Styles?

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

  • Authoritarian. Parents with this style tend to demand strict obedience and don't explain their rules or decisions to kids and punish children without showing much warmth or support. Kids who grow up with authoritarian parents are more likely to be afraid of new situations and suffer from low self-esteem and 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 aggressive and impulsive, disregard rules and limits, and face a higher risk of substance abuse. They are also at a greater risk of depression and anxiety.
  • Authoritative. Parents who use this style set rules and limits, and give kids consequences when they do not follow them. They are also emotionally responsive and warm and make a habit of listening and communicating with their children. Kids with authoritative parents tend to grow up with better emotional health, social skills, and resiliency. They are also 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 or responsive to their kids' emotional needs. They also do not pay much attention to supervising or disciplining kids. Uninvolved parenting tends to lead to the worst outcomes for children. These kids often end up emotionally withdrawn, anxious, and at greater risk for dangerous behavior (including 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 (average age 9).

They examined the samples for the levels of C-reactive protein, which measures general inflammation in the body, and secretory immunoglobulin A, which measures immune system activation.

The researchers then 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 of the study were clear: higher scores on the poor parental monitoring scale were linked to higher levels of both inflammation and immune activation in the children in the study.

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, Ph.D., professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oregon.

This is not the same thing as helicopter parenting run amok (such as parents of college-age kids calling professors to argue about grades). Not supervising a 9-year-old at all—to the point that parents don't know who their friends are or what they are doing—not only opens a child up to potential risks and bad choices but makes them stressed.

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. Hovering and over-involved parenting isn't good for kids because children need to experiment and be independent normally, says Dr. Allen.

However, withdrawn parenting (where the parents are not involved in kids' lives and do not have a strong bond with their child) is also not good for kids' emotional, mental, and even physical development.

Dr. Allen believes that the best parenting style for kids' health is one that doesn't go too far either way. Parenting should allow for independence and provide nurturing.

"You want to scaffold—temporarily provide support while a child is building and developing but slowly take it away," he says.

A Word From Verywell

Understanding your parenting style can help you see how your interactions might affect your child's health and well-being. If you're not sure that your parenting style is what's best for your child, there are strategies that can help you become a more authoritative parent.

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  1. Byrne ML, Badcock PB, Simmons JG, Whittle S, Pettit A, Olsson CA. Self-reported parenting style is associated with children's inflammation and immune activationJ Fam Psychol. 2017;31(3):374–380. doi:10.1037/fam0000254

  2. The University of Minnesota. Alabama Parenting Questionnaire. Children, Youth, and Families At-Risk (CYFAR).