Lots of stories exist that detail the many ways your parenting style can impact a child's health. Helicopter parents, for instance, may unwittingly predispose their little ones to anxiety. Growing up in an authoritative household, on the other hand—where parents set limits but also show compassion and warmth—is considered an indicator for happier dispositions and greater emotional control. (Easier said than done, to be sure, but lovely incentive, no?)
But what about us parents? Most of us know that it doesn't feel good to scream at our offspring to JUST PUT THE JACKET ON, but did we ever stop to consider whether our parenting style might somehow affect our own well-being?
People may underestimate "the impact of parenting on health," says Kevin Shafer, Ph.D., associate sociology professor at Brigham Young University, whose research has found that stepfathers are more likely to be depressed than other men, probably due to the unclear expectations of how to parent. "Or they may realize the psychological effects, like depression or anxiety, but not the long-term physical consequences of those mental health issues, such as gastrointestinal troubles, migraines, and more."
With that in mind, let's explore three common parenting styles, and how they might be tripping you up, health-wise.
"These parents want to rescue their kids," explains Amy Morin, LCSW, a psychotherapist and a lecturer at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts and author of 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don't Do. "If they forget their soccer cleats at home or don't finish their homework, mom or dad will do it for them." These are also the parents who tend to hover over their kiddos at the park or apply hand sanitizer in 30-minute intervals.
Dr. Shafer says helicopter moms and dads "parent from a place of high anxiety, a need for control. They're often perfectionists who put intense pressure on themselves and view their child as a reflection of their own success." Unfortunately, all that pressure puts you at risk for depression and burnout. Uncontrolled anxiety has been linked with a host of long-term physical health problems, including gastrointestinal woes (nausea, diarrhea), insomnia, a compromised immune system (meaning you're more likely to catch the virus you're so nervous your son is going to get) and even heart disease.
Morin recommends stepping back the next time you feel yourself about to come to your child's rescue and take a moment to think about everything you survived as a kid. Chances are you went to the mall without a cell phone…or fell off the monkey bars at the playground.
Another way to defuse the anxiety: "Ask yourself what kind of advice a trusted friend would give you in a particular situation," Morin recommends. For instance, let's say your 11-year-old wants to try "babysitting" her eight-year-old sister, but your inner helicopter mom balks at the idea. Chances are, a chilled out friend might reassure you that leaving your 11-year-old at home for 20 minutes is totally normal and safe. "This practice helps you to be less emotionally reactive and more logical. Now you just need to apply that advice to yourself."
Morin also encourages parents to let their kids make mistakes. Resisting the urge to constantly step in and save them not only teaches them that they can recover, but it can translate into feelings of pride, liberation, and calm for yourself—emotions that Morin says almost surely result in reduced levels of health-sabotaging stress and possibly even a small immune boost.
This is classic Father Knows Best, my-way-or-the-highway parenting. Punishments are frequently doled out (or at least threatened). "Because I told you so" is a common response to questions. Dr. Shafer notes that parenting styles tend to be passed down from generation to generation, and that may be even more the case with authoritarian parenting.
Once again, anxiety may be at play. "Sometimes these parents have anxiety, and rather than allowing their kids to make their own choices, which may be too anxiety-provoking, they think, 'If I can control my kids, I don't have to worry about my anxiety spiking,'" Morin explains. In the short term, yelling at your fifth grader to do his homework now may feel good, because it relieves your anxiety that it won't get done on time, but "eventually your kids will rebel—which is totally normal—and your anxiety will skyrocket."
Parenting with an authoritarian P.O.V. may also be a recipe for anger issues; all that shouting and demand-making can no doubt cause anger to well up inside, and anger is an emotion with well-documented, far-reaching health consequences. When anger erupts out of control, it kicks off our primitive fight or flight system, causing our hearts beat faster, our muscles to tighten up, and blood to be diverted from our stomach and GI system to our extremities, explains W. Robert Nay, Ph.D., Georgetown Medical School clinical associate professor of psychiatry and author of Taking Charge of Anger: Six Steps to Asserting Yourself Without Losing Control. In the caveman days, such a response would have been helpful, maybe even lifesaving when faced with a saber-toothed tiger. But when your modern day nervous system is getting tripped multiple times a day, like when your toddler keeps dropping her cereal on the floor, the resulting cascade of symptoms is nothing but detrimental to your health.
Time to improve your self-awareness: "If you can be aware of when and how your anger is triggered, or when anger-producing thoughts arise, you can catch and challenge those thoughts and prevent those automatic responses from occurring," Dr. Nay says. One of his favorite tips is called "Stop, sit, breathe," and it involves literally sitting down when you feel your blood boiling over and counting down from 10 to 1.
"Your brain interprets a seated, reclining position as safe and relaxing," he says. "It physically interrupts the flow of anger-induced chemicals. It's almost impossible to feel as angry in a chair as when you're standing up, yelling, and pointing." Think you don't have time to sit down? "Unless the house is on fire, you do," assures Dr. Nay. Even if little Billy just slammed the door very loudly, waking his sister, and you think a punishment is in order, "take that minute to sit down and think about how to handle it. Switch from your right, emotional brain to your left, verbal and analytic brain."
Authoritative and Positive Discipline
Globally considered a healthy way of raising kids, authoritative parenting "allows kids age-appropriate room to explore," Dr. Shafer describes, "but at the same time, there are set rules and consistency in the home. Parents are warm and emotionally available, engaged with the kids." Positive discipline, in which the parent attempts to show respect and kindness towards the child and focuses on identifying beliefs behind behaviors rather than the behaviors themselves, is one offshoot of authoritative parenting that has become more popular in recent years. (For instance, if a child refuses to put his jacket on despite repeated requests to do so, positive discipline parents might physically get down on the same level as the child and ask something along the lines of, "It looks like you're having trouble getting your jacket on. How can I help you figure this out?")
Parenting with confidence and balance, Morin says, can help you build confidence in yourself, and studies show that people who exhibit self-confidence tend to be healthier overall and live longer. "Confidence and optimism are protective against depression, and because they are positive emotions, they are beneficial for your mind body and spirit."
Dr. Shafer adds that authoritative parenting can reduce anxiety levels "because you know a lot more about your kids."
Valarie Fairchild, a Chicago mom to four kids, ages six months to nine years, said she and her husband recently switched from an authoritarian type of parenting "with lots of talking about responsibilities and consequences" to positive parenting, with a focus on building a deeper connection with their children. "It's really helped me be more patient, less irritable, and we have much better bonds with our children."
A prime example: When her seven-year-old recently refused to get bundled up for sledding because his red sweatshirt was too big and his orange one was too bulky, Fairchild noticed the tears welling up. "I could see the meltdown coming," she says. Instead of yelling, "I proceeded to pretend like my sweatshirt wouldn't fit either. I pushed my arms in, grunted, put it on halfway inside out, and pretended to almost fall down. He started smiling in about two minutes, we were both giggling, he helped me get my sweatshirt on and I helped him…and off we went."
One note: If you decide to try to change your parenting style, be forewarned that "things might get worse before they get better," Morin says. Your child might dig in his or her heels in as you try to make the switch, but eventually, you'll find your new, more balanced normal. Let's say your child calls you—again—from school, cause she forgot her lunch. "Instead of rushing to bring it, like you always do, say no. It might feel hard at first, but soon you'll see your child blossom…and you'll feel better, too."