'Over-controlling' parents may be 'doing more harm than good'

Wednesday June 20 2018

"'Helicopter parenting' linked to behavioural problems in children," reports The Independent.

Helicopter parenting is a term describing what some people see as over-protective and over-controlling parental behaviour. The term is based on the image of a parent constantly "hovering" over a child, allowing them little opportunity for freedom of action.

A study of 422 children in the US found that 2-year-olds whose mothers were overly controlling when watched playing with them, and clearing up toys afterwards, were less likely to be good at controlling their emotions and impulses at age 5. They were also more likely to have emotional problems and academic difficulties at age 10.

The researchers say that it may be important for toddlers to try new things and resolve problems themselves – without their mothers jumping in to tell them what to do – to aid the development of the skills needed for controlling emotions and impulses.

Of course, what constitutes over-controlling parenting is a highly subjective judgement call. In this study the initial assessment was just based on a 6-minute observation of each mother playing with their child.

Many other factors that might have been important were not assessed. These include home environment and routine and the interaction with other adults involved in the child's care (such as fathers).

While the conclusions – that children need time to work things out for themselves – may be correct (at least for some children), headlines blaming mothers for children's difficulties at school can be discouraging and unhelpful.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers at the University of Minnesota and University of North Carolina in the US, and the University of Zürich in Switzerland. It was funded by the US National Institute of Mental Health and published in the peer-reviewed journal Developmental Psychology.

The Independent carried an accurate description of the study. The Times' report, while also factually accurate, used more emotive language to criticise parents, describing them as "overbearing helicopter parents".

What kind of research was this?

This was a cohort study in which a group of children were followed for 8 years, with assessments at ages 2, 5 and 10. Researchers hoped to find out whether parental control at age 2 was linked to children's emotional regulation (the ability to control emotions) and inhibitory control (the ability not to suddenly react to impulses) at age 5, and whether this in turn was linked to emotional and school problems at age 10.

This type of study is good at showing patterns over time, but it cannot prove that one causes another. That's especially the case in something as complex as parenting and child development, because so many other factors could be important, outside the ones being measured.

What did the research involve?

Mothers of children aged 2 were recruited into the study from child day care centres. The researchers videoed the 422 children playing make-believe with a variety of toys, with their mothers, for 4 minutes, followed by a 2-minute period of tidying up.

The mothers were instructed to play with the child as they normally would at home. Researchers scored the mother's interactions with their children for signs of being over-controlling, defined as "instances when the parent was too strict or demanding considering the child's behaviour".

At age 5, children were assessed on their emotional responses to a test where the tester shared sweets with children but gave themselves more sweets and ate the sweets given to the child. This test is designed to assess children's emotional regulation when frustrated.

The 5-year-olds also did a test involving identifying different shapes, designed to test their inhibitory control. Children were asked to only focus on whether small shapes were matched while ignoring the larger shapes.

This test is designed to assess whether a child can stop themselves from reacting impulsively to a question and instead think about the answer. A similar test is used in adults when they are asked to describe the printed colour of a word, rather than the colour the word refers to (i.e. "blue" written in red text).

At age 10, the children's teachers were asked to fill out questionnaires to report on the child's behaviour, academic work and social skills, while the children themselves filled out reports about their own emotional and school problems.

The researchers looked at the correlations between the first, second and third assessments, to see whether scores on one measurement could predict scores on another at the next assessment period.

The hypothesis of the researchers being that over-controlling parenting in the toddler years could lead to poor emotional regulation and inhibitory control at age 5. And this in turn could lead to academic and behavioural issues.

They took account of some confounding factors, including the child's sex, ethnicity and home income. They also factored assessments by the mothers of their child's level of existing behavioural problems at age 2.

What were the basic results?

The main results are outlined below.

Scores showing higher levels of "over-control" by mothers when children were aged 2 were linked to children having lower levels of emotional regulation and inhibitory control at age 5.

Children with higher levels of emotional regulation and inhibitory control at age 5 were less likely to report emotional and school-related problems at age 10, and their teachers were more likely to report they were academically productive and had better social skills.

The researchers say the results show an "indirect effect" from over-controlling behaviour in mothers on children's problems at age 10, which could be explained by children's emotional regulation and inhibitory control at age 5.

Other interesting findings included:

  • children from families with higher socioeconomic status were more likely to have better inhibitory control and to be more academically productive at age 10
  • children with behavioural problems at age 2 were more likely to have emotional problems and school problems, and less likely to have good social skills or academic productivity

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers said their results showed that "controlling parenting in early childhood may be one predictor of children's regulatory skills".

They added: "Although many over-protective parents may be trying to protect their child and shield him or her from harm, these parents may be receptive to parent training to afford their child the opportunity to develop appropriate self-regulatory skills and better overall adjustment."

Conclusion

It sometimes feels as if everyone has a conflicting opinion about how to bring up children, and that the one thing parents can be sure of is that someone will tell them they are doing it wrong.

However, while this study does appear to show some link between "controlling" parenting and poorer long-term outcomes, parenting is so complex that it seems unlikely that one observation of parents and children playing can capture all the complexity of bringing up a child. For example, over-controlling parenting may be a response to the child's existing level of behavioural problems, rather than a cause of it.

The study was fairly big, long-term, and involved use of external measurements, as well as assessments by teachers in addition to children's own assessments and those of their parents. But it did have a number of limitations:

  • assessments of parental control were based on just 6 minutes of observing the mother playing with the child at age 2, so we don't know if that was typical or if parental control changed over time
  • only 2 aspects of the child's behavioural skills – emotional regulation and inhibitory control – were assessed at age 5
  • there is little information about the child's home environment or interaction with other adults who may act as caregivers
  • there may have been some bias in the type of mothers who agreed to participate in the study, which means the findings may not apply to all mothers

On the other hand, it seems common sense that children need the opportunity to develop all sorts of skills. Just as they need to practise walking, they need to practise keeping emotions under control, and behaving in the appropriate way at the appropriate time.

Parents may feel they have to jump in to direct the child's behaviour, especially in public. This study adds evidence to the idea that it may be helpful when possible to let the child work through situations themselves, at least for a while.

Analysis by Bazian
Edited by NHS Website