Family dynamics and parents can significantly affect the mental health of a child. Exposing children to stressful family environments can cause serious mental health problems in children which can adversely affect their adult lives.
Parents, children and mental health problems
Although it can be hard to imagine that a parent may negatively affect their child’s development, family environments can often be toxic and volatile leading to constant drama and suffering. Children can feel helpless, humiliated or even anxious due to the stressful conditions created by their parents. Such experiences can lead to anxiety disorders, depression and posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other mental health problems in children. There is no doubt that parents play the most important role in shaping their children’s mental and emotional health, especially during early childhood, according to research.
How parents influence children’s mental health
Most mental health problems have their roots in childhood. Various family influences, such as attachment styles and care provided by parents, can greatly impact the early life of a child and determine their adult life pathway as well. Behavior problems, observed in around 5-10% of young children, are one of the most widely observed psychological problems in children. Such problems can lead to an array of negative outcomes, such as physical illness, psychiatric disorders, delinquent behavior, academic performance issues and relationship problems. According to a 2017 study by mental health therapist Rachel Ryan and colleagues, “Parenting is considered a key risk factor in the development of early psychopathology.” the researchers add “Low levels of sensitive parenting and greater use of harsh discipline have been causally linked to the development of behavioural problems,” in children. Another study found that there is strong association between family structure and the rates of children being admitted to inpatient psychiatric hospitalization. In fact, family psychiatric history and trauma increased the likelihood of readmission, found the researchers.
Recent research has identified that “parental warmth, behavioral control, and autonomy granting” helps with emotional regulation in children. However, psychological & harsh control by parents is strongly associated with internalizing problems, depression, anxiety and even suicidal ideation in adolescents. It can even make children feel alienated and isolated from their family, friends, peers and society, leading to loneliness, introversion and social withdrawal. In fact, studies reveal that interparental conflict parents’ fights can also cause mental health problems in children. Moreover, negative influence from parents can also affect the child in their adult life impacting their social life, relationship with others, trust and intimacy in romantic relationships, health and personal development. Researchers from a 2019 study “found that experiences of growing up in a dysfunctional home can result in relational issues later in life and that the need for support can persist into adult life.”
Parental behavior & mental health problems in children
The impact of the parent-child relationship on mental health problems is determined by 3 main factors –
- The degree of critical negativity, over protection or over control showed by a parent
- Parental modelling of anxiety
- How securely attached a child feels to their parents or primary caregivers
The researchers also found that maternal behavior and parent-child interaction are also crucial determining factors in the development of childhood anxiety disorders. Moreover, maternal anxiety can directly lead to anxiety disorder in children.
1. Critical, overprotective parenting
According to a study by Jennifer L. Hudson, PhD, Psychology Professor and the Director of the Centre for Emotional Health, Macquarie University, “Parenting has a small but significant impact on the development of anxiety and depression in young children.” Negative parenting behaviors like overinvolved and overprotective parenting can result in avoidant behaviors in children. It can also prevent the child from approaching new experiences and opportunities and cause the development of anxiety from potentially stressful situations. This can make the child unable to perceive and detect threats in new or fearful situations and learn how to deal with them. Moreover, when a parent is constantly critical, it can cause the development of depression and anxiety in children. By minimizing and criticizing the feelings of the child, parents weaken and cripple the child’s ability to regulate their emotions, and increase their chances of developing mental health problems.