Childhood Autonomy

What’s one way to make a kid anxious? Give them less autonomy, apparently.

A study of 88 children and adolescents between the ages of 6 and 17 has found that youth with higher levels of anxiety tend to report being granted less autonomy by their mothers. Done by researchers at Columbia University Medical Center and Temple University, the study found that the relationship between autonomy and youth anxiety is especially strong when mothers have lower levels of anxiety and depression symptoms.

According to the authors of the paper, this finding could have “important clinical implications.” In particular, it could mean that working with parents turns out to be a helpful part of treatment for anxiety disorders in youth.

These findings are only the latest to suggest that children and teens who are granted less autonomy by their parents are at risk for anxiety and depression. For example, a 2014 meta-analysis found that less autonomy granting by parents correlated with higher risk for depression in teens between 12 and 18 while parental over-involvement correlated with higher risk for anxiety.

A 2012 study shed some light on why giving children less autonomy could nurture anxiety. The study showed that part of the link between “parental overcontrol” and childhood anxiety is explained by how children interpret ambiguous situations. According to the researchers, high levels of parental control may “signal to children that their environment is threatening.” As children internalize this message, they may become more inclined to interpret ambiguous situations as threatening, ultimately making them more anxious.

Because anxious parents tend to grant less autonomy to their children, it could even be that low autonomy is one way anxiety is transmitted through generations. Research done in 2014 found that in anxiety-provoking situations, anxious fathers tend to be more controlling while anxious mothers tend to reinforce children’s dependence.

Whatever the exact relationship between anxious parenting and controlling parenting, though, one thing seems to be clear: giving children less autonomy raises their risk for anxiety and depression while giving them more autonomy lowers it.

Image: Flickr/Russ