Impact of parenting styles and stress on child’s self-control

A child’s development of self-control can be influenced by various factors, including the parenting style of their primary caregivers. Akers (1991) asserts that self-control is learnt through socialization – meaning children need to be socialized into controlling themselves by being rewarded for conformity but punished for deviance. Since self-control is socially learned, the environment and cognitive tools that parents provide for their children can affect their development to a large extent (Hay, 2001). Multiple parenting styles can have a negative impact on a child’s self-control, but authoritarian parenting is unique in the sense that its effect of lower self-control is not consistent across different ethnic groups (Rhee, Lumeng, Appugliese, Kaciroti, & Bradley, 2006).

This suggests that there could be another factor which facilitates a child’s arrested development of self-control, that is not experienced in all situations of authoritarian parenting. If a style of parenting, like authoritarian or neglectful parenting, creates a stressful environment for the child, it can hinder their ability to develop effective self-regulation strategies (Duckworth, Kim, & Tsukayama, 2013). I argue that stress caused by authoritarian parenting acts as a third variable moderating the effect of authoritarian parenting on a child’s development of self-control. This suggests that the presence, or absence, of stress will moderate the degree to which authoritarian parenting can influence levels of self-control in children.

Different styles of parenting have been found to have contrasting effects on a child’s development of self-control (Williams, Ciarrochi, & Heaven, 2012). Authoritarian style parenting, characterized by low levels of warmth and high levels of intrusive control, has been correlated with decreased levels of self-control in children and adolescents (Williams et al., 2012). Hay (2001) looked at the correlations between parenting style, self-control and subsequent delinquency, and found that discipline received from parents which is perceived as fair by the child has a greater impact on promoting self-control than unfair or physical punishment. Furthermore, parents who incite fear or anger and exert high levels of control on their children may create an environment that is not conductive for practicing autonomy in their own emotion regulation (Hay, 2001).

The high levels of intrusive control, and the stress that it can cause, found in authoritarian parenting is detrimental to a child’s development of self-control (Williams et al., 2012). Children in these situations will be focused on not displeasing or angering their parent, rather than gaining an awareness of their own emotional state, and

the consequences that can arise from the decisions they make (Williams et al., 2012). This is problematic because if a child does not have the chance or does not feel comfortable expressing and mastering their own emotions in their home environment, it will be difficult for them to exercise self-control when they are on their own (Williams et al., 2012). A study on the relationship between parenting and self-control in relation to eating habits, conducted by Rhee et al. (2006), found that authoritarian, neglectful and permissive parenting all had a negative effect on a child’s self-control. Authoritarian parenting had the largest negative effect on self-control, but the authors noted it was not consistent across cultures, which could suggest that something other than just the type of parenting is needed for a child to struggle with their development of self-control (Rhee et al., 2006).

An important factor found to influence a child’s development and successful use of self-control is stress (Duckworth et al., 2013). Recent research on the relationship between family structure and self-control found stressful family relationships to have the strongest influence on a child’s self-control (Cho, Kim, & Kim, 2018). Said research also found parental factors, such as parenting style, to have a significant effect on self-control across all of the family structures studied (Cho et al., 2018). Although parental factors contributed to the children’s levels of self-control, stress was also present due to these parental factors – which could suggest stress acted as moderator variable between parenting and self-control development in this study (Cho, Kim, & Kim, 2018).

Duckworth et al. (2013) analyzed the relationship between life stress and self-control in early adolescents and found stress to be correlated with a decrease in participants levels of self-control. More specifically, Duckworth et al. (2013) found that stress was a mediator variable between difficult life events and decreases in a child’s level of self-control. This means that difficult events in a child’s life did not negatively impact their level of self-control unless the event caused stress. This directly supports my hypothesis that the stress, in this case the stress caused by authoritarian parenting, could lead to problems in development and implementation of self-control.

This connection between stress and decreased self-control is supported by various other research including Metcalfe and Mischel’s (1999) two-system theory of self-control. Metcalfe and Mischel (1999) propose the existence of a “cool” system which is the basis of one’s ability to exercise self-control and self-regulation, and a “hot” system which undermines self-control. An individual’s hot system, characterized as impulsive and controlled by innate reactions to situations, develops when one is very young – hence why babies and young children seem to lack self-control (Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999). In comparison, the cool system represents one’s ability to be contemplative and strategic in their decision making, and is developed throughout an individual’s childhood (Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999). Metcalfe and Mischel (1999) state that the use of either one’s hot or cool system is determined by the individual’s level of development, their ability to self-regulate, and stress.

This theory supports the hypothesis that authoritarian parenting, through limiting a child’s development, can have a negative impact on their ability to use their cool system, and therefore exercise self-control. Additionally, the authors discuss how chronic stress can limit the functioning of the cool system and allow the hot system to control one’s actions (Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999). Furthermore, if the stress is significant and withstanding, it could affect a child’s development of their cool system entirely, which would affect their self-control ability throughout their life (Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999). This theory provides further support for my hypothesis that stress resulting from authoritarian parenting can impact a child’s development of self-control.

Because parent-child relationships are a crucial component of development, parenting style can have a large effect on a child’s ability to successfully develop and exercise self-control. Authoritarian style parenting was found to negatively impact children’s development of self-control, but because this was not always true cross-culturally, I theorized that another factor was influencing children’s self-control. Stress has been shown through various research to negatively affect individuals use of self-control, and because stress is a common outcome of the characteristics associated with authoritarian parenting, I hypothesized that stress acts as a moderator variable between parenting style and self-control development.

The two-system theory of self-control proposed by Metcalfe and Mischel (1999) provided support for this hypothesis through the authors explanation of the negative effects of prolonged stress on one’s ability to exercise self-control – especially if the stress occurs during the developmental stages of a child’s life. The stress caused by authoritarian parenting can impose limitations on a child’s development of autonomous thinking and self-control, which can be detrimental to their future ability to self-regulate and make strategic decisions. This hypothesis would explain why hindered self-control development is not seen in all instances of authoritarian parenting across different cultures, as the level of stress a child experiences can moderate the effect parenting has on self-control.