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Parents are too hard on themselves: teens more positive about their parenting

Although it can be a challenge at times, parents should keep communicating with their teens. Also about how they parent. Research by developmental psychologist Loes Janssen shows that parenting can be perceived quite differently by family members and mood plays an important role. Parents often parent better than they think they do. PhD ceremony on 16 November.

In total 134 families took part in the study and in 34 of these the adolescent had depression. The adolescents were aged between 12 and 17 at the time of the research. The parents and adolescents used a diary app four times a day for a fortnight to track their mood and the (perceived) parent-child contact.

Diary app

‘The teens were asked questions like: “How happy do you feel today?”, “Did you sleep well?”, “Have you had contact with your father or mother?” and “How well did you listen to your mother?” The parents were asked questions like: “How well did you listen to your child?” and “How happy did you feel during your conversation with your child?” They used a seven-point scale to answer the questions, which went from not at all to very much,’ says Janssen.

Loes Janssen’s study is part of Professor Bernet Elzinga’s NWO Vici-project RE-PAIR: Unravelling the Impact of Emotional Maltreatment on the Developing Brain. The group has previously published on the effects of parents’ comments on the adolescent brain. 
Parental criticism hurts: a glimpse inside the adolescent brain

‘We were able to collect data at the kitchen table, as it were, and that has generated different insights

Most previous studies on parent-child relationships worked with questionnaires afterwards in which the parents and adolescents indicated how their relationship had been over the past six months or year. ‘But then you see that the filter of time or mood at the time of completing the questionnaire can skew the answers. Now we were able to collect data at the kitchen table, as it were, and that has generated different insights.’ The previous studies (with questions looking back at parenting) concluded that parents were more positive about their parenting than their children were. ‘But we see the exact opposite in our study,’ says Janssen.

Loes Janssen

Fathers matter

Not only is how adolescents perceive their father and mother’s parenting linked to their own mood but the differences between how parents perceive their parenting are also important to how the adolescents feel. ‘We can see that fathers and their behaviour matter within the family and that they have an important role in the child’s upbringing.’ Moreover, their mood appears to have more of an influence on their children’s mood than that of the mothers. ‘But more research is needed to explain the differences.’

Janssen and her colleagues also looked at the differences between the families with and without a depressed teen. Surprisingly enough, no difference could be seen in how these two groups of young people perceived their parenting at moments of contact with each other. But adolescents with depression were more negative about their parenting in the questionnaire that looked back over a longer period. ‘This could be related to their low mood at the moment of completion. It’s important that parents realise this.’

Parenting tips and therapy

‘One of the main conclusions of our research is that the relationship between mood and perceived parenting can vary per family, family member and even moment.’ Although the research has not led directly to concrete parenting tips or recommendations for therapy for young people with depression, it may contribute to this at a later date. Janssen will therefore give a public talk about the results on 11 November that is open to parents, youths and anyone else who is interested.

Public talk (in Dutch): A matter of perspective: Parenting and adolescent well-being in everyday life
Date: Friday 11 November 2022  
Time: 16:00-17:00 including questions (room opens at 15:45)
Place: Lorentzzaal (Room A144, Kamerling Onnes Building, Leiden)
You can also watch the talk online. Meeting ID: 521 675 8988, Passcode: 8Fg6x3@1

‘It’s important that we researchers come down from our ivory towers. We owe that to these parents and young people’

‘It’s impressive that the families were so open. Being like that takes guts. Some parents with depressed children that I spoke to said they were at their wit’s end: “How can I help my child?” Although I can’t offer any concrete advice, I can show what the research is contributing to. It’s important that we researchers come down from our ivory towers. We owe that to these parents and young people.’

One piece of advice that Janssen can give: keep communicating as a family, however difficult this may be at times. ‘It may feel forced at times and sometimes you won’t get anything back from your child. But sometimes you will. Listen without judgment. Only then will you find out what your child needs. And for all those parents who are looking for solutions: asking your child questions or just being there is often enough.’

Animation: Fien Leeflang

Text: Tim Senden

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