Parents who provide caring and sound discipline in their parenting style produce the most promising mental health outcomes for their children.
So says a new research brief released at the end of November by the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) and Gallup.
The best results come from “warm, responsive, and rule-bound, disciplined parenting,” wrote Jonathan Rothwell, principal economist at Gallup and a nonresident senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.
His research comes on the heels of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) report in June of devastating data from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) that found nearly 15% of American children, aged 5-17, received mental health treatment in 2021, underscoring the continuation of the crisis for young people in this country.
“Since the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, 18 times more U.S. teenagers have died from deaths of despair than from COVID-19 between 2020 and 2023,” Rothwell cited in the research brief.
Rothwell went on to say, however, that recommendations offered by CDC and organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) – “such as increased funding for diagnostic and psychiatric services” – do not actually address the most significant causes of the crisis.
CDC’s summary and suggestions on mental health in America’s young people “almost completely ignore the most important known determinant of youth mental health: parent-child relationships,” he observed, explaining that such public health surveys showing deteriorating child and adolescent mental health “do not even ask about parental-youth relationships.”
Instead, CDC stresses “diagnosis, access to mental health services, and the avoidance of racial/ethnic discrimination as among the most important issues in youth mental health.”
The only significant mention of parents is in the context of “providing motivation to improve parental mental health,” rather than that of the children themselves.
“As for racial or ethnic discrimination, the available evidence would suggest that it has declined in recent decades, and there is no evidence suggesting it has risen,” he added.
For their research, Rothwell and his colleagues surveyed 6,643 parents, including 2,956 who live with an adolescent child. Also included was an additional 1,580 of those adolescents.
“We asked about mental health, visits to doctors, parenting practices, family relationships, activities, personality traits, attitudes toward marriage, and other topics, including excessive social media use,” he explained.
“The findings are clear. The most important factor in the mental health of adolescent children is the quality of the relationship with their caregivers,” Rothwell concluded. “This, in turn, is strongly related to parenting practices—with the best results coming from warm, responsive, and rule-bound, disciplined parenting.”
“When it comes to the quality of parenting practices and the quality of child-parent relationships, there is no variation by socioeconomic status,” Rothwell summarized. “The results may be shocking to many highly educated Americans who were taught to believe that socioeconomic status dictates everything good in life.
“Income doesn’t buy better parenting, and more highly educated parents do not score better, either. Parenting style and relationship quality also do not meaningfully vary by race and ethnicity within our U.S. sample.”
Rothwell said his results are not unique. He also analyzed data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1997 and 1998.
“[P]arental income, wealth, and race/ethnicity don’t bear any relationship with the parenting measures predictive of the long-term well-being of children,” he observed. “Education explained less than 1% of the variation.”
Nevertheless, he and his colleagues found some characteristics of parents who engage in best-practices do matter, and revealed one of the strongest predictors of children’s well-being is political ideology.
“Conservative and very conservative parents are the most likely to adopt the parenting practices associated with adolescent mental health,” the report says. “They are the most likely to effectively discipline their children, while also displaying affection and responding to their needs.
“Liberal parents score the lowest, even worse than very liberal parents, largely because they are the least likely to successfully discipline their children. By contrast, conservative parents enjoy higher quality relationships with their children, characterized by fewer arguments, more warmth, and a stronger bond, according to both parent and child reporting.”
Another key takeaway from his research, Rothwell noted, was that “parents who think highly of marriage exhibit better parenting practices and have a higher quality relationship with their teens.”
His findings are not “news,” he observed.
Children raised by “authoritative” – as opposed to “permissive” or “authoritarian” – parents have the best outcomes, he said, as hundreds of empirical studies have already shown.
In the current climate, however, parents are “disempowered” and pushed to the sidelines, he said.
“[O]ur national public health leaders have largely aimed to redress the issue with medicalization and scarcely mention family-centered or individual psychotherapy that could focus on healing or strengthening relationships,” Rothwell concluded in the brief, adding these leaders “need to resist the temptation to be hip to the latest cultural fads and recommit to translating useful scientific research to the public.
“That means being honest about the youth mental health crisis: It is largely about parenting.”