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Parenting Style Has Big Impact On Kids With Disabilities


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The approach that parents take with their children who have developmental disabilities is directly tied to how cooperative and independent they become, new research suggests.

In an analysis of existing studies looking at the influence of parenting on children with special needs, researchers found that when moms and dads employed so-called positive parenting, their kids exhibited greater independence, better language skills, stronger emotional expression and social interaction as well as improved temperament.

“In households where positive parenting is applied, the symptoms and severity of the child’s disability are more likely to decrease over time,” said Tim Smith of Brigham Young University who worked on the study, which was published in the journal Research in Developmental Disabilities this month.

“Research has consistently shown that the earlier and more consistently positive parenting is provided, the greater the child’s development,” he said.

Smith and his colleagues identified three main approaches to parenting. Permissive moms and dads are accepting and not demanding, while authoritarian parents are more controlling of their kids. Positive parents fall in the middle, striking a balance by allowing their child self-will while also maintaining expectations of discipline.

Despite the clear benefits observed from the balanced approach, researchers said that taking the middle road can be especially challenging when a child has a disability.

“When you think of parenting a child with a developmental disability, it might be more intuitive to be authoritarian and assume that the child can’t figure out things alone. On the other hand, with a child who has autism, it may seem easier and less contentious to be more permissive with the child and thereby avoid conflict,” said Tina Dyches of Brigham Young University who also worked on the review. “But there needs to be a balance. A child with a disability should not be subject to different rules in a family, nor be the center of a family.”

The findings from the analysis are among the first to assess the role of parenting style specifically in kids with developmental disabilities, researchers said. Thousands of studies exist examining parenting of typically developing children, but researchers behind the new review say they found just 14 studies between 1990 and 2008 focusing on those with autism, Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities.

Despite the small body of research, however, the benefits of positive parenting are clear for children with all types of developmental disabilities no matter their age, the study found.

Researchers said their findings highlight the importance of promoting effective parenting skills as part of early intervention services.

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Comments (21 Responses)

  1. Leah says:

    How is this any different than parenting any child?

  2. vmgillen says:

    Duh. As a graduate disability studies student it never ceases to amaze me how we strive to legitimize the obvious with statistics.

  3. Brooks says:

    I see no difference either, Leah, unless parents of disabled children don’t pay enough attention to non disabled siblings, I see no difference.

  4. TRENA says:


  5. Dema Stout says:

    This is not different from parenting any child….but as a parenting coach, I frequently find parents who are either too directive or too enabling. This is particularly true for parents who have a child with autism, who do not get much feedback from their children. And, they DO parent their children with disabilities differently. The value of this study is that it was done just on kids with disabilities. And, it is a clear message that parents with good parenting instincts do not need to change what they already know to do.

  6. Lauren says:

    What a waste of research dollars! I have a severely autistic son and a typical son…this article sounds like parenting 101 to me.

  7. Dr Robert Fettgather says:

    This analysis of a handful of disability studies comes from decades of longitudinal research of the three parenting styles with typical kids: the findings are that positive (authoritative) parenting produces better outcomes- for all. Despite the research, typical families often go to the extreme styles. Families of kids with disabilities have been, I believe, over influenced by applied behavior analysis that can lead to authorianism rather than humanism. Moreover, permissive styles emerge as compensation for disability or sheer emotional-physical exhaustion. The “small body of research” is the real problem as families go to the back of the research dollars bus as big medicine throws money at drugs and ‘cures’ .

  8. Christine says:

    All of the above commenters are right and it seems like common sense, but I am seen MANY parents make excuses for their child’s behavior. Oh he/she can’t do that because the have XXX or whatever. In addition, many times they have no discipline expectations for their child. I have seen it and the child runs amok. It’s horrible and it makes the disability much worse.

  9. kerry says:

    My gut reaction was “I wonder how much this cost to state the flipping obvious” but there are in my experience many parents who are passive with their disabled children, using the disability as an excuse for behaviours which may not be related to the disability. It’s a matter of balance: allow for obvious difficulties (like meltdowns in public due to anxiety/stress) but respect that ALL children regardless of ability/disability can be little horrors for no other reason than that they are children!

  10. Susan says:

    It would be great for parents of learning disabled children to have more access to parenting advice that is not general but that specifically addresses situations and issues that they are likely to face. I don’t think that it’s helpful to assume that parents will automatically know what to do or to assume that this information is too elementary to be of use.

    Sometimes parents of typical kids do a less than stellar job, but it doesn’t get noticed much because their kids are resilient enough to rise above it. Parents of special needs kids may also be more stressed out than other parents and need the advice and training.

  11. Shaun Best says:

    If parents addressed their children positively vs. negatively, i.e., terms in the legal disability environment, disabled, injured, handicapped, retarded, etc., then success is promoted more than forced exclusion/failure/confinement with negatively defined words, like those mentioned above, in the Webster’s Dictionary. I suggest using challenges/challenged “to demand as due or deserved “. All humans deserve respect, don’t they? God created us as equals. God created Adam, then Eve, his mate. No question!

  12. Jakki says:

    I see the results of inconsistent parenting on my part for my now 25 year old daughter with CP/Bi-polar who recently moved back home. Didn’t help that her dad was abusive and expected so much more from her than what she was able to do.

  13. Teresa Daniel says:

    I will tell you … I don’t think they know any more then we do as parents. Every thing that you said affects us all. I remember my mother arguing with the epileptologist that it all had to do with the way you ate, the way you raised your children, the doctor would say no. Parents have always known keep things calm, regulated,And love your children above all. We can’t save them.We can only direct them to a piece of mind, teach them to love themselves, so when we are gone they can go on.I know it sounds bad , but it is the loving truth.

  14. Tony says:

    For those who have discredited this article for being a waste of time and obvious in its results, please bear in mind that there are communities outside of the Western world who would certainly not find these kinds of results to be obvious. I work with families in the Far East from our base in Vietnam and I assure you that more often than not parent will go down the route of being highly punitive toward their children in comparison to Western standards. Alternatively the family will go down the other extreme and expect nothing from their child. I for one will be using this research to help explain to some of my clients why it is important to take this kind of approach to parenting for a child with autism, and rely on the statistics to be influential in improving the wellbeing of some of the children I work with.

    One of the biggest challenges facing the dissemination of best practices outside of the West, which is unquestionably the world leader in terms of educational standards, is the fact that the Western way of life is assumed in research and treatment models, making them completely inaccessible to communities elsewhere. More of this kind of research is desperately needed to help communicate to communities around the world some of the ways that they can work to improve the lives of their children. I am not suggesting we ‘westernise’ the rest of the world, but simply suggesting that there are some things which need to be explained and shared at a level which can be understood to outsiders.

  15. Amanda says:

    I agree with Tony’s comment and let us not forget that it wasn’t so long ago that Americans institutionalized our developmentally disabled children. In Virginia the language is still set up that way. In order to receive in home assistance to parent my child in my community I get “waiver services” stating that I as guardian am waiving institutionalization of my child. This why there are so few parenting studies. Only since the late 20th century did we as a culture deem our children equal and worthy of a family home.

  16. Jason says:

    Don’t be too easy but don’t be too hard either. Gee another study proving why we have too many professors doing studies.

  17. Samantha Reshma Sankar says:

    As I read further into the fifth paragraph, bits of Barbara Coloroso’s “Inner Discipline Theory” is coming to mind, where she speaks about the three types of teachers which, in this case can be applied to three types of parents:

    The Jellyfish (permissive)
    The Brick wall (authoritarian)
    The Back bone (In between; democratic)

  18. Trevor says:

    I agree that a parenting style can affect the way a child responds not only to their parent, but to life in general. Over and under controlling parents tend to hit a nerve in their child that results in less effective responses from their children.

    I wish we could Stop, Think and Plan our responses to our children so that that a balanced parenting style is displayed or modeled to our child.

  19. C Pritchard says:

    Well, the article suggests that the small body of research supports what most psychologists know as authoritative parenting for children with disabilities. Although I’m not surprised, I would like to have read something about the differential effects on kids with disabilities versus typically developing kids (if any). Positive parenting involves demands and expectations applied in a responsive manner. I would have loved to have read about the outcomes of the different styles on children with disabilities. Typical children of permissive parents often feel entitled and may lack persistence with challenges. Is the outcome similar for children with disabilities?

  20. Rurh says:

    Having a adult child that is developmentally delayed and severe mental health issues it is impossible to parent each child the same. So many educated people said all the things he couldn’t do instead of focusing on the positives. Research, making people accountable and therapy for the family are very important tools. The disability can disable the entire family without support. He is 23yr old in his own apartment close to home, as always on every waiting list for services but we are managing. It’s taken a lot more than just loving him and good parenting to get here.

  21. Ross says:

    How about this for a research thesis…. If money spent on stupid studies was given to parents that need help, would the families have better parents?

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