Positive Parenting Is Key for Child with Developmental Disability

  By Ryan Morgenegg, Church News staff writer

  • 2 May 2013

After analyzing a variety of studies using parenting styles with children that have developmental disabilities, BYU researchers found a link that clearly demonstrates a beneficial effect from a parenting style called “positive parenting.”  Photo by Keanen Farr.

Article Highlights

  • BYU researchers reviewed studies about parenting children with developmental disabilities.
  • “Positive parenting” or “authoritative parenting” seems to benefits these children most.
  • Positive parenting styles help children with disabilities attain higher levels of independence, language skills, emotional expression, social interaction, and improved temperament.

“The development of a child with a disability depends on his or her ability to engage socially, so parenting takes on a different importance. … The child requires added time, education, coping skills, and family support.” Tim Smith, BYU researcher

Thousands of research articles have been written praising the effects of positive parenting styles for typically developing children, but only a handful have focused on positive parenting for children with developmental challenges.

Tina Dyches and Tim Smith are faculty members in the Department of Counseling Psychology and Special Education at Brigham Young University’s David O. McKay School of Education. Their research team found and analyzed 14 empirical studies that looked at parenting of children with developmental disabilities such as Down syndrome, intellectual disabilities, and autism. Sister Dyches said, “Our study investigated a subset of kids with developmental disabilities so we could focus on a sample that might, in some ways, be more difficult to parent than those with milder disabilities such as communication disorders and specific learning disabilities.”

A variety of studies analyzed by BYU researchers found a beneficial effect on children with developmental disabilities from a parenting style called “positive parenting” or “authoritative parenting.” Researchers also found that the magnitude of the results did not differ across disability type or the age of the child. “The development of a child with a disability depends on his or her ability to engage socially, so parenting takes on a different importance,” Brother Smith said. “The child requires added time, education, coping skills, and family support.”

The positively parented children in the studies exhibited higher levels of independence, language skills, emotional expression, and social interaction with adults and peers. They also demonstrated improved temperament. To understand the positive parenting style, the three basic parenting styles need explanation:

1. Authoritarian: a parenting style that requires strict obedience by a child. Parents are demanding and seek control of their children’s behavior. Punishment is often given for disobedience. As a result of this style, children may become obedient, respectful, and compliant, but they also may become resentful and unhappy and have low self-esteem and impaired social competence.

2. Permissive: a parent who exhibits this style is lenient and easy going. He or she rarely gives out punishments and is very accepting and nurturing. A permissive parent allows children to make their own choices and tries to be the child’s friend. As a result, children of permissive parents often rank low in happiness and self-regulation scores. These children are also more likely to experience problems with authority and tend to perform poorly in school. Parents experience less stress and confrontation by letting children do whatever they want.

3. Authoritative or positive: a parental style that seeks balance between helping children make good choices and offering guidance and discipline. It respects the child’s self-will but balances it with disciplined conformity. Positive parenting requires frequent eye contact, use of positive affirmations rather than criticism, seeking to understand the child, and responding immediately. As a result of this style, children often develop into happy, self-confident, capable, and successful adults.

Brother Smith said: “In households where positive parenting is applied, the symptoms and severity of the child’s disability are more likely to decrease over time. Research has consistently shown that the earlier and more consistently positive parenting is provided, the greater the child’s development.”

But parenting a child with a developmental disability can be challenging, and instincts may kick in about how to handle the situations that arise. Sister Dyches cautions: “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 a disability such as autism, it may seem easier and less contentious to be more permissive with the child and thereby avoid conflict. But there needs to be a balance. A child with a disability should not be subject to family expectations that he is not currently capable of meeting, nor be the center of a family.”

It is crucial that parents reflect upon their current parenting style and, as necessary, adjust the way they interact with their children to align more closely with authoritative or positive parenting styles. Doing so while their children are young is critical for optimal development of both typically developing children and those with developmental disabilities.

With involvement, the payoff can be enormous. Sister Dyches said, “These positive parenting practices were indeed beneficial for the children with developmental disabilities in many ways—higher levels of independence, language skills, emotional expression, social interaction, and improved temperament.”

The study was published in the November-December 2012 issue of Research in Developmental Disabilities.