Study: Parenting Style Matters Most for Difficult Children

Child gives father a high-five at the beachParenting style can affect behavior in any child, but matters most for children with “difficult” temperaments, according to a study published in the journal Psychological Bulletin. Research suggests some portions of a child’s temperament—such as impulsivity and the tendency to experience negative emotions—might be influenced by genes. Environmental influences can act upon this nascent personality, affecting how children think and feel as adults.

The new study suggests parenting is a significant predictor of who a child will become. For children born with a tendency toward negative emotions and challenging behavior, parenting may be even more important.

How Parenting Shapes ‘Difficult’ Children’s Personalities

The study evaluated previous research on parenting style and child outcomes. Researchers analyzed data from 84 previous studies, half of which were conducted in 2010 or later.

Children identified as having a “difficult” temperament had higher levels of impulsivity and negative emotions, and lower levels of conscientiousness. Parents who practiced positive parenting provided children with more guidance and affection. They encouraged children to embrace empathy and think through their actions. Parents with a negative parenting style were more punitive and less affectionate. These parents attempted to control their children’s behavior with harsh discipline.

The affectionate style of more positive parents produced better outcomes in their children, regardless of a child’s temperament. For children with a more difficult temperament, the effect was most pronounced, especially among children who were highly emotional. Negative parenting was more harmful to these children, while positive parenting offered significant benefits.

The study highlights how parenting style is both internalized and externalized. Positive parenting increased positive internal behaviors such as high self-esteem, as well as positive external behaviors such as community involvement. Negative parenting increased negative internal behaviors and mental health issues such as depression, as well as negative external behaviors such as aggression and substance abuse.

Understanding Parenting Style

Parents of challenging children may worry their child’s personality is hard-wired. Children who experience more negative emotions are more likely to experience mental health issues. For parents concerned about how a difficult child might think and behave in adulthood, this study points to the importance of effective parenting.

A number of studies point to the benefits of an authoritative parenting style. Authoritative parents, like the “positive” parents of this study, establish clear rules and are highly affectionate. They stand in contrast to authoritarian parents, who are controlling and unaffectionate, and permissive parents, who are affectionate but provide few boundaries.


  1. Baer, D. (2016, October 17). The kids most affected by parenting share a personality trait. Retrieved from
  2. Dewar, G., PhD. (2013, April). Authoritarian parenting: What happens to the kids? Retrieved from
  3. Slagt, M., Dubas, J. S., Dekovic, M., & Van Aken, M. A. (2016). Differences in sensitivity to parenting depending on child temperament: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin. doi:10.1037/bul0000061

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