Mothers who look at parenting as if it’s an extreme sport may be doing more harm than good; both to their kids and themselves. At least that’s the theory behind a new study from the University of Mary Washington. The research shows that a new breed of parenting is taking place in the United States, or what researchers are calling, “intensive parenting.” Intensive parenting is when mothers idealize motherhood and, “Believe that women are better parents than men, that mothering should be child-centred, and that children should be considered sacred and are fulfilling to parents.” When mothers are fully invested in intensive parenting, the researchers report that they may experience detrimental mental health problems such as increased stress levels, depression and guilt.

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Extreme Mothering Results in Stress for Everyone

During the study, which was admittedly small, the researchers looked at 181 mothers of children under 5 years old. Using a simple questionnaire, the authors measured how mothers endorse intensive parenting  and how those beliefs affect them. Most of the women surveyed who were invested in intensive parenting were still satisfied with their lives, but all had moderate levels of stress and depression. Around 23% of intense mothers had symptoms of depression and other negative mental health outcomes were present as well.  Mothers who felt that women should be the most essential parent (say more essential than fathers) were less satisfied with their lives and those who believed that parenting is challenging were more stressed and depressed. Years of past scientific research further shows that when mothers are stressed, depressed or otherwise unhappy, it can affect a child’s mental health negatively, which led the authors of this particular study to conclude that not only is intensive parenting bad for mothers, but it’s likely bad for kids too.

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A Debate as Old as Time

As long as there have been kids it seems we’ve all been arguing about the best ways to parent them. Are helicopter parents bad news or are they protecting their kids better than other parents? Do hovering parents turn out spoiled brats or happy little tots? Is free range parenting the way to go or do these parents put their kids at risk? Are attachment parents turning out amazingly well-adjusted kids or are they simply stuck in some prison of their own making? Add in issues like spanking, vaccines and circumcision and you could spend years of your life engaged in parenting debates. There’s absolutely zero general consensus about what’s best for kids and parents, but of course everyone has an opinion. I think this new study, though small, does make some valid points. From personal experience I know it’s stressful when you get stuck in that, “No one can parent my kid as good as I can” mode. Honestly, it’s much easier to let go a bit and accept help from dad or other family and friends. Plus past research shows that when moms take over dads tend to let them, which means more work for Mom, dads miss out on parenting skills and kids lose vital interactions with Dad. I also know many kids with super extreme helicopter parents, extreme meaning parents who do their kids homework, keep them under lock and key for fear of abduction and who hover constantly, which in my experience turns out kids who can’t think for themselves or who are fearful of even simple acts like riding a city bus. On the flip side I know extremely passive or indulgent parents who act like a buddy vs. a parent or who ignores even basic child needs like teeth brushing or a healthy diet. Extreme parenting in any direction seems to cause problems.

Maybe we all need to focus on balanced parenting, or in other words, parenting methods that respect and support kids and parents needs. Not that I see this happening anytime soon, but really, don’t you think some balance could be a good thing? Let us know in the comments.

+ Insight into the Parenthood Paradox: Mental Health Outcomes of Intensive Mothering

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