Conference Coverage

Parenting style linked to toddler sensory adaptation, behavior


Key clinical point: A permissive parenting style is associated with greater behavioral problems in children at age 2 years.

Major finding: Children of permissive parents had 2.2 times greater likelihood of internalizing behaviors and 3 times greater risk of externalizing behaviors at age 2, compared to children of parents with other styles.

Data source: A prospective observational study of 103 infants assessed at 12 and 24 months.

Disclosures: The study was funded by grants from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development as well as a private grant. Dr. Neel reported having no disclosures.



SAN FRANCISCO– Children of parents who have a permissive parenting style were more likely to have atypical sensory adaptation at age 1 year and increased behavior difficulties at 2 years, compared to children exposed to other parenting styles, in a new, unpublished study.

Toddlers with permissive parents had more than double the risk of internalizing behaviors and triple the risk of externalizing behaviors compared to peers whose parents used an authoritative or authoritarian parenting style, reported Mary Lauren Neel, MD, a fellow in pediatrics at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn. This association appeared stronger among preterm infants, but without a statistically significant increased effect.

Dr. Mary Lauren Neel

Dr. Mary Lauren Neel

“Parenting is an exciting social variable because of what the research shows us,” Dr. Neel said at the Pediatric Academic Societies meeting. “Parenting is stable in the absence of intervention, but it can be changed by high-quality interventions.”

Dr. Neel’s study tested whether children’s sensory adaptation differed according to parenting styles, as defined by the validated Baumrind’s framework of authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive parenting (Genet Psychol Monogr. 1967 Feb;75[1]:43-88). These styles are based on parents’ demandingness (whether they have developmentally appropriate expectations of their child) and responsivity (how sensitively parents perceive and respond to children’s needs), Dr. Neel explained. The majority of the children’s parents (61%) had an authoritative style, while 18% had an authoritarian style, and 11% had a permissive style.

Previous research has identified a link between abnormal sensory interactions with the environment and early behavioral problems, and preterm infants are already more likely to experience both behavioral difficulties and atypical sensory adaption than are children born at term. Dr. Neel’s research, therefore, compared 52 term infants and 51 preterm infants. The median gestational age at birth was 35 weeks, and 29% of the cohort were very preterm, born at 32 weeks or earlier. Almost all (97%) of the mothers had at least a high school education.

The researchers assessed the infants at 12 months with the Infant/Toddler Sensory Profile and at 24 months with the Child Behavior Checklist. At 12 months, after adjustment for gestational age at birth, infants of authoritative parents had greater oral sensation seeking (P = .01) and decreased sensory sensitivity (P = .02), those of authoritarian parents had increased sensation seeking (P = .04), and those of permissive parents had decreased attention to children’s visual surroundings (P = .03).

One in five (21%) of the children had an atypical neurologic threshold at 1 year, but no statistically significant association was seen between an atypical threshold and authoritarian and authoritative parenting. Neither parenting style was associated with externalizing or internalizing behaviors.

Permissive parents’ children, however, were 2.6 times more likely to have atypical sensory adaptation. Further, at 2 years, these children were 2.2 times more likely to have internalizing behaviors and 3 times more likely to have externalizing behaviors, Dr. Neel reported.

“The association between permissive parenting and abnormal sensory neurological threshold in the home environment may explain the increased risk for behavior problems in children of permissive parents at 2 years,” she said. The results were consistent among term and preterm infants with a trend toward increasing significance preterm infants.

“It’s possible that prematurity augments these dynamics, but we would need a larger sample size,” she said, adding that the potential underlying mechanisms for that association are something that future research would need to tease out.

After an audience member asked about the possibility that children’s sensory capabilities might be driving parenting style, Dr. Neel acknowledged the bidirectional relationship between parent and child but noted that most psychology research suggest parenting style has more to do with the parents than with their children.

Limitations of the study include its small size and lack of data on other potential confounding factors, such as parental mental health.

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