Maternal Disengagement Can Cause Child Anxiety | C&F Blog
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Child anxiety linked to maternal but not paternal disengagement

By Child & Family Blog Editor and , | July 2016 

A Portuguese study has found that children of disengaged mothers are more likely to exhibit anxiety but this is not the case for fathers.


A Portuguese study of 390 boys and girls aged 8-12, along with their mothers and fathers, has found that children of disengaged mothers were more likely to exhibit anxiety than children of other mothers. The same did not hold true of disengaged fathers relative to other fathers.

The researchers, led by Ana Beato at the University of Lisbon in Portugal, assessed the children’s anxieties and looked for associations with different styles of parenting. The study also looked at parents’ anxiety. Children’s anxiety was measured by asking them 69 questions. Parents’ anxiety was assessed similarly, but with a different set of 53 questions. Parenting style was measured by two questionnaires for the parents.

A statistical analysis of the parenting styles showed three distinct “clusters” – overinvolved (high levels of control and protection), disengaged (low emotional warmth) and supportive (little rejection and little overprotection). These showed no correlation with the child’s sex or age.

Children of disengaged mothers showed significantly higher levels of anxiety than did children of either supportive or overinvolved mothers. This finding is consistent with earlier research and perhaps suggests that children respond badly to maternal rejection and lack of acceptance. It may be surprising that there was no correlation between overinvolved motherhood and child anxiety, as has been found in other studies. One explanation may be that in Portuguese culture, a high level of control and protection in parenting is normal. Also, the levels of control and overprotection shown by the mothers in this sample were not especially high.

No correlations were found between child anxiety and different types of parenting by fathers. This finding may reflect less engagement by fathers in direct childrearing and closeness to the children in this sample.

Regarding parents’ anxiety, disengaged mothers and fathers were the most likely to be anxious. Perhaps their disengagement was a function of being more focused on their own anxieties. Parents who are anxious tend to be more withdrawn, more critical and less engaged with their children than parents who are not anxious.

Anxiety in childhood and adolescence is widespread and affects girls more than boys. It can have lifelong impacts, socially, academically and psychologically.


Beato A, Pereira AI, Barros L & Muris P (2016), The relationship between different parenting typologies in dathers and mothers and children’s anxiety, Journal of Child and Family Studies, 25

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