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Esther J. Cepeda: The damage of a strict upbringing

Columnist Esther J. Cepeda
Columnist Esther J. Cepeda 12/15/10

You don’t have to be Hispanic to remember a childhood run by a parent who wielded an iron fist. But if you are Hispanic, you’re more likely to — and might still have some emotional scars.

In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, Mexican-American and Dominican-American kids ages 4 to 6 were tested for anxiety, depression, and somatization — the presence of physical symptoms without a documentable physical cause — in association to certain rigid parenting practices like strictness and “respeto” (respect), which emphasizes unquestioning obedience and deference to adults.

The study found that almost 50% of children were at risk for anxiety, and 10% for depression and somatization, with the rates persisting over time. Parents’ authoritarian styles impacted kids directly and also had the potential to make young children more nervous or distressed during interactions with other adults in authority, such as teachers.

Lead researcher Esther Calzada, associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin, decided to examine the link between parents’ adherence to cultural values related to childrearing and negative emotional responses in kids.

“I have a similar experience to you – growing up with immigrant Latino parents,” Calzada told me. “The differences in personal experiences of my parents being so strict and so no-nonsense, compared to the homes and experiences of my friends from school, were striking. Growing up, you don’t know any different, it just is, but when I was doing my graduate dissertation, I wanted to investigate what is ‘normal' for Latino parents — how do we raise our kids? From there it kind of grew into not only gaining more information for parenting interventions but also understanding the struggles we have as a Hispanic community in the U.S. and the high risk our kids have for multiple negative outcomes.”

Calzada warned that her research must be taken within a context.

“It is very tricky to talk about this — one of my great worries is that research like this will serve to paint Latino parents in a negative light, that we approach parenting in a way that puts our kids at risk for anxiety and depression.”

“Our research found that moms are telling us that as a whole, in general, they approach parenting in both an authoritative and supportive way. Let me make clear that we are not finding that at this young age, a preponderance of moms are taking a very authoritarian approach,” Calzada said. “What the data is saying is that when they do take a more authoritarian approach — and not in combination with warm, loving support — it puts kids at risk. So it’s not just that all Latino parenting is authoritarian.”

Calzada says that it is a problem that there isn’t an extensive body of research literature about Hispanic family life. The Latino population is so diverse in so many ways that “situational differences make differing levels of authoritarianism play out in different ways and so we’re usually very cautious about generalizing. What we do know is that in this country many Hispanics live in low income communities with lots of demands that may make that highly strict parenting more appropriate.”

“In the context of poverty and other stressors, such as parents struggling financially or with their own mental health problems, it makes it very hard to be a calm, warm consistent parent,” Calzada said. “The other thing is that when you’re raising a child in a poor environment and you know there is considerable risk to let your kid hang out on the street, you’re going to do whatever it takes to keep them safe.”

Bottom line: many parents of all races and ethnicities— especially those with low incomes and other big life stresses — need to learn how to be both strict and provide the warm, emotional and behavioral support that will enable kids to succeed at tasks like “behaving,” and “getting along with others.”

Calzada has some hope for a model in which parenting help is offered to preschoolers’ parents at the school, but this involves money, partnerships, and a whole lot of community outreach.

For society’s sake, we need to figure out how to provide this kind of parent mentoring and guidance to those who need it most. Its positive effects have the potential to ripple out far beyond individual families.

Esther Cepeda is a columnist with the Washington Post Writer’s Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

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