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JOURNAL OF AMERICAN COLLEGE HEALTH, VOL. 60, NO.

1
Major Article
Gender Differences in the Relationships Among
Parenting Styles and College Student Mental
Health
Alison L. Barton, PhD; Michael S. Kirtley, BA
Abstract. Objective: Levels of student depression may increase
as stress increases; parenting styles may be one indirect source
of stress. The authors examined the role of parenting style in re-
lationship to student stress, anxiety, and depression, with focused
attention on gender differences. Participants: Participants were 290
undergraduate students (58% female, mean age = 19). Methods:
Cross-sectional design. Participants completed surveys containing
measures of parenting styles, college stress, anxiety, and depression.
Results: Anxiety and stress acted as mediators between some mater-
nal parenting styles and female student depression. No mediational
relationships were found for male student ratings. Conclusions:
Daughters may be more susceptible to the inuences of maternal
parenting styles, which can either prepare or fail to prepare themfor
management and avoidance of stressors that are encountered dur-
ing the college transition. College counseling centers and student
affairs personnel may wish to focus attention on the instruction of
self-management and problem-solving skills for incoming students.
Keywords: college student, depression, gender differences, par-
enting style, stress
C
ollege counseling centers are currently becoming
overwhelmed by the demand for services by stu-
dents, and a majority of counseling services direc-
tors are concerned about the growing need to assist distressed
college students.
1
This demand is likely due, in large part,
to the rates of depression among college students; one large-
sample study indicated that 53% of university students ex-
perience some form of depression.
2
In particular, women are
more likely than men to report greater amounts of depres-
sion,
3,4
which may further inate demands for counseling
Dr Barton is with the Department of Human Development and
Learning at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Ten-
nessee. Mr Kirtley is a graduate of the Department of Psychology
at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee.
Copyright 2012 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
services, as the number of women attending colleges gener-
ally exceeds that of men.
Aside from clear mental health implications, depression
rates should be a concern for colleges because depression
has been linked to poorer academic outcomes,
5,6
such that
depressed students may not reap the full learning advantages
of a higher education. Depression also inversely predicts
persistence to graduation,
7
which may cause universities ad-
ditional concern, as funding becomes increasingly based on
graduation rather than enrollment rates.
Preparation for the Transition to College:
The Role of Parenting
Transitions are dened as times between 2 periods of sta-
bility.
8
Whereas a transition may be instigated by a singular
event (eg, high school graduation), transitions are considered
to be processes over time that ultimately result in altered
relationships, routines, assumptions, and roles.
9
Transition
theory posits that successful adjustment to a transition is
inuenced by several factors, including the ability of the in-
dividual to handle concurrent stressors over the transition
period and their assessment of the transition as positive or
negative.
9
The start of and (potentially prolonged) adjustment to
college meets the denition of a transition: New students
are beginning different academic and social relationships,
10
new routines, and have new types of restrictions and
freedoms to which they must adjust. For many of these
same reasons, this time is also considered to be a stressful
one: Students have to adjust to multiple academic demands,
deal with new nancial issues such as tuition payment or
concurrent employment, and manage new relationships and
potential social conict.
11,12
Student stress rates conrm
this assumption, as moderate stress levels are common
21
Barton & Kirtley
among students (77.6%).
13
Although severe stress is much
less common, it nevertheless occurs at levels that arouse
concern (10.4%).
13
Similar to depression differences, female
students report greater levels of stress
4
and, in particular,
report more encounters with interpersonal stressors.
3
Not
surprisingly, stress and its close cousin, anxiety, are highly
correlated with depression among college students.
7,14
It is clear that successful navigation of the college
transition and its attendant stressors requires good self-
management skills as well as a sense of support. Should
self-management skill be lacking, a student will be more
likely to either create additional stressors (eg, attending a
party instead of studying) or will not be able to manage
naturally occurring stressors (eg, using diplomatic skills to
resolve a grade dispute with an instructor). Further, percep-
tion of the transition as a positive change is more likely to
happen if an individual feels supported, which in turn may
lead to a cooler head when stressful events occur.
One likely contributor toward students development of
self-management and self-regulation, as well as their sense
of support, is the manner in which they were parented. Baum-
rinds
15,16
parenting styles classify parenting behaviors into 3
main patterns of support and control. Authoritative parenting
is characterized by high levels of support and developmen-
tally appropriate levels of control, allowing children a voice
in decision making. Authoritarian parents, in contrast, exhibit
consistently high levels of control and low levels of support.
Permissive parenting provides some support, but lacks con-
trol.
16
The latter 2 styles, by virtue of lacking either support
or appropriate levels of control/autonomy granting, might be
hypothesized to lead to poor self-management skills and/or
a reduced sense of support.
Recent studies examining parenting styles as they relate
to college adjustment have found that increased levels of
parental authoritativeness predict better college adjustment
and less student depression,
17
but that authoritarian parent-
ing has signicant relationships to student anxiety and, for
daughters, depression.
14
Counterintuitively, permissive par-
enting was either related to less anxiety and depression, or
had no relationship to these outcomes, depending on the sex
of the parent and the student.
14
In addition to direct relationships with anxiety and depres-
sion, studies on parenting styles and college adjustment have
examined contributing variables. Jackson et al
17
found that
optimismsignicantly mediated the relationship between au-
thoritativeness and depression and partially mediated the
relationship between authoritativeness and a specic mea-
sure of college adjustment. Parental authoritativeness thus
may create in children earlier patterns of optimistic thinking,
which then contribute to resiliency in the face of newstressors
during the college transition. McKinney et al
14
examined the
role of students positive and negative perceptions of parent-
ing and found that they signicantly altered the relationships
between parenting styles and measures of anxiety and de-
pression; the authors call for examination of other factors
that may inuence the relationship between parenting styles
and late adolescent adjustment.
Gender Differences in the Relationships Between
Parenting Styles and Outcomes
Several studies indicate that maternal parenting styles have
stronger relationships with child outcomes than do paternal
styles. For example, authoritative mothering seems to have
a counteractive effect on less desirable fathering styles (per-
missive and authoritarian), although the opposite has not been
shown with authoritative fathers and permissive mothers.
18
Additional studies indicate that maternal parenting, com-
pared to paternal parenting, more strongly inuences late
adolescent adjustment
14
and that permissive mothering gen-
erally is more strongly related to poor child outcomes than
permissive fathering.
1820
In addition to the stronger relationship between mater-
nal parenting styles and child outcomes, gender differences
among the children are also evident, although at the college
level, few studies of gender differences have been published.
In particular, mothering practices appear to have a greater im-
pact on daughters outcomes than sons, both with younger
adolescents and college students.
16,21,22
For example, with
younger adolescents, mothers encouragement of indepen-
dence limited girls problem behaviors more than boys.
16
For college women but not college men, authoritarian and
permissive mothering were signicantly and positively re-
lated to impulsiveness and subsequent problematic drinking
behaviors,
21
and permissive mothering is positively related
to a sense of entitlement.
22
Although less commonly found, boys outcomes are at
times more strongly determined by fathering behaviors. For
example, permissive fathering is positively related to sons
impulsiveness and alcohol-related problems, whereas author-
itative fathering was negatively related to these outcomes for
their sons.
21
However, a greater number of ndings support
the stronger inuence of maternal parenting style on sons
outcomes, as discussed above.
Purpose of the Present Study
The purpose of our study was twofold. First, based on the
theoretical suspicion that parenting behaviors may be related
to student depression, this study tested for the mediational
effects of stress and anxiety on the relationship between par-
enting styles and student depression. Second, given consis-
tent ndings of gender differences for rates of depression,
stress, anxiety, as well as for parenting styles and child out-
comes, we wished to assess the mediational model separately
for male and female students.
Although our variables mirror several of those used by
Wintre and Bowers,
7
our study examines the relationships in
a very different manner. Wintre and Bowers
7
used these vari-
ables to predict, both individually and in a collective model,
college persistence. Our goal is instead to determine (a) if
stress and/or anxiety explain any of the variance in the re-
lationship between parenting styles and depression and (b)
if these path relationships are different for male and female
students. Further, our outcome variables were assessed using
22 JOURNAL OF AMERICAN COLLEGE HEALTH
Gender Differences in Relationships
different measures; stress in particular was assessed using a
scale constructed specically for the college setting.
We hypothesize that stress and anxiety will mediate the
relationship between parenting styles and depression, but that
the strength of the relationships will be greater for mothering
styles, and particularly so for daughters.
METHODS
Participants
Participants included 290 undergraduate students (58%
female) at a regional midsized university. The age range of
the sample was 18 to 21, with a mean age of 19. Of the
students who provided information on ethnicity, the majority
(92%) reported they were Caucasian, which is proportionally
representative of the university population. When completing
questions regarding their parents, the majority of the sample
(98%) provided ratings for both a mother and father gure.
Measures
One subscale of the Student-Life Stress Inventory
(SLSI),
23
an inventory created to reect stress and stress
responses specically among students in the college setting,
was used in our study to measure student stress. The Stres-
sors subscale consists of 23 items rated on a 5-point Likert
scale (never, seldom, occasionally, often, and most of the
time) that address 5 different types of college adjustment
stress (frustrations, conicts, pressures, changes, and self-
imposed). For total stressor ratings, higher scores indicate
greater levels of experienced stress. Internal consistency for
the Stressor subscale in our study was = .89.
The Self-rating Anxiety Scale (SAS)
24
is a 20-item mea-
sure derived by Zung to specically measure anxiety as a
current clinical entity, rather than as a more general measure
of state or trait anxiety. Participants rated statements related
to diagnostic criteria for anxiety on a 4-point Likert scale
(none or a little of the time, some of the time, good part of the
time, most of the time); higher scores reect greater levels of
anxiety symptoms. Internal consistency for the SAS in our
study was = .78.
The Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale
(CES-D)
25
is a 20-itemself-administered scale that measures
depressive symptomatology. Participants were asked to rate
items assessing depressive symptoms within the past week
using a 4-point Likert scale (rarely or none of the time, some
or a little of the time, occasionally or a moderate amount of
time, and most or all of the time). Higher scores on this scale
reect a greater number of depressive symptoms; internal
consistency for the CES-D in our study was = .91.
The Parental Authority Questionnaire (PAQ)
26
was de-
rived to measure levels of authoritative, authoritarian, and
permissive behaviors for each parent, under the assumption
that rarely does a parents behavior consistently fall under a
single style. The PAQ is a 30-item scale comprising 3 sub-
scales, 10 items per subscale, which assess maternal and pa-
ternal permissive, authoritarian, and authoritative parenting
characteristics. Statements were phrased in past tense, and
often utilize the phrase, As I was growing up; thus mea-
surement is of past parenting behaviors. Participants rated
statements based on a 5-point Likert scale (strongly disagree,
disagree, neutral, agree, and strongly agree) that measured
both maternal and paternal parenting separately, resulting in
2 scoresone for mothers and one for fathers. Higher scores
on each subscale indicate greater levels of that parenting
style. Internal consistencies for the 6 subscales in our study
were as follows: Permissive Mothers, =.74; Authoritarian
Mothers, = .84; Authoritative Mothers, = .86; Permis-
sive Fathers, = .83; Authoritarian Fathers, = .93; and
Authoritative Fathers, = .92.
Procedure
Participants were recruited voluntarily and anonymously
through an electronic recruitment system run by the uni-
versitys Department of Psychology. This system lists all
currently available studies, from which potential participants
can select those of most interest or value to them. Participants
who took this studys electronic survey received 1 point of
credit within this recruitment system, which they could apply
to any course requiring or rewarding (through extra credit)
participation in human research.
Upon rst reading an electronic informed consent, partic-
ipants were notied that continuing to complete the survey
would be taken as consent. Participants at their convenience
then completed demographic questions, the SAS, SLSI, CES-
D, and PAQ, respectively. All procedures and measures were
approved by the institutional review board.
RESULTS
A 1-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) to test for gender
differences on our outcome variable, depression, indicated
that men (M = 1.64, SD = 0.42) and women (M = 1.90,
SD = 0.55) had signicantly different ratings of depressive
symptoms, F(1, 288) = 18.76, p < .01, in the expected
manner. Based on this initial indication of gender differences,
subsequent analyses were run separately for male and female
participants.
We tested our hypothesized mediational model in 2 ways,
using Baron and Kennys
27
traditional criteria for mediation
as well as the more rigorous Sobel statistical test as a conr-
matory method.
Bivariate correlations (Table 1) yielded several gender
differences. For daughters, permissive mothering was
signicantly and positively related to stress and anxiety,
and both permissive mothering and fathering were likewise
positively correlated with depression, whereas permissive
parenting was not correlated with adjustment measures for
sons. For daughters, authoritative mothering was signi-
cantly and negatively related to anxiety and depression, and
authoritative fathering did not relate to adjustment measures,
whereas for sons, authoritative mothering did not relate to
any adjustment measures but authoritative fathering was
signicantly and negatively related to depression. Finally,
authoritarian parenting did not relate to any adjustment
VOL 60, JANUARY 2012 23
Barton & Kirtley
TABLE 1. Correlations Among Study Variables
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
1. Authoritative mother .08 .16

.36

.22

.10 .10 .17

.16

2. Authoritarian mother .02 .26

.16

.37

.05 .12 .06 .01


3. Permissive mother .05 .16 .07 .09 .40

.17

.19

.19

4. Authoritative father .42

.13 .08 .38

.41

.06 .11 .01


5. Authoritarian father .10 .48 .14 .36

.17

.01 .10 .11


6. Permissive father .01 .02 .59

.37

.02 .09 .06 .17

7. Stress .02 .16 .16 .12 .29

.14 .68

.58

8. Anxiety .02 .12 .18 .11 .06 .00 .46

.69

9. Depression .12 .05 .10 .23

.02 .10 .54

.52


Note. Ratings provided by female students are above the diagonal, whereas ratings provided by male students are belowthe diagonal in italics. Measures:
Parenting Styles (PAQ), Depression (CES-D), Anxiety (SAS), Stress (SLSI).

p < .05;

p < .01.
measures for daughters, but authoritarian fathering was
signicantly and positively related to stress for sons.
Of these sets of correlations, only female participants data
for maternal authoritative and permissive parenting met the
prerequisite conditions for mediation. Testing our hypothe-
ses, hierarchical regression analyses indicated that when
stress was added as a mediating variable between permissive
mothering and daughters depression, the relationship be-
tween parenting style and depression became nonsignicant.
Likewise, when anxiety was added as a mediator, the relation-
ships between both permissive and authoritative mothering
(using separate models) became nonsignicant. Sobel test
statistics for all 3 models were signicant. See Table 2 for
signicant regression coefcients and Sobel statistics.
COMMENT
Our study yielded 2 interesting sets of ndings that add to
the eld of research on parenting styles and college adjust-
ment: First, relationships between our variables of interest
varied by parent and student gender, such that daughters rat-
ings on affective measures were more related to mothering
than fathering styles, and sons ratings on affective measures
were more related to fathering than mothering styles. Sec-
ond, we found that stress and anxiety act as mediators in the
relationship between parenting styles, but only for mothering
styles with their daughters.
Our prediction that maternal parenting styles would trump
paternal styles in the strength of their relationships with stu-
dent (male and female) affect was not supported. Although
our study examined different student variables, the patterns
of gender differences that we found are similar to those found
by Patock-Peckham and Morgan-Lopez,
21
who suggest that
these motherdaughter/fatherson patterns are the result of
modeling. That is, children imitate the behavior and absorb
the parenting parameters of the same-sex parent.
21,28
For col-
lege women, our study particularly highlighted this assim-
ilation of boundaries, as a greater number of relationships
between mothering styles and daughter affect were found
than between those of fathering styles and son affect.
Due to the greater number of relationships among mother-
daughter variables, we found that, for female students, stress
and anxiety mediate the relationships between maternal per-
missive parenting and depression, and anxiety mediates the
relationship between maternal authoritative parenting and
depression. Permissive mothering has been demonstrated to
predict low levels of empathy,
29
as well asfor college
womenimmature narcissism
22
and impulsivity.
21
These
collective characteristics, which likely come about due to
little restriction of behavior during formative years, can re-
sult in, as Baumrind
30 (p405)
theorized, greedy, demanding,
inconsiderate children. As a result, little self-management or
self-regulatory skills are learned, and upon entering the col-
lege environment and its new set of restrictions (eg, school
work deadlines) and relationships, these characteristics are
likely to set the stage for an increased number of stressors.
This increase in stress then leads to depressive symptoms,
perhaps due to a more negative assessment of the transition
and thus a negative outlook.
For male students, we did not nd enough relationships
between parenting styles and affective variables to test for
any models of mediation. The weaker relationships between
parenting styles and male student outcomes is consistent with
previous research,
16,21,22
as well as with research that indi-
cates that boys suggestibility decreases as they age.
31
Fu-
ture research may provide further evidence as to whether this
weaker relationship is primarily due to differences in cultural
upbringing and socialization differences or genetic factors.
Only 2 signicant relationships between fathering styles
and sons affect were found, perhaps in part because fathering
styles were so strongly and positively correlated with one an-
other. These high intercorrelations between fathering styles
contradict both theory
16
and previous ndings using the same
scale,
7,32
and suggest that for our sample, fathers involved
with their children are less distinctive in their parenting be-
haviors, employing varying levels of control and support.
Of the signicant fatherson relationships, fathers who tend
to employ more authoritarian behaviors have sons who en-
counter greater college-level stress. These sons were likely
24 JOURNAL OF AMERICAN COLLEGE HEALTH
Gender Differences in Relationships
TABLE 2. Tests of Mediation for the Relationship Between Maternal Parenting Styles and Female College
Student Depression
Maternal parenting style (Mediator) b SE Sobel statistic
Permissive (Stress) .09 (.18

)
a
.06 (.07) .10 (.19

) 2.16

Permissive (Anxiety) .06 (.18

) .05 (.07) .06 (.19

) 2.44

Authoritative (Anxiety) .03 (.11

) .04 (.05) .05 (.16

) 2.14

Note. Measures: Parenting Styles (PAQ), Depression (CES-D), Anxiety (SAS), Stress (SLSI).
a
Numbers in parentheses represent the association between parenting style and student depression before adding the effects of the mediator.

p < .05;

p < .01.
raised with less preparation for autonomy, which violates
traditional gender typing of boys as independent.
33
These
sons may therefore encounter more stress as they struggle
with new and independent responsibilities, coupled with the
likelihood of less warm support from their fathers. Sons with
fathers who use a more authoritative style, however, are less
likely to exhibit symptoms of depression, perhaps because
they feel more supported by their same-sex role model.
Of course, the ndings we discuss are correlational in na-
ture, so we do note that anxious, stressed, and depressed
students could instead elicit certain responsive parenting be-
haviors. However, with a nod to this possibility, we lean
toward our earlier explanations based upon both previous
longitudinal research on parenting styles that found similar
outcomes,
16,17
as well as our methodology, which provided
modest, albeit imperfect, control by asking participants about
past parenting behavior but current emotional symptomatol-
ogy.
Limitations
Although our study contributes useful information regard-
ing the process of college adjustment, limitations of our de-
sign should be noted. Our sample lacked ethnic diversity,
which is important to mention because authoritative parent-
ing may not be the ideal parenting style for some cultures.
34
Additionally, retrospective ratings may lack accuracy and can
therefore limit interpretability of any ndings.
Conclusions
Despite our studys limitations, our ndings suggest some
useful implications and future research directions. First, col-
leges may wish to nd ways to assist new students, and
particularly young women, in developing autonomous skills
as well as social support systems. Campus orientation should
include activities that address adjustment issues, that is, ac-
tivities that clearly communicate what responsibilities are
expected in college and provide concrete strategies for how
students can meet those responsibilities. Orientation leaders
could also teach problem-solving skills in an effort to en-
courage better self-regulation, as well as build small, social
cohorts that allow students to create support systems that can
mitigate stress. Finally, provision and encouragement of self-
supporting, healthful coping strategies (eg, yoga classes, deep
breathing/meditative training) could further help to decrease
felt stress, particularly among a subset of college women.
Future research should continue to examine contributing
factors to the relationship between parenting and student ad-
justment, as well as combinations of factors. For example, our
ndings of stress as a mediator complement Jackson et als
17
ndings of optimism as a mediator; interesting new avenues
of exploration are how the 2 interact or which carries greater
weight as a mediator. Additionally, examination of factors
such as dependency, autonomy, or parental expectations may
help further explain differential gender effects. Finally, com-
binations of maternal/paternal parenting may be better repre-
sentations of students developmental experiences, such that
examination of factors such as stress, anxiety, depression, and
optimism using these combined styles may provide a more
comprehensive understanding of how parenting contributes
to college student adjustment.
NOTE
For comments and further information, address corre-
spondence to Alison L. Barton, Department of Human De-
velopment and Learning, East Tennessee State University,
Box 70548, Johnson City, TN 37614, USA (e-mail: bar-
ton@etsu.edu).
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Received: 8 August 2010
Revised: 7 December 2010
Accepted: 15 January 2011
26 JOURNAL OF AMERICAN COLLEGE HEALTH
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