Study finds link between dads who treat daughters like 'princesses' and anxiety

Upon learning that daughters "liked rough-and-tumble play as much as their sons" the "dads were often pleasantly ...
Upon learning that daughters "liked rough-and-tumble play as much as their sons" the "dads were often pleasantly surprised". "They realised they'd been treating them like princesses." Photo: Amanda Worrall/Stocksy

A study has shown that encouraging children to take risks, be competitive and engage in rough and tumble play can help prevent childhood anxiety disorders. But, unfortunately, this type of play is more commonly experienced by young boys than girls.

The study, which was undertaken by the Macquarie University's Centre for Emotional Health, the University of Amsterdam and the University of Reading, took place amongst parents of pre-school aged children in the Netherlands and Australia. 

The report noted that fathers typically showed more competition with their sons, than their daughters.

Fathers less likely to engage with rough play with daughters.
Fathers less likely to engage with rough play with daughters. Photo: Supplied

Professor Jennie Hudson, a co-author of the study, said that "by gently encouraging their kids in a reasonable way to push their limits, parents could be helping to reduce their child's risk of developing an anxiety disorder."

Rough and tumble play is commonly understood as high energy play that can happen in collaboration or individually.

Previous research has shown, the rough nature of the play can mean that it is interpreted by parents as aggressive, and therefore "more likely to be discouraged in girls than boys".

In a separate study undertaken by University of Newcastle it was found that rough play was something the girls also enjoyed. According to Professor Richard Fletcher, a co-author of the study, upon learning that daughters "liked rough-and-tumble play as much as their sons" the "dads were often pleasantly surprised".

"They realised they'd been treating them like princesses."

Dr Jennifer St George, who undertook research alongside Fletcher, agrees, believing it comes down to gender socialisation beliefs, as well as biological ones.

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"Parents might believe girls were more gentle... and there's a difference in body mass development [between girls and boys]."

"A child is a product of parenting as well as genetic inheritance."

But this 'soft' treatment of girls in terms of rough and tumble play is something Professor Fletcher now believes is changing. 

"[Awareness of] women's physicality is definitely on the rise," he says, pointing to the rise in interest in women's sports.

The original study also noted that actions such as giving children a fright, letting them lose a game and encouraging them to enter unfamiliar social situations were also ways of getting children to take part in safe risk taking.

The study surveyed 312 families with preschool-aged children across the Netherlands and Australia, finding that the parents that took part in Challenging Parent Behaviour (CPB) such as rough play had children that were less likely to be anxious.

Hudson reported that, "Around seven per cent of Australian kids between the ages of four and seventeen have an anxiety disorder."

"The fact is that we really need to learn more about how we can help families to reduce this percentage."

According to Beyond Blue, anxiety symptoms in children include, seeking reassurance often, having lots of worries, disliking taking risks or trying new things and getting upset easily.

These might manifest as common childhood anxiety disorders, such as social phobia, obsessive compulsive disorder and separation anxiety disorder.