Parenting is Tough, but Science Suggests Clear Strategies that Help You to Raise Emotionally Healthy Children

In 2018, the American Psychiatric Association identified what they considered to be the three major goals of parenting:

“1. Ensuring children’s health and safety

2. Preparing children for life as productive adults, and

3. Transmitting cultural values”

Many environmental and biological factors influence a parent’s and a child’s capacity to reach these ambitious goals. However, there are still a few simple changes in how we try to parent our children and manage emotions in ourselves and those closest to us that can make a significant difference.

Parenting Styles

In 1971, a researcher named Baumrind identified and developed three main parenting styles. These parenting styles include parents’ attitudes and values about parenting, their beliefs about the nature of children, and the specific strategies they use to help socialise their child.

The parenting styles are known as:

1. Authoritative

Includes being warm and involved in the child’s day-to-day life, helping the child with reasoning and inductive thought processes and reflective practices, democratic participation, letting the child have a say in what goes on, and being good-natured and generally easy-going with the child.

2. Authoritarian

Includes being verbally hostile towards the child, using corporal punishment, not reasoning things through with the child, using punitive control strategies or excessively harsh punishments, and being directive towards the child rather than discussing things with them.

3. Permissive

Includes high levels of warmth, but a relaxed and non-consistent discipline style, with minimal rules, expectations and guidance. This includes lack of follow-through on consequences, ignoring misbehaviour and boosting self-confidence rather than disciplining the child.

The graph above highlights a fourth style known as uninvolved (Maccoby & Martin, 1983), which includes very little control or strictness and very little parental warmth.

Subsequent reviews by Baumrind in 1989 and 1991 found a clear winner for parents who employed an authoritative parenting style over an authoritarian or a permissive parenting style, especially once children reach higher.

An authoritative parenting style has been shown to lead to the more significant development of child competence, including better maturity, assertiveness, responsible independence, self-control, better co-operation with peers and adults, and academic success (Baumrind, 1989; 1991). In addition, children of authoritative parenting also exhibit higher levels of moral conscience and prosocial behaviours (Krevans & Gibbs, 1996).

Other research has found that non-authoritative parenting styles can lead to a higher risk of depression, anxiety, ADHD and conduct or behavioural problems (Akhter et al., 2011). For example, authoritarian parenting can lead to antisocial aggression, hostility and rebelliousness (Baumrind, 1991), and anxiety (Chorpita & Barlow, 1998).

Indulging children too much and not setting appropriate boundaries can reduce the child’s academic performance and social competence (Chen et al., 2000). Permissive parenting can also lead to low self-control and impulsive, bossy or dependent behaviour in children (Baumrind, 1967).

Uninvolved parenting leads to a greater risk of behavioural problems and depression (Downey & Coyne, 1990).

The chart below clearly highlights the consequences of each style of parenting:

If you want to develop a more authoritative parenting style, be warned that it is the most time-consuming and energy-demanding of all the methods (Greenberger & Goldberg, 1989). However, if you would still like to give it a go, try any of the following strategies from a questionnaire developed to identify an authoritative parenting style, and see if they work for you:

  • “Learn the names of your children’s friends.
  • Ask about your child’s problems or concerns at school and communicate with their teachers about any issues that they may be having
  • Encourage the child to talk about their troubles
  • Give praise and acknowledgment when the child does something positive
  • Tell your child that you appreciate what they try or accomplish
  • Give emotional comfort and understanding when the child is upset
  • Respond to the child’s feelings and emotional needs
  • Show sympathy or empathy when the child is hurt or frustrated
  • Express affection by hugging, kissing or holding your child when it is appropriate to do so
  • Explain the consequences of your child’s behaviour
  • Give your child the reasons for the rules you have
  • Emphasize why the rules need to be followed
  • Help them understand the impact of their behaviour by encouraging them to talk about the consequences of their actions.
  • Explain how you feel about your child’s good and bad behaviour
  • Take into account your child’s preferences when making family plans
  • Allow your child to give input into family rules
  • Take your child’s desires into account before asking them to do something
  • Joke and play with your child
  • Show patience with your child
  • Try to be easy-going and relaxed around your child.”

The Relationship Cure

There isn’t an author out there who has conducted more in-depth and scientific research on interpersonal relationships than John Gottman. ‘The Relationship Cure: A Five-Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships’ is his 2002 book that offers a 5-step guide to improving the quality of your relationship with your partner or children.

The five steps to improve your relationships are:

1. Look at Your Bids for Connection

We need to analyse how we bid for connections with others and respond to other people’s bids for connections.

A bid is simply any form of expression, whether a verbal question, a visual look, or a physical gesture or touch that says, “I want to connect with you!

A response to a bid can be either an encouraging sign that shows that you also want to connect by turning towards them or a discouraging sign that indicates that you do not wish to connect through turning away from them or turning against them.

Over time, turning towards responses lead to even more bidding and responding and a stronger, closer relationship. But, conversely, both turning away and turning against reactions leads to less bidding, hurt or suppressed feelings, and the breakdown of the connection you share in the long-term.

2. Discover Your Brain’s Emotional Command Systems

There are seven main areas in which people differ that can influence relationship needs. Once you have discovered if you and your family members are low, moderate or high on each system, it becomes easier to see how it affects the bidding process in the relationship.

The systems are referred to as the:

  • Commander-in-chief (dominance and control)
  • Explorer (exploration and discovery)
  • Sensualist (sensual gratification, pleasure)
  • Energy Czar (regulates the need for energy, rest, relaxation)
  • Jester (play, fun)
  • Sentry (safety, vigilance)
  • Nest-builder (affiliation, bonding, attachment)

3. Examine Your Emotional Heritage

People typically develop one of four emotional philosophy styles. These styles are learnt during childhood and can affect your method of bidding and your ability to connect with others.

The four emotional styles are:

  • Emotion-dismissing (“You’ll get over it!“) = less bidding and turning away
  • Emotion-disapproving (“Don’t feel that way!“) = less bidding and turning against
  • Laissez-faire (“I understand how you feel.“) = bidding may or may not increase
  • Emotion-coaching (“I understand. Let me help you!“) = more bidding, turning toward, with the bonus of guidance being offered for how to cope.

Families that create emotion-coaching environments give their children a higher chance of having more successful and loving relationships with their parents, siblings and friends. They also tend to get along better with their co-workers and romantic partner when they are older.

4. Sharpen Your Emotional Communication Skills

By learning effective communication skills, we are more likely to say what we actually mean and feel without the other person becoming defensive, which can increase our chances of positive changes occurring and relationship satisfaction increasing.

The four steps of effective communication are as follows:

D — Describe the situation, and stick to facts, not judgments

(e.g., ”When you don’t clean up your room”, not “When you are disrespectful and don’t care about your things!”).

E — Explain how you feel

(Emotions — e.g., “I feel hurt and upset!”. Not opinions — e.g., “I feel like you don’t care about me or the house rules!”)

A — Ask for what you need or would prefer

(Behaviours — e.g., “I would prefer that you follow the rules we have established and clean up your room before going outside to play with friends”. Not feelings — e.g., “I would prefer if you actually cared about this family and your things like you say you do”).

R — Reinforce the potential benefits to them, you and the relationship if they could do what you have asked

(e.g., “Then your things won’t get wrecked, you can play, I can relax, and we can all have fun together later instead of me having to nag you all the time!”).

You might be sceptical, but it really can work, and it does become more comfortable with practice.

5. Find Shared Meaning with Others

This can be done by sharing your dreams or visions, or it can be about developing consistent rituals together that, over time, can lead to more shared experiences and a stronger emotional bond.

With the kids, this may be prioritising having dinner around the table with the whole family and chatting each night without technology, or it could be:

  • a regular movie night every Friday,
  • church every Sunday morning,
  • games night once a week, or even
  • Christmas and Family Day with the extended family
  • New Years at the beach every year, or
  • Anything else that you can repeat regularly

Rituals provide great memories for the children and predictability too and help them to feel loved and secure. What you do does not matter too much; it is about what is meaningful to you and your family.

So there we have it. If you try to develop an authoritative parenting style, turn towards your child’s emotional bids, foster an emotion-coaching philosophy in the home, and try to communicate and find shared meaning with your children effectively, you will be well on your way to raising emotionally healthy children. I wish you all the best of luck with the challenges along the way!

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Published by Dr Damon Ashworth

I am a Clinical Psychologist. I completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences and a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University. I am passionate about the field of Psychology, and apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.

15 thoughts on “Parenting is Tough, but Science Suggests Clear Strategies that Help You to Raise Emotionally Healthy Children

  1. your article, as the blogs I have read so far, is super helpful and a blessing. thank you, sir, for the generosity of spirit, in sharing these gems of knowledge with the public. your worthy efforts are deeply appreciated. #SMileWeJustGetBetter

%d bloggers like this: