Share this Post
By Amy Goldizen
It’s unfortunate, isn’t it? Why isn’t there a foolproof, tried and true, manual for how to successfully raise a child without completely screwing them up? Parenting is hard. Really hard. While there is no proven method of parenting that is guaranteed to produce the perfect end result human being, research, and trial and error, has proven that there are some very important factors to keep in mind while raising your children to ensure that they grow and thrive in a happy and healthy environment conducive to sound mental, emotional, and physical development.
The Foundation of a Strong Partner Relationship
It’s easy to assume that raising strong capable children lies solely within the application of parenting. While the way we interact with our children does significantly impact the development of the child, it is also our interactions with the child’s other primary caregivers that create the atmosphere in which our children will grow and develop. You see, a large portion of how our children develop is based on the nurturing environment in which they are immersed.
One study examined the relationship between how parents handled relationship conflict and how their children subsequently behaved. As you might expect, children whose parents poorly handled conflict behaved more negatively than children whose parents effectively dealt with conflict in constructive manners.
In children whose parents poorly handled conflict situations, an emotional hyperarousal is thought to cause a disruption in the child’s psychological ability to regulate their emotional response to unsettling stimuli. Children who observed their parents resolving conflict in a positive, constructive manner were notably more psychologically capable of employing effective emotional regulation.
Establishing Secure Attachment
From birth our children are constantly learning about the world that surrounds them. From the moment they take their first breath, babies have an innate intuition that helps them recognize and bond with their caregivers. As the attachment between infant and caregiver grows, the infant will prefer the caregiver and seek the caregiver out for comfort or cry in their absence. This is attachment, and it comes in many forms. The goal, is to achieve a secure attachment between the caregiver and the child.
This YouTube video breaks attachment theory down, explaining each attachment style and how it influences relationships into adulthood.
Luckily, making sure your child establishes a secure attachment is a simple task. When a child is brought into a healthy, loving home environment where the caregiver responds to the child’s physical and emotional needs, he or she will naturally develop a secure attachment for the caregiver. When a child fails to establish a secure attachment to the caregiver, it is typically because the caregiver has neglected the needs of the child or maltreated the child.
Attachment theory has evolved over the years after it was originally branded by psychologist John Bowlby. In a nutshell, if the child develops a secure attachment with the caregiver, they are more likely to display a sound mental and emotional state – feeling safe to explore their surroundings under the watchful and trusted eye of the caregiver. If made to feel uncomfortable by a situation, the child who develops a secure attachment will readily seek out the caregiver for comfort before returning to their activities. The child will recover rather quickly from fearful situations and will feel confident in trying new things; knowing that the caregiver is nearby to ensure safety and meet their needs.
You can read more about attachment theory here.
A fascinating experiment, affectionately known amongst psychologists as The Strange Situation, observed the phenomena of secure attachment in a most interesting, yet controversial way. The Strange Situation places a 14-month-old girl and her mother together in a room to play. The mother leaves the room, leaving the baby with a stranger, inducing some level of distress. Shortly after, the mother and baby reunite and the baby almost instantly calms down.
You can view a video of the experiment here.
Environmental Influence Extends Beyond the Home
Psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, is famous for developing the ecological systems theory, a theory that explains how varying levels of environmental influence affects the development of a child throughout the lifespan based on the level of interaction he or she has with the immediate and distant surroundings within their environment. Bronfenbrenner’s theory explains that a child’s environment is divided into five layers. Imagine an onion. Each of these layers are part of a whole, the child being at the core.
The first layer closest to the child, the layer that the child will encounter most often and for the longest duration of time, is known as the microsystem. The microsystem includes the child’s family and caregivers, school, healthcare system, and close friends. The child spends the majority of his or her time surrounded by the influence and modeling of these variables.
The second layer, still influential yet somewhat separated from the child’s immediate environment, is the mesosystem. The mesosystem is like a webbing, interlacing the various microsystems with one another. School becomes connected with home life, home life is influenced by health standing and availability of care, etc. The mesosystem explains that these individual influences do not remain separate and that what happens in one interaction can easily influence what will happen in another.
Next up is the exosystem. Unlike the microsystem and the mesosystem, influences within the exosystem do not directly impact the development and well-being of the child, but play an indirect role on the systems that reside within the child’s immediate environment. For example, Dad may have had a rough day at work, bringing home his workday stress. While the child has no direct tie to his/her father’s workplace, the workplace stress that was experienced by the father will ultimately influence the child by way of their interactions with the father – thus the workplace is influencing the well-being and development of the child indirectly.
The macrosystem claims the least direct influence on the well-being and development of a child, but is not to be considered less significant. Political and economic stability fall under the macrosystem. This area is easy to overlook in a predominantly peaceful country like ours, but in countries ravaged by war or poverty, it is clear that a child would develop differently than a child in a peaceful or financially stable environment would.
Finally, the chronosystem is helpful in addressing the fluidity of life. As we endure life’s changes, shifts in socioeconomic status, relocation, changes in family dynamics, and political transition, the interactions that occur within the other ecosystems will change and adapt. The environment of the child cannot always be controlled at all times, but understanding the impact of the environment on a child’s development is a great reminder to make conscious decisions conducive to nurturing wherever possible.
Understanding Bronfenbrenner’s theory, it is easy to see how controlling the home environment of a child is often one of the most significant determining factors of development made evident upon observing the child’s mental, emotional, and physical health. Where we are unable to directly control the environment that extends beyond our immediate home surroundings, manipulating our behavior, modeling effective gentle parenting technique, and creating comfortable home surroundings that are conducive to healthy development of physical, emotional, and mental health, helps us as parents, to ensure the best outcome for our children.
Understanding Modeling Behavior
One of the most humbling realizations of parenthood is rooted in knowing that our children mirror our behaviors. No matter how often we verbalize to our children the importance of showing respect, maintaining a positive perspective, and showing empathy and compassion towards others, they will always be more heavily influenced by the behaviors that we display to them every day. Our children are highly observant, often analyzing and noting the way that we react to our environment. Have you ever noticed how a child, when he or she falls, will often look at the parent, assessing their reaction to the stumble, before reacting? Children are constantly looking to us, the parents, in an effort to learn how to navigate the new world around them.
Social learning theory explains that by nature we are inclined to behave in a way that reflects the way we observe the models in our surrounding environment behaving. These learned behaviors are then either reinforced or opposed through social interactions with our peers or caregivers, etc. Children are the epitome of this long-standing theory. Before they can even speak, children are observing the actions of those around them. Being that caregivers spend the most time saturating the environment of children with their influence, it is only logical to see how important a parent’s behavior is to the developmental outcome of the child.
Teach Coping Techniques Before They are Needed
The world can be a cruel place. Despite our best efforts to instill in our children respect and compassion, they will inevitably face the things we’ve taught them not to do unto others in the form of judgement, disapproval, and heartbreak. We may not be able to shield our children from these unfortunate encounters and situations, but teaching them ways to effectively cope when they encounter them can bring us some peace of mind in knowing that we have armed our kids with the tools to overcome them.
One of the most important things to remember, is that teaching coping mechanisms before they are needed is the most effective way to ensure that your child will be ready to deal with any negative feelings that result from whatever ill word or action comes his or her way. When we teach our children skills to overcome obstacles regularly, they become familiar and comfortable with using them, mastering the techniques to the point that they become second nature. Effective coping will become so much of a habit that it will simply become part of who they are – a more calm, capable, and confident version of their self.
From encouraging basic self-care and relaxation techniques to acknowledging and validating emotions, there are a lot of ways (some very creative and fun) to instill coping methods in your children that speak to their personalities. The Helpful Counselor has compiled 18 ways to teach kids to cope.
The Value of Unconditional Love and Acceptance
Children need to feel safe to explore their world and learn from their mistakes while feeling content in knowing that they are supported with loving reassurance regardless of their performance. Parents serve as a gentle guide, helping children to navigate life and learn how to perceive and cope with situations that present – both negative and positive. When children feel that they are loved regardless of performance, they are more likely to seek advice and guidance from their parents, and this strong sense of support and acceptance will encourage a sound development and a healthy foundation that will help them to progress throughout the lifespan with ease.
Now let me add a disclaimer here: Unconditional love is a great tool in helping a child and their parent form a strong and lasting bond. The child will find solace in knowing that the parent will continue loving them despite their mistakes and be more likely to engage in open communication with the parent regardless of the potential for disapproval. That being said, unconditional love does not mean that as a parent you should condone poor behavior because you love your child. Sometimes love is being honest to a point of bluntness. Sometimes love means being forthright about your disapproval of poor behavior. Unconditional love is simply choosing to always remain mindful of the love that you have for your child (not always the behavior) when interacting with them. As confidentparentsconfidentkids.org points out very eloquently, unconditional love is choosing not to belittle or degrade your child’s identity for a behavior. It is important to keep your opinions of your child, and your opinions of your child’s behavior, separate. After all, it is the behavior that disappointed you.
While there are no foolproof or one-size-fits-all approach to parenting, having a basic understanding of methods you can practice to help your child achieve a healthy mental and emotional state can greatly improve your relationship with your child and prove very helpful in building a strong child that is confident, happy, and equipped to handle the inevitable hurdles of life.