Tatiana Yevtushok

Psychotherapist. Gestalt coach

Studies of parent-child relationships and the psychology of education

  • psychotherapy
  • special children

The family is primarily a space in which children acquire cognitive and emotional abilities. The role of the family in the development of the child cannot be devalued, since it is there that the main qualities are formed, with which children then enter the adult world of social rules and relationships with many other people and systems. These qualities determine the quality of life itself, as well as the quality of future roles that they will have to master – such as pupil, student, professional, husband/wife, father/mother, friend, etc. – all that forms an identity and a sense of self-fulfilled personality. Therefore, one of the most important functions of the family is the cognitive and emotional socialization of the child. Under the concept of socialization, psychologists mean the process of children’s acquisition of values, beliefs, qualities, cognitive abilities, behavioral patterns, emotional and sensory awareness skills that make them full members of society. In the process of socialization, for example, the ability to create and stay in relationships with other people is formed, also to acquire social skills, to feel and correctly interpret the mental states of others, to navigate within social structures, as well as within moral standards and values .

If you are asked, what you would like your children to be like, almost everyone will answer that they would like their children to be physically and mentally healthy, able to distinguish “good” from “bad” (moral values), to be fulfilled personally and professionally, to be able to successfully interact and navigate in society. All these qualities, to a greater extent, depend on the relationship in the family and the parenting style. The parenting style does not imply the use of certain practices and methods. Parenting style is the relationship between parents and their children.

Of course, the genetic innate qualities of a child’s character play an important role and have an impact on how parents respond in relationships to certain behaviors and manifestations of the child, but numerous studies show that temperament and what we call the child’s innate character are considered secondary to the influence of parenting style on the development and formation of personality.

Other, more extended, factors that affect children’s development include: relationships between parents, relationships with siblings (brothers, sisters, classmates, etc.), schools, extended family and family friends, work and economic conditions, ecology, government, culture and modern features, including technology. We will try to describe parenting styles, as they play the most important role in the development and formation of a child’s identity.

Three main roles played by the family (LeVine, 1974):

  • survival (includes parents helping their children develop physically and creating safety for them),
  • economic goal (parents ensure that the child can master economic skills that will help them support themselves financially),
  • self-actualization (aimed at helping children realize their potential to the greatest extent).

This does not mean, as many people confuse, that parents should achieve these goals instead of children, but they can create a space in which their children will acquire skills that will help them realize themselves in adulthood. Numerous studies show that the parenting style directly affects the skills and qualities of children. In this sense, the British saying “Do not parent children, they will still grow up and be like you” takes on a slightly different connotation and situational character, especially in cases where parents impose their needs on children under the guise of care. I remember a joke related to this topic, when the mother repeats to her son several times to put on a hat, to which the father, unable to take it, says: “Son, put on a hat, don’t you see, your mother is cold!”.

When we talk about parenting, we do not say that we must teach children how to do this or that, but it is important to understand what emotional support we give them, how we respond to their needs (physiological and emotional), how we, as parents, are sensitive to their needs, and how we build flexibility in the structure of interaction. With the growth and physiological development of the child (biological processes in the brain), his cognitive abilities increase, and along with them, the ability to act on the road to self – satisfaction of their needs, and therefore – to be responsible for their physiological and psychological comfort in different social contexts and situations. But this fact is only the base, it says that the child is predisposed to knowledge, and another need has been formed  – the need of the environment to help with mastering skills and assimilating the laws of life and balanced interaction with the world (harmonization of internal and external). Such help, together with emotional contact and sensory responsiveness to the child’s needs, forms a basic positive attachment (Bowlby, 1969) that provides the child with a sense of security, which in turn helps him explore and learn the world and go through life, playfully, when living through the difficulties of life does not turn into a burden of time, but instead there is a feeling of a state of flow and an amazing playful journey of life, when passive expectation receives enough support to transform into an active effort of the child. Perhaps the best cinematic example of this is the story of a father caring for his son in a concentration camp in the Italian film by Roberto Benigni “Life is Beautiful”.

So what are the aspects that characterize the most effective parenting style?

Authoritative parenting style (Baumrind, 1966)

Based on numerous scientific studies in the field of psychology, the most successful style of parenting is considered to be one in which parents show a lot of acceptance, warmth, love, emotional responsiveness, sensitivity to needs (physiological, social, cognitive), but at the same time set clear restrictions and introduce rules explaining the outcome of a certain behavior of the child and its impact on possible consequences for him or for the environment. Parents’ demands should always be justified by reasons and well explained. This approach, when combined with warmth and intentionality directed towards parent-child contact, with demands, and high expectations standards (not to be confused with narcissistic expectations – see an article “Parenting and narcissism”), provides children with a framework for understanding how they can behave and what actions to take for their own good, taking into account the benefits to the environment as well. In this way, children indirectly learn to set goals and achieve them.

If we could give a metaphor for the authoritative parenting style, as one of my teachers on family Gestalt therapy, Giovanni Salonia, said, it’s like a river where the banks are the structure that has clear limits (laws, rules of behavior and interaction with others which are introduced by the parents under the guise of demands and expectations), and its flow – the flexibility that creates the movement of life (emotional responsiveness to the changing needs of the child and sensual acceptance of the world by an ever-growing child). In Gestalt therapy, we would call these two components the functions of personality and id, which form the basis for successful human contact with the surrounding world (we will study these components in more detail in the training program “Theory and practice of Gestalt therapy” in Lutsk in September 2020).

As was already mentioned, this style of parental behavior directly affects the formation of the child’s ability to manage his own behavior with attention to his own needs and at the same time respect the needs of others, develops critical thinking in order to correctly assess each situation and find the best solutions in different social contexts. These skills are acquired indirectly, as if they are integrated into the behavior and internalized by children (assigned from the outside in) through the experience of interaction with parents. The parent figure is rather a third-party presence that observes, supports, and helps the child explore the world, and communicate with other people, objects, or systems.

It is important to note that the authoritative parenting style is also suitable for teacher figures.

What results of an authoritative parenting style did researchers find in their experiments?

Children who are raised by their parents on the basis of the above principles tend:

  • to learn better and take a greater interest in learning the world,
  • to feel more self-respect and respect for others,
  • to possess a larger number of social skills,
  • to experience fewer psychological difficulties, mental and behavioral disorders,
  • to commit fewer offenses, as they cope better with aggression (aggression does not turn into destructive behavior – see the article “Dual nature of aggression”),
  • to have high moral values (better distinguish between “good” and “bad”),
  • to build better relationships,
  • to be more independent (free) in the choice, while being perfectly able to form interdependence and basic attachment in the relationship.

Along with the authoritative parenting style, there are also (Baumrind, 1966; Maccoby and Martin, 1983):

  • Authoritarian (high demands/control/expectations/rigidity without explanation (for example, “I said so!”) and low acceptance/responsiveness/warmth/sensitivity).

Consequences for children according to studies: a tendency to feel unhappy, less independent, feeling unsafe, less self-esteem, behavioral difficulties, worse learning, impaired social skills, a tendency to drug addiction.

  • Liberal or permissive (high responsiveness and low demands, there are no restrictions, expectations and rules, parents have a ban on prohibitions).

Consequences for children according to studies: inability to follow the rules, impaired self-control, self-centeredness and selfishness, difficulties in relationships and interaction with society.

  • Indifferent or careless uninvolved (low level of demands and low level of responsiveness, parents are busy with their needs and interests).

Consequences for children according to studies: impulsivity, inability to regulate emotions, various kinds of dependencies are formed, there are frequent offenses and mental disorders, including suicidal tendencies.

The consequences that have been found in children and adolescents in a variety of experiments reflect behaviors generalized by scientific studies and demonstrate trends, so while taking into account the direct relationship between parenting and the so-called success of children, it is important to focus on environmental factors as well. For example, even an authoritarian parenting style with, at first glance, a low level of responsiveness and a high level of demands can be considered as authoritative, if we take into account the living conditions of the family and the environment in which the child is forced to be. If the society or subculture is quite insecure, and the need for security cannot be met in the society in which the child is located, then an authoritarian parenting style with excessive demands and restrictions can be considered as a parent’s sensitivity to social factors, and thus serve as a precautionary measure for children in risky social situations in which children need to feel aggressive energy as an emotion (see the article “Dual nature of aggression”) in order to be able to protect themselves. In this case, as we know from studies, with an authoritarian parenting style, children become more aggressive, which allows them to feel the energy for self-defense, therefore parental requirements act as a self-regulating force, and in fact, they are based on love, responsiveness and sensitivity to needs children.

Each parent may have his own practices and methods, but the most effective style, at its core, contains these two components: being warm and having high standards, i.e. acceptance/responsiveness + demanding/control (Maccoby and Martin, 1983).

Parental sensitivity and warmth are “the most influential values (of parenthood) in early childhood. They not only strengthen psychological functioning during this period of child development, but also […] lay the foundation on which future experience will be built.” (Belsky, 1981).

A warm smile, a kind word, appropriate praise and approval, support in learning of the environment, promotion of curiosity and good intentions, responsiveness to emotional and physiological needs, relevant clear and warm situational criticism with an explanation, limitations with clear explanations of the reasons why this is important — all this forms early in the childhood the ability to choose and perform the best actions: by behaviour, a word, an emotional response and even thought.

We often say that children are our best teachers, because it is in relations with them that we go through such a growth path, where (at the instinctive level) we receive the challenges of learning the laws of contact with the outside world and the laws of life for its continuation, development and creation of a better future.

 

References

Baumrind, D. (1966). Effects of authoritative parental control on child behavior. Child Development, 37(4), 887-907.

Belsky, J. (1981). Early human experience: A family perspective. Developmental Psychology17,  3-23.

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