How to offer structure, guidance, and affection for long term emotional health
Co-authored by Juliana Tjornhom, EmotionalMUSE volunteer
The parent/child relationship is possibly the most complex there is. It’s existence is typically non-negotiable, and it requires consistent time and effort to maintain a healthy bond. Each parent/child relationship is made up of a unique combination of behaviors, feelings, and expectations that change and develop over time.
A child’s brain is continuously developing, especially in its early years. “In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections form every second,” says the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.
As their earliest models for learned behavior, this makes the parent-child relationship critical for developing emotional and behavioral regulation tools. When taught within the first few years of life, these social and emotional learning skills become ‘hard-wired’ throughout adolescence and beyond. If you have older children, it is never too late to learn and practice these skills.
There are four types of common parenting styles, including authoritarian, permissive, uninvolved, and authoritative. The authoritative parenting style is considered to be optimal for emotional health.
Structure, guidance, and affection are critical factors for proper development, and are best encapsulated in the authoritative parenting style. In this style, rules are in place; however, when they are broken, it leads to discussion rather than strict consequences. This technique requires the ability to adapt and compromise, to be demanding and supportive. It also heavily relies on strong mutual respect between child and parent. The child learns to be self-reliant and confident with the guidance of the adult.
In order to be successful, the authoritative style requires a lot of time and energy from the parent. This requires that the parent be confident, loving, and stable. The way in which you nurture your own emotional well-being can offer a positive example for your child.
There are many models for this type of positive parenting. One sample framework utilizes the four strategies listed below.
One way to nurture a strong bond is through frequent interactions. Put away devices to create more eye contact. Hold hands and give hugs, while making sure to respect your child’s physical contact boundaries. Regularly laugh, smile, and play enriching games.
Although greater emphasis is placed on the benefits of touch for premature babies, the presence of such contact has also been shown to benefit all children. “In addition to the cognitive benefits, skin-to-skin contact lets children know that they’re safe and protected, building trust between child and parent,” states The Urban Child Institute.
Have consistent rules and consequences
It is important for your discipline to be consistent and fair. Make sure your child knows exactly what is expected of them. If this is a struggle with your child, it can help to write out an explicit behavior contract, with clear consequences. Done properly, in partnership with your child, this type of structure can create additional feelings of safety and confidence.
No matter how you discipline your child, consistency is key to addressing any sort of behavioral issues. This is easier said than done, however. This article contains ten tips for creating consistent discipline. The most important tips are to develop a plan together, enforce consequences, pay attention to your own mood, and be patient. Change takes time.
Perhaps even more important than having conversations with your kids is listening. There is a quote by Catherine M. Wallace that goes, “Listen earnestly to anything [your children] want to tell you, no matter what. If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big; because to them, all of it has always been big stuff.”
Be compassionate, model empathy, and engage in mentally stimulating discussions. Here is a great list of questions to ask other than simply, “How are you?” or “How was your day?” Try to come up with unique questions to elicit a variety of responses, so that you hear about parts of their lives they wouldn’t think to share normally. At the same time, try to share things about your life openly with your children, in a way that is mindful of their age and maturity level. Try not to make assumptions about what they can or cannot handle.
When your children are not behaving in a manner that you approve of, have open and honest conversations about it rather than creating an authoritarian environment. As much as possible, give your children valid reasons or explanations for what you are asking them to do.
Become a mentor
Be a positive role model for your child. If they encounter problems, offer guidance and support, while simultaneously encouraging them to be self advocates. Allow them to regulate their own emotions, using the skills you have taught them. If you find your children are particularly struggling during this pandemic, here are some tips to help them not shut-down emotionally.
We often think of mentors as outside people, but parents can be incredible mentors for their children. Mentors provide support, guidance, friendship, and respect. You can actively help develop your child’s strengths, share their interests, offer advice, give praise, and listen.
Visit my site EmotionalMUSE.com for Social Emotional Learning curriculum you can use with your children. Some units include Piloting Your Plane, an emotional regulation curriculum for early elementary school children; Zany Brainy Can Learn Anything!, a unit on growth mindset; and Socializing During A Pandemic, a social skills unit for secondary school students. It is a rapidly growing site — follow me for updates when new units become available!