One of my favourite questions for parents is “What do we want most for our children?” The two most consistent and predictable responses I receive in my parenting workshops are that we want our children to be happy, and to be responsible, contributing members of a community.
Sadly, and in spite of our nation’s prosperity, far too many of our children and youth are struggling with both wellbeing and adjustment. At least 10% of our children and youth suffer from serious mental health problems, and a further 10% experience mild to moderate mental health concerns. Too many of our youth are disengaged or even hostile.
Increasingly children are being diagnosed with internalising disorders (where negative emotions are directed toward themselves) such as anxiety and depression. While we care deeply about these issues, they rarely make the news except when a child or teen takes his or her life. We are also witnessing growing rates of externalising disorders (where negative emotions are directed outwardly towards others), such as children who are overly oppositional, or defiant and aggressive, or who lack self-regulation (ADHD). These children and youth garner nationwide attention through their fighting, vandalism, and the harm they cause to others.
If we wish to improve outcomes for children, we must understand why these mental health problems occur. While some cases involve great complexity, and while these issues can be caused by biological, temperamental, or psychological variables, research clearly tells us that parenting practices are heavily implicated in many of these concerning challenges.
In short, many parents are overwhelmed and too many lack the skills and knowledge to parent effectively. Importantly and sadly, some also lack the desire to love their children enough to raise and socialise them appropriately.
Some parents (and parenting experts) argue that there is no one right way to raise children. This is a furphy. Research tells us with remarkable (but often ignored) clarity that we will dramatically and significantly improve our children’s wellbeing and adjustment if we practice three central pillars of practically perfect parenting.
They are affiliation, structure, and autonomy support.
Affiliation means we are caring, kind, and warm. It reflects a nurturing approach to our children where they feel loved, accepted, and that they belong. (Note, it does not suggest permissiveness. We can have behavioural boundaries and maintain them in a caring, kind manner.)
The opposite of affiliation is rejection, and this is characterised by parents who are cold and harsh. In my parenting training I see far too much of this rejection, harshness, and mean-spiritedness. Parents call their children names, hurt them, and derogate them – often while trying to instil limits and boundaries. Sometimes some parents simply ignore or abuse their children because they may be inconvenient. Such an approach leads to the worst outcomes.
Structure means we set clear and consistent expectations for behaviour. We make it clear what our expectations are. Note that this may be done harshly (a lack of affiliation) or warmly. The latter promotes healthy outcomes in children. The former invites resistance and rebellion. The opposite of structure is to be laissez-faire, or permissive.
This is the trickiest part for parents. Autonomy support means that we are empathic and mindful of our children’s feelings, preferences, ideas, and initiatives, and we work with them to help them achieve what they want. We aim to give our children agency (or choice) in making their own decisions within the structure (or boundaries) that we have set. And we consistently invite them to become increasingly autonomous and make their own decisions as they age. We give them their wings, bit by bit.
The opposite of autonomy support is controlling parenting which is seen in pressure, intrusion, and power assertion, where parents make overt threats and shame their children, or where they offer love conditionally, and invalidate their children when they get things wrong.
Balancing affiliation with structure and autonomy support is a challenge. Too much structure and focus on boundaries stymies affiliation and autonomy. Too much autonomy can hamper a willingness to comply with structure. When affiliation is king, children become little emperors and empresses. But most distressing is a lack of all three. It is the parents who fail to give their children either love, structure, or support who fail their children and the community the most. And it is they who need the greatest support.
The earlier we start, the better the outcomes. Investments in children’s relationships with their parents through schemes that encourage and allow parents to be actively involved in raising them rather than delegating the responsibility to others will pay significant dividends in the long term, by reducing the social costs associated with lower wellbeing, and poor socialisation and adjustment.