The parent-child relationship consists of a combination of behaviors, feelings, and expectations that are unique to a particular parent and a particular child. The relationship involves the full extent of a child's development.
Of the many different relationships people form over the course of the life span, the relationship between parent and child is among the most important. The quality of the parent-child relationship is affected by the parent's age, experience, and self-confidence; the stability of the parents' marriage; and the unique characteristics of the child compared with those of the parent.
Characteristics of the parent
Parental self-confidence is an important indicator of parental competence. Mothers who believe that they are effective parents are more competent than mothers who feel incompetent. Also, mothers who see themselves as effective also tend to believe their infants as less difficult to handle. Parental age and previous experience are also important. Older mothers tend to be more responsive to their infants than younger mothers. In addition, parents who have had previous experience with children, whether through younger siblings, career paths, or previous children, are often times better able to cope with parenthood.
Characteristics of the child
Characteristics that may affect the parent-child relationship in a family include the child's physical appearance, sex, and temperament . At birth, the infant's physical appearance may not meet the parent's expectations, or the infant may resemble a disliked relative. As a result, the parent may subconsciously reject the child. If the parents wanted a baby of a particular sex, they may be disappointed if the baby is the opposite sex. If parents do not have the opportunity to talk about this disappointment, they may reject the infant.
Children who are loved thrive better than those who are not. Either parent or a nonparent caregiver may serve as the primary caregiver or form the primary parent-child love relationship. Loss of love from a primary caregiver can occur with the death of a parent or interruption of parental contact through prolonged hospitalizations. Divorce can interfere with the child's need to eat, improve, and advance. Cultural norms within the family also affect a child's likelihood to achieve particular developmental milestones.
In some countries, childrearing is considered protective nurturing. Children are not rushed into new experiences like toilet training or being in school. In other countries, children are commonly treated in a harsh, strict manner, using shame or corporal punishment for discipline . In Central American nations, toilet training may begin as early as when the child can sit upright.
Childhood in the United States stretches across many years. In other countries, children are expected to enter the adult world of work when they are still quite young: girls assume domestic responsibilities, and boys do outside farm work. In addition, in Asian cultures, parents understand an infant's personality in part in terms of the child's year and time of birth.
Impact of birth order
The position of a child in the family, whether a firstborn, a middle child, the youngest, an only child, or one within a large family, has some bearing on the child's growth and development. An only child or the oldest child in a family excels in language development because conversations are mainly with adults. Children learn by watching other children; however, a firstborn or an only child, who has no example to watch, may not excel in other skills, such as toilet training, at an early age.
As babies are cared for by their parents, both parties develop understandings of the other. Gradually, babies begin to expect that their parent will care for them when they cry. Gradually, parents respond to and even anticipate their baby's needs. This exchange and familiarity create the basis for a developing relationship.
PARENT-INFANT ATTACHMENT One of the most important aspects of infant psychosocial development is the infant's attachment to parents. Attachment is a sense of belonging to or connection with a particular other. This significant bond between infant and parent is critical to the infant's survival and development. Started immediately after birth, attachment is strengthened by mutually satisfying interaction between the parents and the infant throughout the first months of life, called bonding. By the end of the first year, most infants have formed an attachment relationship, usually with the primary caretaker.
If parents can adapt to their babies, meet their needs, and provide nurturance, the attachment is secure. Psychosocial development can continue based on a strong foundation of attachment. On the other hand, if a parent's personality and ability to cope with the infant's needs for care are minimal, the relationship is at risk and so is the infant's development.
By six to seven months, strong feelings of attachment enable the infant to distinguish between caregivers and strangers. The infant displays an obvious preference for parents over other caregivers and other unfamiliar people. Anxiety , demonstrated by crying, clinging, and turning away from the stranger, is revealed when separation occurs. This behavior peaks between seven and nine months and again during toddlerhood, when separation may be difficult. Although possibly stressful for the parents, stranger anxiety is a normal sign of healthy child attachment and occurs because of cognitive development . Most children develop a secure attachment when reunited with their caregiver after a temporary absence. In contrast, some children with an insecure attachment want to be held, but they are not comfortable; they kick or push away. Others seem indifferent to the parent's return and ignore them when they return.
The quality of the infant's attachment predicts later development. Youngsters who emerge from infancy with a secure attachment stand a better chance of developing happy and healthy relationships with others. The attachment relationship not only forms the emotional basis for the continued development of the parent-child relationship, but can serve as a foundation for future social connections. Secure infants have parents who sensitively read their infant's cues and respond properly to their needs.
When children move from infancy into toddlerhood, the parent-child relationship begins to change. During infancy, the primary role of the parent-child relationship is nurturing and predictability, and much of the relationship revolves around the day-to-day demands of caregiving: feeding, toileting, bathing, and going to bed.
As youngsters begin to talk and become more mobile during the second and third years of life, however, parents usually try to shape their child's social behavior. In essence, parents become teachers as well as nurturers, providers of guidance as well as affection. Socialization (preparing the youngster to live as a member of a social group) implicit during most of the first two years of life, becomes clear as the child moves toward his or her third birthday.
Socialization is an important part of the parent-child relationship. It includes various child-rearing practices, for example weaning, toilet training, and discipline.
Dimensions of the parent-child relationship are linked to the child's psychological development, specifically how responsive the parents are, and how demanding they are. Responsive parents are warm and accepting toward their children, enjoying them and trying to see things from their perspective. In contrast, nonresponsive parents are aloof, rejecting, or critical. They show little pleasure in their children and are often insensitive to their emotional needs. Some parents are demanding, while others are too tolerant. Children's healthy psychological development is facilitated when the parents are both responsive and moderately demanding.
During toddlerhood, children often begin to assert their need for autonomy by challenging their parents. Sometimes, the child's newfound assertiveness during the so-called terrible twos can put a strain on the parent-child relationship. It is important that parents recognize that this behavior is normal for the toddler, and the healthy development of independence is promoted by a parent-child relationship that provides support for the child's developing sense of autonomy. In many regards, the security of the first attachment between infant and parent provides the child with the emotional base to begin exploring the world outside the parent-child relationship.
Various parenting styles evolve during the preschool years. Preschoolers with authoritative parents are curious about new experiences, focused and skilled at play , self-reliant, self-controlled, and cheerful.
During the elementary school years, the child becomes increasingly interested in peers, but this is not be a sign of disinterest in the parent-child relationship. Rather, with the natural broadening of psychosocial and cognitive abilities, the child's social world expands to include more people and settings beyond the home environment. The parent-child relationship remains the most important influence on the child's development. Children whose parents are both responsive and demanding continue to thrive psychologically and socially during the middle childhood years.
During the school years, the parent-child relationship continues to be influenced by the child and the parents. In most families, patterns of interaction between parent and child are well established in the elementary school years.
As the child enters adolescence , biological, cognitive, and emotional changes transform the parent-child relationship. The child's urges for independence may challenge parents' authority. Many parents find early adolescence a difficult period. Adolescents fare best and their parents are happiest when parents can be both encouraging and accepting of the child's needs for more psychological independence.
Although the value of peer relations grows during adolescence, the parent-child relationship remains crucial for the child's psychological development. Authoritative parenting that combines warmth and firmness has the most positive impact on the youngster's development. Adolescents who have been reared authoritatively continue to show more success in school, better psychological development, and fewer behavior problems.
Adolescence may be a time of heightened bickering and diminished closeness in the parent-child relationship, but most disagreements between parents and young teenagers are over less important matters, and most teenagers and parents agree on the essentials. By late adolescence most children report feeling as close to their parents as they did during elementary school.
Parenting has four main styles: authoritarian, authoritative, permissive (indulgent), and detached. Although no parent is consistent in all situations, parents do follow some general tendencies in their approach to childrearing, and it is possible to describe a parent-child relationship by the prevailing style of parenting. These descriptions provide guidelines for both professionals and parents interested in understanding how variations in the parent-child relationship affect the child's development.
Parenting style is shaped by the parent's developmental history, education, and personality; the child's behavior; and the immediate and broader context of the parent's life. Also, the parent's behavior is influenced by the parent's work, the parents' marriage, family finances, and other conditions likely to affect the parent's behavior and psychological well-being. In addition, parents in different cultures, from different social classes, and from different ethnic groups rear their children differently. In any event, children's behavior and psychological development are linked to the parenting style with which they are raised.
Authoritarian parents are rigid in their rules; they expect absolute obedience from the child without any questioning. They also expect the child to accept the family beliefs and principles without questions. Authoritarian parents are strict disciplinarians, often relying on physical punishment and the withdrawal of affection to shape their child's behavior.
Children raised with this parenting style are often moody, unhappy, fearful, and irritable. They tend to be shy, withdrawn, and lack self-confidence. If affection is withheld, the child commonly is rebellious and antisocial.
Authoritative parents show respect for the opinions of each of their children by allowing them to be different. Although there are rules in the household, the parents allow discussion if the children do not understand or agree with the rules. These parents make it clear to the children that although they (the parents) have final authority, some negotiation and compromise may take place. Authoritative parents are both responsive and demanding; they are firm, but they discipline with love and affection, rather than power, and they are likely to explain rules and expectations to their children instead of simply asserting them. This style of parenting often results in children who have high self-esteem and are independent, inquisitive, happy, assertive, and interactive.
Permissive (indulgent) parents have little or no control over the behavior of their children. If any rules exist in the home, they are followed inconsistently. Underlying reasons for rules are given, but the children decide whether they will follow the rule and to what extent. They learn that they can get away with any behavior. Indulgent parents are responsive but not especially demanding. They have few expectations of their children and impose little or inconsistent discipline. There are empty threats of punishment without setting limits. Role reversal occurs; the children act more like the parents, and the parents behave like the children.
Children of permissive parents may be disrespectful, disobedient, aggressive, irresponsible, and defiant. They are insecure because they lack guidelines to direct their behavior. However, these children are frequently creative and spontaneous. Although low in both social responsibility and independence, they are usually more cheerful than the conflicted and irritable children of authoritarian parents.
Finally, disengaged (detached) parents are neither responsive nor demanding. They may be careless or unaware of the child's needs for affection and discipline. Children whose parents are detached have higher numbers of psychological difficulties and behavior problems than other youngsters.
Child's development is affected by family conditions such as divorce, remarriage, and parental employment. The parent-child relationship has a more important influence on the child's psychological development than changes in the composition of the household. Parenting that is responsive and demanding is related to healthier child development regardless of the parent's marital or employment status. If changes in the parent's marital status or work life disrupt the parent-child relationship, short-term effects on the child's behavior may be noticeable. One goal of professionals who work with families under stress is to help them reestablish healthy patterns of parent-child interaction.
Discipline is also a concern of parents. Children's behavior offers challenges to even the most experienced and effective parents. The manner in which parents respond to a child's behavior has an effect on the child's self-esteem and future interactions with others. Children learn to view themselves in the same way the parent views them. Thus, if the parent views the child as wild, the child begins to view himself that way and soon his actions consistently reinforce his self image. This way, the child does not disappoint the parent. This pattern is a self-fulfilling prophecy. While discipline in necessary to teach a child how to live comfortably in society, it should not be confused with punishment.
Adolescence —A period of life in which the biological and psychosocial transition from childhood to adulthood occurs.
Coping —In psychology, a term that refers to a person's patterns of response to stress.
Culture —A test in which a sample of body fluid is placed on materials specially formulated to grow microorganisms. A culture is used to learn what type of bacterium is causing infection.
Discipline —In health care, a specific area of preparation or training, i.e., social work, nursing, or nutrition.
Family —Two or more emotionally involved people living in close proximity and having reciprocal obligations with a sense of commonness, caring, and commitment.
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Post, B. Bryan, et al. For All Things a Season: An Essential Guide to a Peaceful Parent/Child Relationship. Mountain View, OK: M. Brynn Publishing, 2003.
"Parenting." MedlinePlus. Available online at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/parenting.htm(accessed December 18, 2004).
Aliene S. Linwood, RN, DPA, FACHE