Adjust Your Parenting Style to Deepen Parent-Child Relationship

I have a clear memory of my first night as a mama. My four-week pre-term baby was spending most of his time in the St. Luke’s Hospital nursery under a light. The nurses brought him to me throughout the night so we could get used to each other and breastfeeding. Before each visit, I made a quick trip to the bathroom to brush my teeth and comb my hair because I wanted so much for him to like me.

I’m not sure whether that first impression helped start our relationship out in a positive way or not. I am sure that building a deep connection with your child is one of the most important jobs of parenting.

If I could go back and give that brand-new mom some advice, I would encourage her to prioritize nurturing her relationship with her little one. This suggestion seems so obvious — of course, the relationship between mother and child is important! Creating this relationship is more complicated and nuanced than you might expect. Fortunately, we don’t have to leave this relationship to chance. A growing body of research can help us build a connection that helps our children and ourselves thrive.

Parenting relationships or styles are usually divided into four types: authoritarian, authoritative, permissive and uninvolved. Since you’re currently reading a parenting article on a website for moms, I won’t spend much time talking about uninvolved parents.

Permissive Parenting

Permissive parents usually take on more of a friend role than parent. They don’t follow through on healthy habits or consequences or spend much energy discouraging bad behavior and choices. This type of parenting leads to a variety of problems, from cavities and unhealthy eating habits to academic struggles and low self-esteem.

Authoritarian Parenting

Authoritarian parents are focused on obedience. These parents believed that children should be seen and not heard and coined the phrase “because I said so.” These parents have little regard for the child’s opinion and fail to involve the child in problem-solving.

Authoritative Parenting

Authoritative parents, in contrast, try to prevent behavior problems before they start. They invest time and effort into creating and maintaining a positive relationship with their children and encourage self-discipline and problem-solving.

So clearly, we want to be authoritative parents. How do we begin this work and how do we continue it over time?

I believe the secret is in balance. It’s really not much of a secret. I heard it articulated most clearly at a training session based on the work of Nancy Osterhaus, a behavior counselor, teacher and principal at a Kansas City area day treatment center for many years. Safe, caring relationships are based on a combination of grace and accountability. (If you’re familiar with the book of Micah, you’ll recognize this call to justice and mercy.)

Developmental psychologist Becky Bailey agrees. She emphasizes the importance of addressing the emotional upset before any behavior problems.  In Managing Emotional Mayhem, Bailey says, “…We end up sacrificing our relationship in order to set limits. As our relationship becomes more negative the child’s willingness to solve problems begins to dissipate and eventually power struggles are all that remain.”

After years of research, Search Institute has identified five elements of relationships that are vital to young people growing up well and thriving in the journey to adulthood.  These elements are:

  • Expressing care
  • Challenging growth
  • Providing support
  • Sharing power
  • Expanding possibilities

As you read that list, I’m guessing that some seem pretty easy and others feel more challenging. At least they did for me. Expressing care and providing support were naturally part of my parenting style. Sharing power, especially as my kids got older, was a skill I needed to fine tune.

Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, senior scholar at Search Institute, encourages us to pay attention to that discomfort. He suggests that the first step toward deepening relationships with our own kids and other kids is to be intentional.

Ask yourself, “How might you experiment with rebalancing your “relationship style” to include dimensions that may currently be missing but could enrich your relationship and help their development?”

Here’s a piece of parenting truth that I’m not sure I could have embraced as a brand-new mama. Figuring out how to be a good parent and how to build deep, warm relationships with my kids is a work in progress.

Beth is mom to a high school sophomore and a first year college student. After fourteen years as a professional writer and editor, she earned graduate degrees in counseling and play therapy. Now she exercises her creativity as a school counselor. Beth loves reading, especially mysteries.


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