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Parent-Child Relationships - Infancy, Toddlerhood, Preschool, School age, Adolescence, Adults

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The relationship, over the full extent of a child's development, between parent and child.

Of the many different relationships we form over the course of the life span, the relationship between parent and child is among the most important. Not surprisingly, students of child development have devoted considerable attention to the parent-child relationship, in order to understand how it develops and functions over the lifespan. Among the many questions researchers examine are those concerning normative changes in the parent-child relationship over the course of development (e.g., How does the parent-child relationship change during adolescence?), the impact of variations in the parent-child relationship on the child's behavior and functioning (e.g., Which types of discipline are most effective during the preschool years?), and the effects of the parent-child relationship on the parent (e.g., How are adults affected by parenthood?).

Infancy

A baby cries, a parent feeds her; a baby snuggles, a parent hugs her. Day after day, night after night, mothers and fathers feed, burp, wash, change, dress, and hold their babies. Out of these interactions, feelings and expectations grow. The baby feels distressed and hungry, then satisfied; the parent feels tenderness, joy, annoyance, exhaustion, pleasure. Gradually, the baby begins to expect that her parent will care for her when she cries. Gradually, parents respond to and even anticipate their baby's needs. These elements form the basis for a developing relationship, a combination of behaviors, interactions, feelings, and expectations that are unique to a particular parent and a particular child.

By the end of the first year, most infants who are cared for in families develop an attachment relationship, usually with the primary caretaker. This relationship is central to the child's development.

Developmental psychologists have studied attachment in infancy mainly by watching how infants react when they are separated from, and then reunited with, their caregiver (usually one of the infant's parents). An experimental laboratory procedure called the Strange Situation is the most common assessment. Researchers have been particularly interested in understanding individual differences in the quality of attachment is inferred from behavior in the Strange Situation. The majority of children develop a secure attachment: when reunited with their caregiver after a temporary absence of several minutes, they greet her in two distinctive ways. If distressed, they want to be picked up and find comfort in her arms; if content, they smile, talk to her, or show her a toy. In contrast, some children with an insecure attachment want to be picked up, but they are not comforted; they kick or push away. Others seem indifferent to the caregiver's return, and ignore her when she returns.

The quality of the infant's attachment seems to be predictive of aspects of later development. Youngsters who emerge from infancy with a secure attachment stand a better chance of developing happy, competent 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 upon which subsequent social relationships are built.

Researchers disagree about the origins of a secure attachment relationship. One account focuses on the way caregivers behave toward their infants. According to this view, the key element is the caregiver's sensitivity in responding to the infant's signals. Secure infants have mothers who sensitively read their infant's cues and respond appropriately to their needs.

Another perspective emphasizes the temperament of the infants. A secure attachment is more easily formed between a caregiver and an infant with an easier disposition, or temperament, than between a caregiver and an infant who is characteristically negative, fearful, or not especially sociable. In this respect, security of attachment may reflect what the infant is like rather than how the caregiver behaves. Most likely, the early parent-child relationship is the product both of what the infant and caregiver bring to it.

Toddlerhood

When children move from infancy into toddlerhood, the parent-child relationship begins to change its focus. During infancy, the primary function of the parent-child relationship is nurturance and predictability, and much of the relationship revolves around the day-to-day demands of caregiving: feeding, sleeping, toileting, bathing. The attachment relationship develops out of these day-to-day interactions.

As youngsters begin to talk and become more mobile during the second and third years of life, however, parents usually attempt to shape their child's social behavior. In essence, parents become teachers as well as nurturers, providers of guidance as well as affection. The process of socialization—preparing the youngster to function as a member of a social group—implicit during most of the first two years of life, becomes explicit as the child moves toward his or her third birthday.

Socialization has been an important focus of research in child development for well over 60 years. Initially, researchers focused on particular child-rearing practices—including types of discipline and approaches to toilet training and weaning —in an effort to link specific parenting practices to aspects of the child's development. Findings from this research were inconsistent and not especially informative. Over time, such efforts gave way to research that emphasized the overall emotional climate of the parent-child relationship, instead of discrete parenting practices.

A number of studies conducted during the past 30 years have pointed to two overarching dimensions of the parent-child relationship that appear to be systematically linked to the child's psychological development: 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, parents who are low in responsiveness tend to be aloof, rejecting, or critical. They show little pleasure in their children and are often insensitive to their emotional needs. Demanding parents maintain consistent standards for their child's behavior. In contrast, parents who are insufficiently demanding are too lenient; they exercise minimal control, provide little guidance, and often yield to their child's demands. Children's healthy psychological development is facilitated when the parents are both responsive and moderately demanding.

During toddlerhood, children often begin to assert their desire for autonomy by challenging their parents. Sometimes, the child's newfound assertiveness during the "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 that the healthy development of independence is facilitated by a parent-child relationship that provides support and structure for the child's developing sense of autonomy. In many regards, the security of the initial attachment between infant

Involving children in leisure activities, like fishing, can build stronger parent-child relationships. (Photo by Susan D. Rock. Reproduced with permission.)

and parent provides the child with the emotional wherewithal to begin exploring the world outside the parent-child relationship.

Preschool

Many researchers study the ways in which responsiveness and demandingness interact to form a general tone, or climate, in the household. Using this sort of approach, experts have identified four main parenting styles that typically emerge during the preschool years: authoritative, authoritarian, indulgent, and disengaged. Although no parent is absolutely consistent across situations and over time, parents do seem to follow some general tendencies in their approach to childrearing, and it is possible to describe a parent-child relationship in terms of the prevailing style of parenting employed. These descriptions can be used to provide guidelines for both professionals and parents interested in understanding how variations in the parent-child relationship affect the child's development.

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. Authoritarian parents are also highly demanding, but they are not less responsive; authoritarian parents tend to be strict disciplinarians, frequently relying on physical punishment and the withdrawal of affection to shape their child's behavior. Indulgent parents are responsive, but not especially demanding; they have few expectations of their children and impose little discipline. Disengaged parents are neither responsive nor demanding. They may be neglectful or unaware of the child's needs for affection and discipline.

What makes a parent more likely to use one style as opposed to another? Ultimately, the parenting style a parent employs is shaped by many factors: the parent's developmental history, education, and personality, the child's behavior, and the immediate and broader context of the parent's life. Thus, the parent's behavior vis-à-vis the child is influenced by such things as work, marriage, family finances, and other factors likely to affect the parent's behavior and psychological well-being. In addition, systematic comparisons of parenting practices among families living in different circumstances teach us that parents in different cultures, from different social classes, and from different ethnic groups rear their children differently.

Nevertheless, research has shown that aspects of children's behavior and psychological development are linked to the style of parenting with which they have been raised. Generally speaking, preschoolers with authoritative parents tend to be curious about new situations, focused and skilled at play, self-reliant, self-controlled, and cheerful. Children who are routinely treated in an authoritarian way tend to be moody, unhappy, fearful, withdrawn, unspontaneous, and irritable. Children of permissive parents tend to be low in both social responsibility and independence, but they are usually more cheerful than the conflicted and irritable children of authoritarian parents. Finally, children whose parents are disengaged tend to have a higher proportion of psychological difficulties than other youngsters.

School age

During the elementary school years, the child becomes increasingly interested in peers, but this should not be taken as 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 continues to remain the most important influence on the child's development. Generally speaking, children whose parents are both responsive and demanding continue to thrive psychologically and socially during the middle childhood years.

The parenting styles that first become apparent during the preschool years continue to influence development across middle childhood. Over the course of childhood, parents' styles tend to remain the same, and their effects on the child quite similar. Children of authoritative parents tend to be socially competent, responsible, successful in school, and high in self-esteem. The authoritarian style, with its perfectionism, rigidity, and harsh discipline, continues to affect children adversely, with these youngsters generally rated lower than their peers in appropriate social assertiveness, cognitive ability, competence, and self-esteem, but higher in aggression. Children of permissive parents also tend to be more aggressive than their peers, but also more impulsive, less self-reliant, and less responsible. Children raised in disengaged homes continue to have the most difficulty, and show more behavior problems.

The natural tendency is to think of the parent-child relationship as a one-way street, with the parent influencing the child. But in actuality the relationship is reciprocal and bi-directional. During the school years especially, the parent-child relationship is influenced not only by the child's parents but by the child. In most families, patterns of interaction between parent and child are well established by the elementary school years. Overly harsh parenting, for example, often leads to aggressive behavior in children, leading children to join antisocial peer groups, further heightening their aggressiveness. This, in turn, may provoke harsher parenting, leading to further aggressiveness in the child, and so on. Authoritative parenting, in contrast, helps children develop self-reliance and social competence, which, of course, makes it easier for parents to rear their child in an authoritative, reasoned fashion. Continued authoritativeness on the part of the parent contributes to increased competence in the child, and so on. Rather than trying to solve the "which came first" puzzle—the parenting or the child's characteristics—it is more useful to think of parenting as a process and the parent-child relationship as one part of an intricate social system.

Much research has examined how the child's development is affected by such factors as divorce, remarriage, and parental (especially, maternal) employment. As a rule, these studies show that the quality of the parent-child relationship is a more important influence on the child's psychological development than changes in the structure or composition of the household. Generally speaking, parenting that is responsive and demanding is associated with healthier child development regardless of the parent's marital status or employment situation. If changes in the parent's marital status or work life disrupt the parent-child relationship, however, short-term effects on the child's behavior are likely to be seen. One goal of professionals who work with families under stress is to help them re-establish healthy patterns of parent-child interaction.

Adolescence

Early adolescence marks an important turning point in the parent-child relationship. As the child enters adolescence, the biological, cognitive, and emotional changes of the period spark transformations in the parent-child relationship. In many families, the transition into adolescence coincides with the parent's transition into mid-life, and this, too, may introduce additional challenges into the family system that spill over into the parent-child relationship.

Early adolescence is a time during which the child's urges for independence may challenge parents' authority, as the young adolescent strives to establish a sense of emotional autonomy, or individuation. And much like toddlerhood, many parents find early adolescence to be a difficult period requiring a fair amount of adaptation. But, as is also the case with toddlerhood, research shows that most families are able to cope with these adaptational demands successfully. Adolescents fare best, and their family relationships are happiest, in households in which parents are both supportive and are accepting of the child's needs for more psychological independence.

Although the significance of peer relationships grows during adolescence, the parent-child relationship maintains its importance for the psychological development of the child. As in previous eras, authoritative parenting—parenting that combines warmth and firmness— seems to have the most positive impact on the youngster's development. Research shows that over time, adolescents who have been reared authoritatively continue to show more success in school, better psychological development, and fewer behavior problems than their counterparts from other types of homes. Youngsters whose parents are disengaged continue to show the most difficulty.

It is widely assumed that conflict between parents and children is an inherent feature of family life in adolescence, but systematic research on the so-called "generation gap" indicates that the phenomenon has been exaggerated in the popular media. Early adolescence may be a time of heightened bickering and somewhat diminished closeness in the parent-child relationship, but most disagreements between parents and young teenagers are over fairly mundane matters, and most teenagers and parents agree on the essentials. Nevertheless, the increased frequency with which these squabbles occur may take its toll on parents'mental health, especially on the mothers'. This period appears to be temporary, however, and most parents and adolescents are able to establish a comfortable working relationship by the beginning of high school. Indeed, by late adolescence most children report feeling as close to their parents as they did during elementary school.

Adults

Many adults maintain an active relationship with their parents. As adults, they can now relate to each other as equals, although the feeling of one being the parent and the other a "child" (even though the child is now an adult) endures in some relationships. Increasingly, adult children are sandwiched between the demands of caring for their own children and their aging parents, who may need more assistance as they get older and physically weaker. In some families, the adult children take care of their parents, much in the same way that their parents took care of them when they were younger. This situation has brought both stress and joy as parents and adult children struggle to redefine their relationship.

Laurence Steinberg Ph.D.

Further Reading

Bornstein, M., ed. Handbook of Parenting. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1995.

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