(*In this post, the terms ‘parent’ and ‘primary caregiver’ are used interchangeably)
What is a Healthy Parent-Child Relationship?
Just like any other relationship, a parent-child relationship (PCR)* is impacted by each person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. If both individuals have positive thoughts and feelings about one another and their behaviors are mutually respectful, it is likely that the relationship is healthy, functional and satisfying. In PCRs where at least one of these factors is negative or undesirable, there is a chance that the relationship is not stable and one (or both) individuals’ needs are not being met.
In some cases, the parent may not have the skills and/or tools to meet their child’s needs or they may feel overwhelmed and unable to manage their child’s behavior. On the other hand, a child might not feel safe or cared for if their parent does not respond appropriately and/or consistently to their physical or emotional needs. These are both examples of how a PCR may be unhealthy or unsatisfying.
In order for a PCR to be healthy, the child must have a parent or caregiver who is available, warm and responsive, reliable, and able to set appropriate rules/boundaries. The child also needs to feel cared for and safe with their parent. Each of these factors helps the child develop a healthy attachment to their parent. Research has shown that some young children who experience trauma may have fewer and less severe trauma-related symptoms if they have a healthy attachment to their primary caregiver; whereas, traumatized children without a healthy attachment are more likely to experience negative long-term effects of the trauma 4.
Benefits of a Healthy Parent-Child Relationship
The quality of the PCR often provides the foundation for the child’s development, which begins in infancy. In order for a child to develop normally, they need a healthy PCR. Children develop attachments to those who pay attention to them and meet their needs1. Therefore, when a child forms a healthy attachment to their primary caregiver, it suggests that the child’s needs are all being met, which then creates an environment that nurtures the child’s physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development. Healthy relationships and interpersonal interactions in a person’s life help to regulate chemicals in the brain and brain function which also has a direct impact on child development 6.
In PCRs, the parent becomes a model for the child. The child observes how the primary caregiver responds to them and to other people around them. The child learns to adapt their behavior to suit their environment; therefore, children often repeat their parent’s behaviors, which may then be carried into their adulthood. Children with a healthy PCR learn how to form healthy relationships, to behave appropriately, and to take care of their physical and mental health. They also learn how to ask for support when they need it and they develop skills for coping with challenging situations, which helps build resilience.
Building a Stronger Parent-Child Relationship
There are many different ways that parents can strengthen the relationship with their child. Consistency and mutual respect are key aspects of a healthy PCR. Consistency can be created by developing a daily routine, setting (and following) clear rules and consequences, being available to the child, and regularly modeling healthy behaviors. Mutual respect may stem from maintaining clear limits and boundaries, and creating consistency in the child’s life. Parents can show that they respect their children by encouraging them to try new things, letting them explore and learn from their mistakes, and allowing them to exert independence in an age-appropriate manner 7.
All children can benefit from having someone that listens to them, praises them for their accomplishments, and recognizes their individuality. Kids and teenagers can connect with their parents during 1-on-1 time where they can talk and/or play together. Free play is one way that parents can use 1-on-1 time to bond with their children; free play can be as short as 10-15 minutes per day, and it involves allowing the child to choose the toy/activity while the parent listens and follows their lead. Teens may feel more connected to their parents when they are given time to talk freely about whatever is on their mind, as well as when they feel that their need for space is respected.
Parents can build a stronger relationship by taking short breaks when tired or frustrated, or by engaging in other self-care activities, such as taking a walk, reading a book, or getting a haircut. Parents can also seek out support from family members and friends. It can be difficult for parents to take care of their children if they are not able to take care of themselves first.
Role of the Parent-Child Relationship in Trauma
The quality of the PCR can have a profound impact on how a child experiences and responds to a traumatic experience. Many children with unhealthy PCRs do not feel safe and are unable to connect with or trust others, and they tend to avoid relationships 6. These childrens’ emotional needs are not met, so they learn that comfort in unavailable; therefore, they are less likely than children with healthy relationships to seek comfort after trauma, and as a result, the negative impact of the trauma may be greater and last longer 5.
Children with a healthy parent-child relationship prior to a traumatic experience have had their needs met, so they typically know how to seek comfort and can trust that their needs will continue to be met; therefore, they are more likely to seek comfort after trauma, and the impact of the trauma may be much less severe 5. In other words, the presence of a healthy PCR can help decrease likelihood of long-term effects of trauma 6. Many children with a history of unhealthy attachments still able to learn how to express their feelings, and that it is okay to talk about their experiences which can aid greatly in their recovery process. Kids and teens that receive counseling or other treatment related to the trauma tend to have a quicker and longer-lasting recovery if they have support from their primary caregiver.
PDF – Parenting a Child who has Experienced Abuse or Neglect 3: https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/parenting_CAN.pdf
1Berk, L. E. (2012). Infants and children: Prenatal through middle childhood. Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon.
2Best Start Resource Centre. (2012). Building resilience in young children: Booklet for parents of children from birth to six years. Toronto, ON: Best Start: Ontario’s Maternal, Newborn and Early Child Development Resource Centre
3Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2013). Parenting a child who has experienced abuse or neglect. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.
4Chu, A. T., & Lieberman, A. F. (2010). Clinical implications of traumatic stress from birth to age five. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 6, 469-494. ProQuest. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.
5De Young, A.,C., Kenardy, J. A., & Cobham, V. E. (2011). Trauma in early childhood: A neglected population. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 14(3), 231-50. ProQuest. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.
6Gil, E. (Ed.). (2013). Working with children to heal interpersonal trauma: The power of play. New York: The Guilford Press.
7Markham, L. (2016). Building a Great Relationship with Your Child. Retrieved from http://www.ahaparenting.com/parenting-tools/connection/building-relationship