(p. 5) How Parenting Influences the Lives of Children
The provision of parenting programs that seek to support parents in raising healthy, well-adjusted children is based on a fundamental assumption that the quality of parenting a child experiences meaningfully influences the course of child development (Bronfenbrenner, 1986). It assumes that the quality of the parent–child relationship is not predestined by genes and biology, but that parents can actively learn to parent their children and can change their current parenting practices (including behaviors, cognitions, and emotions) in ways that enhance positive developmental outcomes for children and simultaneously positively influence their own (adult) development. Parenting influences the lives of children, particularly during the first 3 years of life, but also at every stage of development from conception to adolescence and beyond (Black et al., 2017; Luthar, 2006). Parental influence is pervasive and affects many aspects of a child’s development, including the child’s language, cognition, emotion regulation, social skills and peer relationships, academic attainment, personal values, physical and mental health, and overall well-being (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2016). It is important to note that throughout this volume, the term parent is used to encompass the broad range of parents and caregivers responsible for raising children.
The ubiquitous nature of parental influence can be positive, life enhancing, and opportunity creating. It can also be negative, diminishing, and restricting of children’s life chances. Learning how to parent children competently is one of life’s great challenges, and it can be extremely rewarding and fulfilling. It can also be stressful, exhausting, and, at times, overwhelming. All parents learn many aspects of the parent role “on the job” through trial-and-error learning.
However, of all the potentially modifiable environmental risk and protective factors that can change the course of children’s development, none is more important than the quality of parenting children receive. Good parenting can be thought of as the “clean water” of children’s mental (p. 6) health and well-being. Given the importance of parenting in determining life course outcomes, the increased attention that is being devoted to assisting parents in the task of raising children is justified (Prinz, 2012).
This book makes the case for the adoption of a population perspective in delivering parenting programs for all families. The current chapter examines the reasons why parenting is so important. We present an ecological model for understanding the specific ways that parenting can influence children’s development. The quality of parenting children receive is influenced by the broader ecological and sociopolitical context within which a family lives. Understanding this context is crucial in the design of effective population-based strategies to improve parenting practices and thereby create a nurturing environment in which to raise children (Biglan, 2015).
The Functions of Parenting and Why Parenting Is Important
Parenting involves a set of purposeful activities designed to ensure the survival, care, development, and well-being of children (Hoghughi & Long, 2004). Parents engage in multiple caring activities, in varying contexts, throughout a child’s life to promote the well-being of their children. These activities include providing physical care and nurturance that meets their survival needs (i.e., food, warmth, shelter, clothing, love, affection). It involves ensuring that children are safe, and that harm or risk is prevented or minimized. Social care involves helping children develop the social competencies they need to relate well to others, including parents, siblings, grandparents, and other extended family members; peers; teachers; and eventually employers. The development of children’s social and emotional capabilities helps children become well integrated, accepted by their peers, and part of a social network and broader community. Emotional care focuses on the emotional well-being of children. It involves creating a caring, nurturing environment that ensures children and adolescents feel loved and accepted and helps children learn to self-regulate their emotions. Emotional care includes the development of a secure parent–child attachment. Secure attachment, when combined with positive parenting practices, helps children become self-regulated and more resilient in the face of adversity (Waters et al., 2010).
Parenting also involves developing expectations for children’s conduct and includes providing role models as well as setting limits and boundaries in a developmentally and culturally appropriate manner so that children learn acceptable patterns of behavior. Parental expectations are informed by culture, values, and beliefs that are influenced by family-of-origin socialization experiences, peers, and the media, including social media. Consequently, parents have a crucial role in children’s socialization by establishing expectations. This socialization process includes monitoring and supervising children, actively teaching children the social, emotional, and problem-solving skills they need to become independent in skills of daily living (e.g., toilet training, dressing, and table manners) and by providing sanctions and consequences to help children learn acceptable, age-appropriate behavior (e.g., sharing, turn-taking, and helping others). It includes learning to control impulses and to refrain from unacceptable behavior (e.g., hitting, bullying, temper tantrums, and disobedience) and (p. 7) how to behave appropriately in specific situations (e.g., visiting relatives). It also involves disciplining children when they behave improperly both at home and in the community and requires parents to have clear expectations, rules, and planned consequences that they are prepared to use as needed to back up an instruction (e.g., removal of troublesome toy, planned ignoring, quiet time, or time-out). Backup consequences used will vary as a function of the child’s age and level of development.
Effects of Parenting on Children’s Development
Research from the behavioral and social sciences combined with advances in neuroscience, molecular biology, and epigenetics have created a clear picture of what is needed to promote the healthy development of children (Beach, Brody, Barton, & Philibert, 2016; Shonkoff et al., 2012). Growing up in a caring, responsive environment where children experience positive stimulating activities promotes healthy brain development. Conversely, when children are exposed to toxic early family experiences, including chronic poverty, exposure to family violence, or child maltreatment, normal development is disrupted, and children are at greater risk for learning and behavioral problems and poorer physical and mental health (Moffitt & the Klaus-Grawe Think Tank, 2013).
Parenting affects many different aspects of a child’s development. It is clear that parenting is also the common pathway through which any number of interrelated developmental goals pertaining to children’s safety, physical and mental health, language, capacity for self-regulation, relationships with significant siblings and peers, cognitive functioning, academic success, and overall well-being can be supported.
Growing Up in a Safe, Engaging, and Nurturing Environment
Children’s very survival depends on having a carer who ensures that their basic physical and emotional needs are met, that they are kept safe and at low risk of injury by ensuring their physical environment is “safety proofed,” and that close supervision of the children is provided. This environment needs to provide children with stimulating and engaging activities (toys and materials) so there are plenty of opportunities to explore, discover, experiment, and learn to talk. Not only should the environment be made physically safe for a child, but also the child’s emotional safety is paramount to the child’s development (Biglan, 2015). A caring, nurturing environment where parents are attuned to children’s needs, responsive to their requests for assistance, and provide plenty of positive attention and physical nurturance helps children become securely attached to their caregiver (Wolff & van Ijzendoorn, 1997).
Implication for Parenting: Parenting programs should encourage parents to create safe, interesting, and nurturing environments for children.
(p. 8) Brain Architecture and Function
Belsky and de Haan (2011) argued that children’s brain development is affected by three different types of neural processes. These include gene-driven processes, which are viewed as being sensitive to experience. Brain formation is also influenced by experience-expectant processes, which is when the brain is primed to receive particular classes of information from the environment and therefore is expectant. In this process, neurons that are inactive are eliminated, whereas “those that are actively stimulated by experience are strengthened and maintained” (p. 143). Finally, they described experience-dependent synapse formation, which is how an individual’s unique experience can influence both the formation of new synapses and modify existing ones across the life course. These varied experiences can include recurring social experiences and interactions, study or training, and therapy or counseling. Child maltreatment is the most commonly cited way in which parenting can affect brain structure and function. Shonkoff (2011) argued that early stress-induced changes in the architecture of different regions of the brain (e.g., amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex) can have permanent negative effects on important functions, such as the child’s capacity to regulate stress physiology, learn new skills and behavior, and adapt to adversities.
Implication for Parenting: To promote healthy brain development, parenting programs should seek to reduce or eliminate toxic stress in the lives of children and their parents.
Language, Communication, and Cognition
Parent–child interactions influence children’s capacity to learn language, to communicate with others, and to develop their intellect. The first 3 years are particularly important for the development of language. Hart and Risley (1995) conducted a classic observational study of children’s language experiences and demonstrated that the type and amount of daily language interaction between a parent and a child influences the rate at which new words are added to a child’s vocabulary between the ages of 12 and 36 months. Substantial individual differences along socioeconomic lines emerged in children’s exposure to language and consequently their language proficiency (vocabulary) by age 3 years. The rate of vocabulary growth, in turn, was related to IQ and academic attainments at age 9 years. Parents from disadvantaged homes (i.e., families from low socioeconomic groups and those on welfare) speak to their children less frequently than parents of children from middle-class homes (Hoff, 2006).
Implication for Parenting: Parenting programs should encourage parents to talk and read frequently to their children to foster language, literacy, and positive communication in the family.
Parenting and Child Externalizing Problems
A wealth of evidence has shown that everyday interactions between parents and children influence oppositional behaviors and conduct problems (Charach et al., 2013; Patterson, 1982). Commonly observed parent behaviors, such as the use of harsh disciplinary techniques (Global (p. 9) Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, 2017), low levels of positive attention to desirable behavior, and high rates of conflictual interactions between parents leading to inconsistent parenting, are related to the frequency and intensity of child conduct problems (Patterson, Reid, Jones, & Conger, 1975). Several large-scale meta-analyses of parenting programs based on social learning principles showed that when parents learn to respond positively and contingently to children’s appropriate behavior, children have lower levels of disruptive behavior (Epstein, Fonnesbeck, Potter, Rizzone, & McPheeters, 2015; Piquero et al., 2016; Sanders, Kirby, Tellegen, & Day, 2014).
Implication for Parenting: Parenting programs need to equip parents with specific parenting skills to manage oppositional and other conduct problems.
Parenting and Children’s Self-Regulation Capacity
A great deal of emphasis has been placed on the critical importance of children learning to self-regulate their emotions and behavior (Moffitt & the Klaus-Grawe 2012 Think Tank, 2013; Moffitt, Poulton, & Caspi, 2013; Shanker, 2012). Self-regulation refers to children’s capacity to modulate their emotions, delay impulses and gratification, and develop executive functions such as paying attention, planning, anticipating, organizing, reasoning, and problem-solving. Executive functions help the brain organize and act on information. These skills enable people to plan, organize, remember things, prioritize, pay attention, and get started on tasks. They also help people use information and experiences from the past to solve current problems.
Many children experience some problems with self-regulation (e.g., children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD], conduct disorders, autism spectrum disorders), particularly in the areas of impulsivity, sustained attention, lack of organization, memory, task completion, and problem-solving. Research has shown that problems with self-regulation can have long-term impacts. For example, Moffitt et al. (2011), in a birth cohort longitudinal study of children, found that the level of self-control children displayed at age 3 predicted their health, wealth, and level of antisocial behavior as adults 30 years later, after controlling for the education level of the parent when the child was at age 3 and the level of family socioeconomic disadvantage.
To avoid the long-term consequences that children can experience as a result of having poor self-regulation and impulse control, parenting programs can play an important role in helping parents teach their child better self-control over behavior and emotions. Parenting has been hypothesized to positively influence children’s capacity for emotion and behavior self-regulation through a number of related mechanisms (Brumariu, 2015; Sanders & Mazzucchelli, 2013). These include assisting in the development of healthy, secure attachment; helping children learn language, social, emotional, and problem-solving skills; and through providing contingency management strategies to help children deal with dysregulated emotions (such as aggression, anger, frustration, and disappointment).
Implication for Parenting: Parenting programs can play an important role in helping parents facilitate children’s self-regulatory capability while concurrently developing parents’ self-regulatory capacity.
(p. 10) Parenting and Children’s Mental Health Problems
Deficits in emotion and behavior self-regulation can also be related to the development, maintenance, and treatment of a variety of serious mental health problems in children and adolescents (including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, recurrent pain syndromes, obsessive-compulsive disorders) and response to traumatic events such as natural disasters (Chapters 8 and 10, this volume).
In the case of child anxiety, Cobham (Chapter 8) argues that parenting may affect child anxiety through a number of different mechanisms. Parent anxiety creates a family environment that predisposes children to develop anxiety through vicarious learning (Askew & Field, 2008). Parents’ own anxiety may lead to parenting behaviors (such as overprotectiveness, limited autonomy granting, and reinforcement of avoidance) that may inadvertently encourage the development of anxiety in children. The relationship between parent and child anxiety is considered to be reciprocal. Children’s anxiety elicits a pattern of parenting that then helps to maintain the child’s anxiety. Other potentially modifiable family factors that have also been shown to contribute to anxiety include lower family cohesion, expressiveness, and support; higher interparental conflict; and stressful negative family environments (see Rapee, Schniering, & Hudson, 2009).
However, there is some evidence that changing parenting practices can decrease children’s anxiety. A small number of intervention studies with parents of children with anxiety problems have shown that parenting groups that incorporate principles of positive parenting can reduce levels of anxiety and distress in children (Cobham, Chapter 8, this volume; Özyurt, Gencer, Öztürk, & Özbek, 2015). For example, Cobham, Filus, and Sanders (2017) conducted the first randomized controlled trial (RCT) of Fear-less Triple P (Cobham & Sanders, 2009), a parent-only, six-session group variant of Triple P that specifically targets parental knowledge of anxiety and parenting practices implicated in the development and maintenance of anxiety. Following the intervention, fewer children met criteria for an anxiety disorder. These positive effects on anxiety were maintained 12 months postintervention, providing preliminary evidence of the potential value of Fear-less Triple P.
Implication for Parenting: Prevention or treatment programs targeting serious mental health problems in children should consider routinely including in the intervention mix specific skill training for parents in positive parenting that includes how to respond constructively to children’s anxiety, avoidance, and other forms of emotional distress.
Schooling and Academic Attainment
Success in schooling has important long-term impacts on children’s well-being and life opportunities, and parenting has an important role to play in education (Sanders, Healy, Grice, & Del Vecchio, 2017). By the time children enter formal schooling at age 5 or 6, the family environment has typically already had a major influence on children’s preparedness to start school (Chazan-Cohen et al., 2009). Differences in readiness to handle formal schooling can be related to whether parents have promoted children’s use of language through frequent language interactions; have regularly read to children; have taught children basic social skills, such as cooperating with instructions, following rules, sharing, and turn taking; have promoted the development of self-care skills, such as dressing, toileting independently, tidying away toys, (p. 11) handling temporary separations from parents; and have facilitated peer interactions. Once children start school, parental involvement with the child’s school continues to be important to children’s academic attainment (Chapter 22, this volume). The quality of home–school communication influences children’s academic accomplishments, school attendance, and classroom behavior (Galindo & Sheldon, 2011). Powell, Son, File, and San Juan (2010) found that parental school involvement positively predicted children’s social skills and mathematics skills and negatively predicted problem behaviors. Perceived teacher responsiveness to the child/parent was positively related to children’s early reading and social skills and negatively related to problem behaviors. A meta-synthesis by Wilder (2014) found that there was a positive relationship between parental involvement and child success at school, including higher academic achievement, higher rates of graduation and tertiary education, self-efficacy for learning, attendance, peer relationships, behavior at school, and general school connectedness.
Implication for Parenting: Schools have an important role in the delivery of parenting programs, particularly at points of transition (such as starting school). Parenting programs should be adapted to teach parents effective communication skills to engage with teachers and schools about children’s learning so that parents can support their children’s education and be meaningful partners with the child’s school.
Children’s Relationships With Peers
Children’s social relationships with their peers are influenced by the kind of parenting they receive. McDowell and Parke (2009) described three distinct paths through which parents influence children’s social competence and peer acceptance: parent–child interaction, direct instruction, and provision of opportunities. The concept of facilitative parenting (FP) was defined by Healy, Sanders, and Iyer (2015) as parenting that enables the development of children’s social competence and peer relationships. FP is characterized by warm and responsive parent–child relating, enabling appropriate child independence (as opposed to being overly directive or protective), effective management of parent–child conflict, active coaching of social and emotional skills, provision of opportunities for the child to socialize with peers, and effective communication with school staff. Healy and Sanders (2014) conducted an RCT to evaluate the efficacy of training parents in FP through a program variant (Resilience Triple P) developed specifically for parents of children who had been bullied at school by peers. More information about this program is reported by Healy in Chapter 7.
Implication for Parenting: Parenting programs, through the promotion of prosocial behavior, friendship making, and teaching children skills to stand up for themselves, have an important role in protecting children from bullying.
Children’s Relationships With Siblings
Sibling relationships have an important effect on children (Pickering & Sanders, 2017). Positive prosocial sibling interactions and conflict management equip children with important life skills, including negotiating, perspective taking, patience, and acceptance (Bedford, (p. 12) Volling, & Avioli, 2000). Conversely, sibling conflict and low sibling warmth increase the risk of externalizing and internalizing problems (Buist, Deković, & Prinzie, 2013). The way parents interact with their children significantly predicts the quality of the sibling interactions, and management of conflict helps children learn life skills, such as negotiating, reasoning, perspective taking, and acceptance (Ross & Lazinski, 2014). Parents’ interactions with their children can shape the quality of sibling relationships and therefore the outcomes of the sibling relationship.
There is preliminary evidence that brief parenting programs can improve some aspects of sibling relationships. Pickering, Crane, Hong, Nickel, and Sanders (2017) conducted an RCT that evaluated the effects on sibling relationships of a brief, one-session parenting intervention (Triple P Discussion Group) that focused specifically on managing sibling fighting and aggression. Parents in the intervention group reported a significantly greater improvement in sibling warmth and in the emotional behavior of the sibling compared to the wait-list group.
Implication for Parenting: Parenting programs can assist parents develop strategies to improve sibling relationships and promote long-term harmonious family relationships.
Parenting and Children’s Physical Health
Parenting has a major influence on children’s physical health and well-being (Chapter 11, this volume; Wood et al., 2008). It is a parental responsibility to ensure that children grow up in living conditions that provide the children with basic necessities of life to remain healthy. These include providing adequate nutrition, clean water, and sanitation; avoidance of exposure to toxic fumes; immunizations; sufficient sleep; and access to appropriate health care when needed. Parents also have a role in ensuring that children have plenty of physical activity and limiting access to screens of phones, computers, and the like.
Sick-role behaviors that involve children learning how to behave when they feel unwell (e.g., complaining, grimacing, lying down) are learned in part through parental modeling and family experiences (Walker & Zeman, 1992). Recurrent pain syndromes, such as headache and recurrent abdominal pain, are influenced by family context. Solicitous responding through parental attention can reinforce pain complaints and avoidance of nonpreferred activities. Children’s compliance with medical treatments for chronic health conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, eczema, and obesity, are all influenced by parenting.
Parenting programs for parents of children with a chronic health condition have been clearly articulated (Morawska, Calam, & Fraser, 2015), and research is increasingly focused on developing and evaluating brief, low-intensity parenting interventions for this population (Mackey et al., 2016; Morawska, Mitchell, Burgess, & Fraser, 2016). Several recent trials showed that brief, low-intensity parenting interventions can reduce levels of noncompliance with medical treatments.
Implication for Parenting: Parenting programs can play an important role in helping parents promote children’s long-term physical health and well-being.
(p. 13) Determinants of Parenting: Implications
Recognition that multiple factors interact and combine to influence parenting is important in planning a population approach to parenting support. For all parents, learning to parent well takes time and requires continuous adaptation through each successive phase of life as both children and parents change and mature. Individual differences in parenting capability arise from multiple sources, some of which are amenable to parenting intervention. Children do not come with an instruction manual, and being a parent involves the mastery of a complex set of skills that gradually develop through experience. Parenting is influenced by a complex mix of genetic and biological factors, experience, opportunity, motivation, and relationships and a range of social, cultural, and economic factors. Gaining an understanding of how these multiple interacting determinants affect parenting capability has important implications for the design and delivery of a comprehensive, need-responsive, and population-based system of parenting support. The implications of each determinant are discussed next.
Biological and Genetic Influences on Parenting
Parents differ, as children do from each other, as a result of the interaction between a parent’s unique genetic makeup, biological factors, and life experience. These interacting determinants of individuality together shape how parents undertake their parenting responsibilities as well as their physical and mental health, capacity to deal with stress, and their child’s temperament. Temperament is defined as “constitutionally based individual differences in reactivity and self-regulation in the domains of affect, activity and attention” (Rothbart & Bates, 2006, p. 100). Individual differences in response to a parent’s own family-of-origin life experiences contribute to how parents approach the task of raising their own children.
A recent meta-analysis by Slagt, Dubas, Deković, and van Aken (2016) involving 6,153 children from 84 studies explored the relationship between parenting and child temperament. As a test of a differential susceptibility hypothesis, children with more difficult temperaments (compared to those with an easy temperament) not only were more vulnerable to the effects of negative parenting, but also benefited more from positive parenting.
Research also supports a biological underpinning of healthy parenting (Gordon, Zagoory-Sharon, Leckman, & Feldman, 2010; Saphire-Bernstein, Way, Kim, Sherman, & Taylor, 2011). The neuropeptide oxytocin has been implicated as one of the key hormones involved in parent–infant bonding, with higher levels of oxytocin associated with increased frequency of affectionate parenting behaviors, such as the expression of positive affect and affectionate touch (Gordon et al., 2010). It is likely that genetic and biological influences affecting parents themselves interact with experience and environmental factors (including influences of education and partners) to influence how parents interact with their children.
Implication for Practice: Practitioners should encourage parents to recognize that the personal resources they have to parent children are partly determined by factors beyond their control, such as their genetic and family backgrounds. However, there are many other factors within their control that can influence how they choose to raise their children.
(p. 14) Family-of-Origin Experiences
Prior to becoming parents themselves, parents have a range of life experiences in their family of origin that influences the personal resources that each parent brings to the parenting role. If both parents were raised in stable, loving, low-conflict environments by competent and stable parents, first-time mothers and fathers are more likely to be confident in their personal capacity to cope with the demands of parenthood and are more likely to look forward to becoming parents with eager anticipation (Rholes, Simpson, Blakely, Lanigan, & Allen, 1997). However, if one or more parents were raised in households characterized by dysfunctional family experiences, parents can find the transition to parenthood stressful, and their parental efficacy can be low.
The specific parenting practices used by parents are influenced by the family-of-origin socialization experiences (e.g., when mothers should return to work after childbirth; distribution of household tasks; working hours for mothers; whether children should have a religious education, attend a public or private school, participate in a particular sport, learn a musical instrument, learn additional languages, and so on).
Many parents have been exposed to one or more adverse childhood experiences. Being exposed to harsh or coercive parenting practices; chaotic, unpredictable, or neglectful parenting; or other forms of child maltreatment (e.g., sexual abuse) can increase children’s risk for poor developmental outcomes, including increased risk of developing serious behavioral or emotional problems (Prinz, 2016). Other family experiences, such as parental divorce, repeated breakdown of parental relationships, or living in a household characterized by intimate partner violence (IPV), parental mental illness or substance abuse, homelessness, parental absence, and poverty, can cumulatively have an adverse effect on the well-being of parents, their mental and physical health, and personal resources to take care of children (Felitti et al., 1998). Family dysfunction in childhood is a form of toxic stress that can have lifelong adverse consequences for physical and mental health and overall well-being (Shonkoff et al., 2012).
Implication for Practice: Practitioners must adjust their delivery of parenting programs to accommodate differences between parents in terms of their past experiences and learning and the coping skills and personal resources they possess when they first become parents. Every parent, regardless of personal past history and motivation, has the potential to become more effective in his or her parenting practices.
The immediate context of parent–child interaction can have a major effect on children. The day-to-day, moment-to-moment interactions between parents and children are important determinants of both children’s and parents’ behavior. When parents interact with children, their behavior is often in response to immediate situational cues from the child (smiling, cooing, laughing, or fussing, grimacing, crying, and complaining) that signal to the parent that a change in parental action is required. An observant, attuned, responsive parent is likely to respond to these child cues and change or adjust their actions to reduce the child’s distress or upset (e.g., feed their child, change their child’s diapers, and introduce stimulation or a distraction). These (p. 15) parental actions may result in a change in the child’s behavior (e.g., the child may settle, become calm, sleep, or escalate behavior). Parents tend to repeat behaviors that lead to positive consequences and avoid behavior that leads to negative responses.
Patterson’s coercion theory (Patterson et al., 1975) provided a clear example of how family interactional processes lead to the development of aggressive and disruptive behavior in children. For example, a parent may request that a child who is watching television come to the dinner table. If the child refuses and complains, a parent may initially repeat the direction but now with a raised voice. If the child continues noncompliance, the parent may escalate his or her reaction, raise the voice further, and perhaps threaten (in an angry voice) a negative consequence (e.g., banning the television or threatening to spank the child). If the child cooperates after the parent escalates, the child may inadvertently reinforce the parent for yelling. Conversely, children are learning that cooperation is not needed when parents ask civilly and only when parents escalate and threaten a negative consequence or punishment. These coercive patterns of escalation followed by parental or child compliance or withdrawal of demands/requests are common in the families of children with conduct problems, and as such, they are a primary target of parenting interventions to reduce aggression.
Implication for Practice: Parenting programs need to help parents become self-regulated so they can identify how their own and their child’s behavior is reciprocally influenced by the consequences of their actions during daily interactions. This requires parents to be observant and become aware of their own behavior, to reflect, to generate hypotheses, and to experiment with different ways of responding.
Characteristics of Children
Parents often claim that children in the same family raised in the “same way” can be very different from each other. Parents attribute these individual differences to intrinsic heritable qualities of children. There is little doubt that parents can be influenced by the characteristics and behavior of children. Children vary in terms of their physical health (as a result of preterm birth, low birth weight, disability, physical appearance, illnesses); their temperament (how outgoing, sociable, fussy, timid, and shy they are); and their patterns of behavior (reacting with crying, sleep, responses to attempts to settle, cooperativeness, aggression, tantrums). Some children, due to constitutional differences that emerge very early in life, appear to be easier to care for (soothe, calm, settle, feed) than others.
Children also shape the responses of caregivers by differentially reinforcing parents for both prosocial and problem behavior (Slagt et al., 2016). For example, when a child laughs and smiles in response to parents making a funny face, a parent or other carer is likely to repeat the actions that led children to laughter in the future. Conversely, a child who eventually cooperates in a compliance situation only after being threatened with a negative consequence may inadvertently reinforce (through cooperation) a parent for escalating quickly because threatening produces child cooperation (termination of child’s noncompliance and associated parental stress). When children are cooperative, polite, and engage in acts of caring, kindness, or compassion toward others, parents experience positive emotions (being proud, showing caring) toward their children. Conversely, when children engage in difficult, disruptive, or challenging behavior parents (p. 16) experience increased levels of arousal and stress and may think negative thoughts (“What’s wrong with this child?”) and feel negative emotions (anger, frustration, anxiety, sadness) toward their children.
Clinical Implication: Practitioners need to acknowledge that children’s characteristics will influence parent’s behavior and that parents must be responsive to the needs of their individual child—A “one-size-fits-all” approach to raising children in the same family is unlikely to work.
Importance of Parental Self-Efficacy
Self-efficacy is an important part of self-regulation. Self-efficacy refers to parents’ beliefs about their capacity to successfully complete necessary tasks or responsibilities. When parents have low self-efficacy they are more likely to feel discouraged, anxious, or depressed about the parenting role (T. L. Jones & Prinz, 2005). Task-specific self-efficacy refers to being able to successfully complete the basic tasks of parenthood, such as feeding, dressing, getting children to bed, supervising homework, assisting with project work, and monitoring screen time or accessing and using electronic devices. Sanders and Woolley (2005) distinguished between behavior-specific (management of specific child behaviors such as tantrums, aggression) or setting-specific task self-efficacy (management of children’s behavior in specific situations, such as shopping trips, car travel, bedtime). Parents of children with conduct problems tend to have lower levels of both task- and setting-specific self-efficacy prior to participating in a parenting program.
Parental self-efficacy typically increases following participating in parenting programs such as Triple P (e.g., Sanders et al., 2014). Participation in parenting programs can enhance self-efficacy by helping parents set realistic but attainable goals for themselves; by encouraging parents to try something new, challenging, or difficult that is achievable; by encouraging parents to be self-reflective and review their accomplishments; and by scheduling within- and between-session tasks that provide an opportunity for skills development.
Implication for Practice: Parenting programs should arrange incrementally challenging activities that enhance parents’ task and setting self-efficacy.
Azar and colleagues’ work on social information processing (SIP; Azar, 2002; Azar, Barnes, & Twentyman, 1988) of parents at risk of harming their children has highlighted the critical importance of cognitive processes in parenting, particularly in understanding parents at risk of harming their children (e.g., Azar, Okado, Stevenson, & Robinson, 2013). The SIP model argues that caregivers who have unrealistic expectations of children show poorer problem-solving in childrearing situations and who make more negative intent attributions to children’s behavior are at greater risk for inadequate and inappropriate parenting, including child maltreatment. Parental expectations of children and of themselves are influenced by the kinds of role models that parents were exposed to in their own families and through exposure to (p. 17) prevailing social and community cultural, ethnic, and religious norms. In a society where parents are exposed to multiple ethnic, racial, religious, and community influences (through social media), the socialization contexts influencing parental beliefs and expectations are more diverse than ever.
Another important cognitive factor relates to parents’ attributional style. An attribution refers to a person’s belief about the causes of a behavior or action. Parents develop an explanatory framework to make sense of the world and to explain both their child’s and their own behavior. When parents attribute a child’s behavior (e.g., accidentally spilling a glass of milk on the kitchen floor) to a cause that is internal to the child, is stable, and is negative (“He is just a clumsy, careless boy,” “He’s always been like that and always will be,” “She’s so careless,” “He’s just like his father”), the parent is more likely to become angry or annoyed with the child and feel that the child’s behavior is deliberate. Under these circumstances, the parent may feel he or she is the victim and that retribution is justified (“I’ll show her who is boss around here”). Consequently, training parents to change dysfunctional blaming attributions is important so that parents can identify alternative mitigating reasons for a child’s actions (“She’s only three. Three-year-olds sometime have accidents”) that prevent anger escalation.
Population-based efforts to influence parenting knowledge, beliefs, and expectations need to be attuned to the different ways in which parents acquire information and knowledge about parenting. Immediate family members such as partners, grandparents, and siblings with children, but also extended family members remain the primary source of information about parenting. However, many parents seek parenting advice from teachers and family doctors, mass media, and the Internet. Attending a positive parenting program is another source from which parents are more likely to learn skills; increase their intentions to implement them; and actually implement and maintain them. This occurs when targeted parenting skills are modeled and demonstrated, when dysfunctional attributions or beliefs about the reasons for children’s behavior are changed, and when positive expectancies and parenting self-efficacy are increased.
Implication for Practice: Parenting programs need to address parental cognitions, particularly dysfunctional attributions that increase the risk that parents become angry, overreact, and harm children.
Parental Emotional Regulation
A parent’s own mental health and well-being can have a substantial effect on how parents raise their children. Parents who manage their own emotions well are advantaged in raising children. Parents who can remain reasonably calm or at least avoid becoming agitated, highly anxious, angry, or highly distressed when faced with a parenting challenge are less vulnerable to actions that can inadvertently worsen a situation. For example, not becoming personally distressed when toddlers have tantrums in a public place means that parents are more likely to maintain their resolve in the face of threat or challenge (including disapproval from others). Conversely, when parents have difficulty regulating their emotions, they are more inclined to succumb to social disapproval pressure from others (e.g., giving in to a child’s demands). Parents with severe (p. 18) mental health problems, such as major depression, bipolar disorder, or psychosis, often experience disruptions to their parenting of offspring.
Parents suffering from bipolar disorder have patterns of communication, impulse control, and motivation that can make parenting particularly challenging (S. Jones et al., 2014). Children of bipolar parents also have a significantly elevated risk for a wide range of psychiatric conditions, including ADHD, anxiety, depression, substance use, and sleep disorders, in addition to experiencing rates of bipolar disorder higher than those seen in the general population (Duffy, Alda, Crawford, Milin, & Grof, 2007; S. Jones & Bentall, 2008).
Children of parents with mental illness are at increased risk of abuse and neglect and are likely to need support in coping with their parent’s often confusing and distressing mental illness (Barnett, Miller-Perrin, & Perrin, 2005). When parents seek treatment for their own mental health problems, their parenting needs should not be ignored. Recent RCT evidence has shown that providing an online positive parenting intervention (Triple P Online) when combined with an online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) program for bipolar patients reduces the risk of offspring behavioral and emotional problems (S. Jones et al., 2014). Parents in the intervention group reported improvements in child behavior problems compared to controls.
Clinical Implication: Adult treatment services should make parenting programs available to enhance parents’ emotion regulation skills so that they can better respond, even during periods of increased stress, to parenting challenges they face.
Relationships With Partners
A couple’s relationship influences how each parent undertakes his or her parenting responsibility, the degree to which the parent feels supported in the parenting role, and the level of stress the parent experiences (Sanders & Keown, 2017). When parents have supportive relationships and communicate well with their partner about roles, responsibilities, and the sharing of parenting tasks, there is less conflict in parenting, better teamwork, and greater interparental consistency. Children benefit by being exposed to a loving and predictable home environment. Fewer arguments about parenting and an absence of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) translate into children having better role models for harmonious family lives. Parental disagreements can escalate into conflict that may include use of verbal or physical threats and actual IPV. Parents who are victims of IPV are more likely to be depressed, stressed, and less confident in parenting. If a parent feels unsafe, his or her parenting of children is frequently disrupted.
Grasso et al. (2016) found that mothers reporting a greater occurrence of psychologically aggressive IPV (e.g., yelling, name-calling) more often engage in psychological and physical aggression toward their children. Mothers reporting a greater occurrence of IPV in the form of physical assault more often engage in mild to more severe forms of physical punishment with potential harm to the child. Psychological and physical forms of IPV and harsh parenting are all significantly correlated with maternal reports of child disruptive behavior. These findings highlight the importance of parenting programs for both victims and perpetrators of IPV to reduce the risk that children will develop serious mental health concerns.
Clinical Implication: Parenting programs should be delivered in a way that enables both parents in two-parent families to participate to ensure greater interparental consistency and teamwork.
(p. 19) Relationships With Grandparents and Extended Family
Grandparents play an important role in childrearing in many societies. The involvement of grandparents in childrearing ranges from virtually no involvement at all to adoption of a full-time custodial grandparenting role. Grandparents provide a substantial amount of regular child care in the United States, with approximately 24% of all children under five receiving child care from their grandparents (Laughlin, 2013). A similar trend occurs in Australia, with approximately 25% of children 12 years or younger receiving regular child care from their grandparents (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012). Across Europe, it is estimated that 40% of children receive regular child care from their grandparents (Glaser, Price, Di Gessa, Montserrat, & Tinker, 2013). Kirby (2015) argued that it is important that the field of parenting and family psychology examine the impact that grandparents can have on family functioning.
The nature of a parent’s relationship with their own parent or parent-in-law can influence a parent’s capacity to parent children both positively and negatively. Positive influences include being a source of practical help (child care, financial support) and advice around parenting and child care issues (e.g., feeding, caring for, and disciplining children). When parents actively seek and receive useful advice and support from grandparents, the burden of parenthood can be shared and is a social support buffer against stress. However, if a parent has an acrimonious relationship with a grandparent who is viewed as intrusive, critical, or interfering, a parent may feel judged and become avoidant of the grandparent. Such a relationship can adversely affect a parent’s relationship with his or her partner, particularly if the couple is living with a partner’s parents. When there are shared child care responsibilities, the active involvement of grandparents in a parenting program can improve the grandparents’ relationship with the parent and the grandchildren (Kirby & Sanders, 2014).
Clinical Implication: Because many children are raised by multiple carers, not just biological parents, parenting programs should actively seek to engage all relevant carers involved in child care responsibilities, including grandparents, nannies, and kinship carers.
Living in poverty is one form of chronic stress that affects both parents and children and has a pervasive adverse impact on the family and parents’ capacity to undertake their parenting responsibilities. It has been well documented that poverty adversely affects child well-being (Bornstein & Bradley, 2014). Brooks-Gunn and Duncan (1997) summarized the effects of poverty on children by noting that poorer children have higher incidences of adverse health, developmental, and other outcomes than nonpoor children, including (a) poorer physical health (low birth weight, growth stunting, and lead poisoning); (b) lower cognitive ability (e.g., intelligence, verbal ability, and academic achievement); (c) poorer school achievement (e.g., years of schooling, high school completion); (d) greater emotional and behavioral problems; and (e) teenage out-of-wedlock childbearing. According to a policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (2016), it is estimated that half of young children in the United States live in poverty or near poverty.
(p. 20) Some of the effects of poverty on children are linked to the reduced capacity of adults to care for their children. Parents living in poverty have many more stressors in their lives than other families. Poorer parents are more likely to have problems, such as mental illness and substance abuse; chronic unemployment; poorer physical health; greater exposure to family and neighborhood violence; greater likelihood of discrimination; food and housing insecurity; limited access to good schools; and limited access to quality health, dental, and family support services.
The adverse effects of poverty on child development can be mitigated to some degree by strengthening parenting. There has been considerable emphasis in the parenting field to ensure that parenting programs target vulnerable families from low socioeconomic areas. Within a whole-of-population–based approach, special efforts over and above efforts to engage all families in a community are often needed to reach out to and engage more vulnerable low-income parents with multiple risk factors from ethnic minority groups, including indigenous, migrant, and refugee families living in low-resource settings.
Clinical Implication: Professionals should advocate for government policies and services that will improve access and engagement of families in low-resource settings to reduce social and economic inequity between families. Parenting programs potentially can mitigate some, but not all, of the adverse effects of raising children in poverty.
Social Support, Neighborhood, and Community Factors
Poor families are more likely to live in poorer neighborhoods. Poorer neighborhoods expose parents to other stressors, such as higher rates of crime; substance abuse; more unemployment; greater social isolation; lower levels of social connectedness to other parents; less monitoring and supervision of children and adolescents; greater social disorganization; and fewer community resources (e.g., safe play spaces for children, parks, child care centers, libraries, health care, and afterschool programs).
Participating in a parenting program is one way for parents in low-resource settings to become less socially isolated and increase social support for the parenting role. Parents can be strong advocates about the value of parenting programs for other parents in a neighborhood. Some evidence shows that parents completing parenting programs share their learnings with people they know who have not participated (Fives, Purcell, Heary, NicGabhainn, & Canavan, 2014).
Clinical Implication: Parenting programs have the potential to mitigate the adverse effects of living in low-resource settings by increasing social support and enhancing community connectedness of these parents.
Parenting practices are markedly influenced by cultural context. Every country tends to be characterized by a certain amount of cultural diversity where the dominant culture (comprising the largest number of residents) lives with and shares the environment with parents from other (p. 21) cultural groups or different ethnic and language backgrounds. Within any given country, parents vary with respect to their connection to and active involvement with the dominant culture’s values, norms, language, and traditions. For example, Muslim families often closely observe religious traditions from their country of origin, and others have little engagement with those traditions.
The challenge for parenting programs is to ensure that programs are broadly culturally relevant and acceptable to a diverse range of parents before scaling of programs (see Chapter 28, this volume). There is growing evidence from cultural acceptability studies of Triple P (Morawska et al., 2011, 2012), controlled evaluations with particular ethnic groups in both individualistic and collectivistic cultures (Chapter 30, this volume), and studies examining the transportability of findings of parenting programs from one culture to another that show that the basic principles and techniques of positive parenting are seen as relevant and acceptable to parents from diverse cultural backgrounds. Evidence-based parenting programs generally transport well from countries of development to countries of adoption (Gardner, Montgomery, & Kerr, 2015).
However, parenting programs must be adapted to ensure that principles of positive parenting and the cultural values and traditions can work in harmony. Turner et al. (Chapter 28, this volume) provided an example of how this can be done using a collaborative partnership adaptation model with indigenous Māori elders whānau (families) in New Zealand.
Clinical Implication: It is important that parenting programs develop convincing evidence pertaining to a program’s cultural relevance, acceptability, and effectiveness.
Parental Mental Health
Parents with major mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders, substance abuse disorders, and personality disorders, are more likely to raise children with mental health and behavioral problems themselves (see Chapter 17, this volume). In addition, millions of people worldwide have experienced tremendous emotional distress as a consequence of the traumatic experiences of war, including dislocation, flight, imprisonment, resettlement in other countries, and chronic poverty. In a context of ongoing trauma, parents find it difficult to care for their children.
Implication for Practice: Special efforts should be made to ensure that adults with mental health and substance abuse problems or living with the mental health consequences of exposure to traumatic events are able to access parenting support both to improve their own mental health and to reduce the risk that their children will develop serious mental health problems.
Parenting Disrupted by Separation
Parents whose family lives are disrupted because their partners or they themselves experience periods of separation from their children are at greater risk of psychological distress and having disrupted parenting practices (Dittman, Henriquez, & Roxburgh, 2016). These disruptions can arise in multiple separation contexts, such as living in a family where at least one parent is a “fly-in, fly-out” worker in mines or is deployed by the military or where families are experiencing separation due to divorce, incarceration, or hospitalization due to poor parental health. When (p. 22) children experience prolonged separation, they are at greater risk of a variety of adverse developmental outcomes. For example, Murray, Bijleveld, Farrington, and Loeber (2014) documented the effects of imprisonment on families. Parental arrest can leave children feeling shocked, bewildered, and scared (Richards et al., 1994). Some children experience post-traumatic stress disorder with flashbacks about their parent’s arrest. The experience of having a parent in jail is stigmatizing, disrupts the development of the parent–child relationship, results in less parental supervision and effective discipline of children, and increases the risk that children will become involved in antisocial behavior and crime themselves (Murray et al., 2014).
Implication for Practice: Specific parenting programs are needed to assist families who experience unavoidable parental separations.
Parenting takes place in a broader sociopolitical environment that includes the provision of basic primary health care, education, and welfare services and laws related to the rights and treatment of children. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations, 1989) and other international and regional human rights treaties require states to prohibit corporal punishment of children in all settings of their lives. The banning of corporal punishment in parenting across 51 countries from around the world (Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, 2017) is an example of how international policy advocacy can put pressure on governments to change the law. However, although legally sanctioned codes of conduct help regulate parental actions to some degree, banning parental use of corporal punishment practices does not necessarily mean that parents will adopt effective alternative practices or prevent children from developing behavioral and emotional problems. Parents clearly need replacement strategies that are effective.
Implication for Practice: Professional advocacy to ban corporal punishment should only occur alongside advocacy for the provision of evidence-based parenting programs to teach parents alternative noncoercive means of disciplining children.
Other Factors Influencing Parenting
Parental capacity occurs in, and is influenced by, broader social and economic factors affecting the population. Although these factors are not easily influenced by parents, how they cope with the demands and stress of daily life can nevertheless affect their psychological availability to children and their parenting practices. Such factors include the state of the global economy; level of unemployment; level of pollution; availability of affordable housing, good schools, quality child care; food security; availability of welfare payments to support needy families; amount of personal debt, interest rates, and level of inflation; and access to extended family financial and emotional support. These broader social and economic factors can influence the level of personal stress parents experience and test their coping resources in managing stress. High levels of parental stress are often associated with children having more behavioral and emotional problems (Anthony et al., 2005).
(p. 23) Implication for Practice: Practitioners delivering parenting programs should determine the presence of external stressors that parents are dealing with and seek to enhance parent strategies for dealing with everyday stress.
Parenting Across the Life Span
Each phase of human development is associated with new challenges and demands for parents. Parental knowledge and skills in dealing with responsibilities and tasks relating to their child’s current phase of development are cumulative and always interact with previously learned knowledge, tasks, and responsibilities from previous phases of development. From the moment of conception, parents have primary responsibility to ensure that they create the conditions that enable their children to develop in a safe, healthy, and responsive environment so they can acquire the social, emotional, cognitive, academic, and physical competencies they need to flourish and reach their potential (Black et al., 2017).
Although there is considerable emphasis on the importance of the parent–child relationship in the first 3 years of life (e.g., Heckman, 2012), parenting as a social role continues to evolve, and the current parenting practices that children and adolescents experience exert an influence throughout the life of both a parent and the child. An adult can be highly distressed if he or she has experienced destructive interpersonal conflict with their own parents, parents-in-law, or adult siblings. Conversely, good relationships with their own parents when children are young can be an enormous support to parents. Table 2.1 summarizes the changing nature of parental tasks and responsibilities at different stages of development from infancy to early adulthood.
Table 2.1: Parental Tasks and Responsibilities Across the Life Span
Phase of Life
Major Parental Tasks and Responsibilities
Antenatal (from conception to birth)
Infancy (0–1.5 years)
Toddlerhood (1.5–3 years)
Preschool (4–6 years)
Middle childhood (7–12 years)
Teen (13–17 years)
Young adult (18–25 years)
Implications for Policy and Practice
The important role that parents play in influencing developmental outcomes for children has been highlighted by many scientific and professional groups (e.g., National Academies of Science Engineering and Medicine, 2016). These groups include professional organizations, such as those for psychologists, social workers, pediatricians, psychiatrists, and educators (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2016). There is now clear recognition that enhancing parents’ access to evidence-based parenting programs is important so that parents are better prepared to undertake their responsibilities. Three emerging themes are influencing the provision of parenting programs.
Increasing Adoption of Population-Based Approach to Parenting Programs
Despite the importance of parenting, most of the major investments in improving access to evidence-based parenting programs in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and many other countries are focused on the most vulnerable or disadvantaged families. This process of (p. 24) (p. 25) targeting “needy” or “high-risk” families, while laudable, can inadvertently create some stigma for parents who are identified as requiring parenting support. An alternative, less stigmatizing approach involves the development of a comprehensive, multilevel system of parenting support that enables a much wider range of parents to participate. To be successful, such an approach needs a blend of universal and targeted programs so that differences in the needs of parents can be accommodated. Furthermore, this approach needs to avoid an inoculation approach that targets a single developmental stage to provide parenting support (e.g., infancy), to recognize that parenting challenges are not confined to the first 1,000 days of life, and that good and poor parenting influence the well-being of children throughout childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, and indeed through a person’s adult life. Parents need to access parenting advice that is relevant to the current ages and developmental levels of their children (from infancy to young adulthood). Parents also need to access advice that addresses the unique circumstances that may arise from having a child with special needs (parents of preterm children; parents of children with a disability, autism, chronic health condition, ADHD, conduct problems, anxiety, depression) or challenging parenting context (families experiencing separation or divorce, parental absence due to military deployment, parental incarceration, parental ill health), or parental mental illness or substance abuse. Because of the diverse needs of families and variations in the level of support parents require to resolve difficulties they experience, an integrated, population-based parent and family support system is needed.
Consumer Engagement and Creating “Pull” Demand for Parenting Programs
Lack of parental engagement and high dropout rates of parents from existing parenting programs have highlighted the need to enhance parental engagement in parenting programs (Sanders & Kirby, 2012). Parents are more likely to be motivated to participate in a program when it has become socially normative and provides an opportunity for parents to achieve their own valued outcomes in a destigmatized context. When parents themselves, as consumers, are consulted about the kinds of supports and information they are seeking about parenting and programs are planned accordingly to address these needs, parents are more likely to become involved and to advocate for others to also participate.
Moving From Individual- to Community-Level Support for Parenting
The adoption of a population-based approach to parenting support can facilitate the creation of caring, nurturing communities that are “family-friendly” places to live and raise children. A community engagement strategy around parenting can create a broad coalition of stakeholders interested in building a community’s capacity to support parents with evidence-based programs. Stakeholders can include local government, agencies serving families (including state and not-for-profit organizations), schools, child care centers, local libraries, law enforcement agencies, local businesses, the media, and parent consumers. The ultimate goal is increasing a sense of collective efficacy—a belief that a community has the capacity and resources to solve (p. 26) problems and promote a positive and nurturing community and neighborhood environment for raising children and youth.
• Parenting has a pervasive influence on children’s development and life opportunities.
• Parents’ capacity to raise their children well is influenced by a range of potentially modifiable social, emotional, relational, and contextual factors.
• Parenting programs provide a common pathway to influence many diverse child and parent outcomes.
• A blending of universal and targeted programs drawing on a common theoretical framework is needed to ensure local partnerships can effectively collaborate in delivery programs that work across the community.
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