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Parent Child Relationships 3 of 5 – Preparing for Life’s Challenges

Transitions of growth happen repeatedly in a child’s life.  From the onset of birth and clamping the umbilical cord which joins the mother and baby in physiologic coexistence, the newborn must learn to regulate nutrition, warmth, breathing, and all bodily functions with the mother’s help but not as part of the mother. Without the mother’s help the baby can’t survive, but remaining inextricably coexisting precludes the development of an individual. Life’s developmental advances present repeated challenges for a child’s connection and separation from the parent. A healthy connection is essential for emotional and physical wellbeing; healthy separation is necessary for developmental progress. This blog discusses how a healthy parent-child relationship prepares the child for resilient adaptation to life’s stresses. Five components of the relationship will be emphasized: attunement, communication, play, planning, teaching, and consistency. Please refer to the blog about the rope course for background information.

Attunement is to bring into harmony.

Attunement is the essence of beautiful music and beautiful relationships. It is more than being in tune with the child’s needs.  Attunement is to resonate with the child in harmonic interaction.   Children’s actions, words, emotions, body language communicate consciously and subconsciously with parents. Parents in tune reverberate waves of signals that provide feedback to the child’s initial signal either in harmony or dissonance. This feedback can help the child feel comforted, understood, loved, connected and endeared by the parent or dismissed, shamed, disconnected, and disregarded. Attunement happens most fluidly when parents truly revere their children, and the children feel it through expressions of love, service and genuine communication of adoration for the precious life their parents brought into the world.  

Part of being attuned is perceiving other needs through the dedicated discovery of the world as viewed from the other person’s vantage point. Each child has sensory preferences of how they best enjoy life both through pleasurable sensations and the avoidance of adverse stimulation. Each child has unique temperament traits that influence their interaction with the environment and others. Each child has different methods for exploring, mastering and deriving meaning from their world. Part of attunement is to grow to appreciate each individual child and adjust their environment and our interaction with them according to their needs.

Clear communication directs the desired outcome

Children have many needs including physical, social, emotional, and developmental mastery.   Parent’s attunement with the child helps with emotional regulation, self-modulation, and the development of a healthy self-image. Parent’s responses attune best when they are clear and cohesive in verbal and nonverbal communication. Studies estimate that in face to face interaction 55 percent of emotional meaning is conveyed through facial expression, 38 percent through tone of voice and 7 percent through expressed words. Unclear or in-cohesive messages risk creating inner dissonance with which the child has to cope. Clear and cohesive communication in verbal and nonverbal messages helps children synthesize, coordinate and execute with emotional congruence.

Back to our girl on the rope course. Long before her parents stood on the platform and sent her off across the first rope challenge they had established healthy attachment and attunement to the needs of their daughter. She obviously experienced difficulty with adaptation, however, their many hours of attending to her needs, anticipating her wants and sensitively feeling and responding to her emotions paid off in a single moment of resilience. As the girl looked in her parent’s faces she saw a reflection of the collective love and connection they had with her. This powerful influence provided a foundation to anchor her emotions and resolve to separate in order to accomplish. The message on the parent’s face was clear and cohesive with verbal and nonverbal communication that it was time to go and they shared collective resolve and confidence that she could and would succeed. The most important verbal message was a thunderous, intransigent silence that signaled her to look ahead to resilient adaptation rather than back for a parent facilitated escape.

Play is a child’s work.

One of the most powerful ways to attune with a child is through play.  During moments of delight, people feel close together and form a bond of positive and exciting emotions. Healthy youth love to play and seek the opportunity to enjoy play experiences with others. Unfortunately, for many adults, the youthful play has faded from their lives – overshadowed and sometimes squashed by a myriad of life responsibilities and burdens. Even more, unfortunately, children often become a source of the burden that eliminates playful drive, especially with the child creating difficulty for the parent. Children need and seek attention and closeness with parents but too often the attention dynamic spirals into negative interaction and conflict rather than fun and play. Children and adolescents prefer negative attention to no attention at all. They would rather live in conflict than be ignored.  Parents get to choose: find ways to play and enjoy offspring or suffer them.

Healthy kids can always find ways to play and most adults can also think of things to do that they would enjoy. Unfortunately, the play world of adults and youth are not necessarily coterminous. When adult and child play worlds don’t unite, it is rare that the youth can bridge over to the adult world of enjoyment. It becomes the parent’s prerogative to enter the play world of the child and there find a delightful connection. This is really hard for many people. Virtually always when I see parent/youth relationship discord there is a lack of connected playtime. For many parents, the child’s play preference or intensity is just not pleasant. For others, they seem overwhelmed with the burdens of life and with their child’s behavior. Perhaps for some, Peter Pan’s playful world of Neverland passed from their hearts as they inevitably had to grow up.  Parents need to find a way to play if they want to have healthy attunement and thereby help their children with the many challenges they face.

Plan for successful execution.

Whether preparing for a difficult growth adjustment or handling a problem behavior, it doesn’t come by happenstance.  Many parents seem to know exactly what they DON’T want their child to do but struggle to discover what it is they DO want their child to do. Our girl’s day on the rope course was carefully planned in advance with the collaboration of both parents to execute what they anticipated to be a difficult but worthwhile accomplishment. For challenging situations, whether you are teaching your child to go to sleep on her own or do homework or dance the watusi, it takes coordination and pre-planning amongst caregivers and ancillary personnel to execute the adjustment. Understanding your child’s personality and capacities will give you insight into how difficult it will be to transition. Advanced preparation by all parties can provide the collective fortitude to teach the child new life skills. The parents on the rope course had likely spoken with the course guide in advance to elicit his assistance in the process.

Accomplishing adaptation comes through teaching

If an Air Force instructor put you in the cockpit of an F-16 and instructed you to engage the thrusters with full force, with the reassurance that he could teach you how to fly the jet at the moment without advanced teaching, you would have a meltdown or become incontinent or both. The girl on the rope course would likely have had a catastrophic nuclear disintegration without advanced preparation. Child and parents walked happily hand in hand to the course. Clearly the child knew they were going and had advanced preparation regarding what would happen. She had likely done some practicing on a simulation course, worked with the instructor on how the harness operated, gone over the course outlay with her parents, etc.

Most challenging life situations for a child can be practiced in advance with skill acquisition partially obtained in simulation. For example with bedtime difficulties, the sequence of a bedtime routine, separation from parents, and reinforcement for good behavior can be practiced in advance during the day.  

Most children respond adequately to instruction and positive reinforcement but some need consequences. These also can be taught, practiced and demonstrated before use in real-life situations.

All youth need to learn some life skills for self-regulation and emotional stability as they mature to be successful and productive adults. Basic skills include learning to ask for what they want, the ability to accept no for an answer, inhibiting impulses away from something they can’t have or do, listening and following instructions, and sustaining effort in work production upon request. There are certainly many other life skills youth need to learn including physical, emotional, social, cognitive, and developmental abilities. The ongoing acquisition of life skills can be very complicated, but the ability to mature in more complicated functions mostly depends upon the capacity in the five basic skills.

Many adults take if for granted that children should acquire and execute these basic skills intuitively and implicitly; therefore, there is often little formal emphasis, teaching, or reinforcement of basic skills.  It’s glaringly obvious in times of functional necessity when children haven’t acquired these capacities.  Often the inadequate emphasis is applied to teach these skills in part because parents believe youth should naturally obtain them.

Consistency is the key to reliable performance

Every challenge for developing resilience and learning basic life skills is an opportunity for ingraining in youth a pattern of consistency that molds character. Maintenance of an authoritative parenting style over time helps children predict a response from the environment and internalize a stable psychic construct. Stability helps youth integrate cognitive and emotional mental forces to maintain self-regulation and progress in mastery of self and their environment. Inconsistency fosters unpredictability and instability, and worst of all risks having the child’s emotions overwhelm their cognitive abilities in moments of necessary adaptation.

Our girl on the rope course had undoubtedly looked in her parents’ eyes many times before that day and saw a collective resolve when she couldn’t have Laffy taffy for lunch, or couldn’t play Xbox instead of doing homework or couldn’t sleep in her parents’ bed, etc. The collective and consistent pattern of response from her parents helped her predict that she wasn’t getting off the course easily after so much preparation and that her emotional response wouldn’t overwhelm her cognitive realization of what she needed to do next.

Consistent reinforcement of the big five life skills helps solidify the skills needed for many life circumstances.  Reinforcement for effort and the process of improvement may be more vital than just reinforcing task completion.  For example, initially giving child attention for putting forth the effort to accomplish a task like loading the dishwasher may be better than waiting until the task is completed to give praise. Subsequent reinforcement can be provided progressively later in the process until the child masters the task.  Likewise, the task could be taught in small steps: utensil bin, then top rack, then bottom rack, with rewards provided after each new learning phase.

The fastest way to initially shape behavior is through immediate and frequent rewards. The most powerful method to sustain positive behavior is through unpredictable and intermittent reinforcement. Our girl on the rope course received instant nonverbal recognition of her efforts after the first few steps when she looked back at her parents. She then received praise and physical reinforcement with hugs after progressing to the second platform. She enjoyed slightly less adulation for the next accomplishment. Thereafter her parents didn’t need to provide attention for every step of the course, just an occasional sign of admiration for her ongoing efforts and accomplishment. Likewise teaching basic behavior skills requires initial intense and consistent devotion, but we must remember to sustain ongoing successful execution with intermittent and random signs of appreciation.  

Parenting From The Inside Out, Daniel Siegel

Silent messages,  A Mehrabian – 1971 –

Mindsight, Daniel Siegel

Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings

by Kenneth R. Ginsburg MD FAAP

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Aaron Fausett, PA
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