The parent-child relationship consists of a combination of behaviors,
feelings, and expectations that are unique to a particular parent and a
particular child. The relationship involves the full extent of a
Of the many different relationships people form over the course of the
life span, the relationship between parent and child is among the most
important. The quality of the parent-child relationship is affected by the
parent's age, experience, and self-confidence; the stability of the
parents' marriage; and the unique characteristics of the child
compared with those of the parent.
Parental self-confidence is an important indicator of parental competence.
Mothers who believe that they are effective parents are more competent
than mothers who feel incompetent. Also, mothers who see themselves as
effective also tend to believe their infants as less difficult to handle.
Parental age and previous experience are also important. Older mothers
tend to be more responsive to their infants than younger mothers. In
addition, parents who have had previous experience with children, whether
through younger siblings, career paths, or previous children, are often
times better able to cope with parenthood.
Characteristics that may affect the parent-child relationship in a
include the child's physical appearance, sex, and
. At birth, the infant's physical appearance may not meet the
parent's expectations, or the infant may resemble a disliked
relative. As a result, the parent may subconsciously reject the child. If
the parents wanted a baby of a particular sex, they may be disappointed if
the baby is the opposite sex. If parents do not have the opportunity to
talk about this disappointment, they may reject the infant.
Children who are loved thrive better than those who are not. Either parent
or a nonparent caregiver may serve as the primary caregiver or form the
primary parent-child love relationship. Loss of love from a primary
caregiver can occur with the death of a parent or interruption of parental
contact through prolonged hospitalizations.
can interfere with the child's need to eat, improve, and advance.
Cultural norms within the family also affect a child's likelihood
to achieve particular developmental milestones.
In some countries, childrearing is considered protective nurturing.
Children are not rushed into new experiences like
or being in school. In other countries, children are commonly treated in
a harsh, strict manner, using shame or corporal punishment for
. In Central American nations, toilet training may begin as early as when
the child can sit upright.
Childhood in the United States stretches across many years. In other
countries, children are expected to enter the adult world of work when
they are still quite young: girls assume domestic responsibilities, and
boys do outside farm work. In addition, in Asian cultures, parents
understand an infant's personality in part in terms of the
child's year and time of birth.
The position of a child in the family, whether a firstborn, a middle
child, the youngest, an only child, or one within a large family, has some
bearing on the child's growth and development. An only child or the
oldest child in a family excels in
because conversations are mainly with adults. Children learn by watching
other children; however, a firstborn or an only child, who has no example
to watch, may not excel in other skills, such as toilet training, at an
As babies are cared for by their parents, both parties develop
understandings of the other. Gradually, babies begin to expect that their
parent will care for them when they cry. Gradually, parents respond to and
their baby's needs. This exchange and familiarity create the basis
for a developing relationship.
One of the most important aspects of infant psychosocial development is
the infant's attachment to parents. Attachment is a sense of
belonging to or connection with a particular other. This significant bond
between infant and parent is critical to the infant's survival and
development. Started immediately after birth, attachment is strengthened
by mutually satisfying interaction between the parents and the infant
throughout the first months of life, called bonding. By the end of the
first year, most infants have formed an attachment relationship, usually
with the primary caretaker.
If parents can adapt to their babies, meet their needs, and provide
nurturance, the attachment is secure. Psychosocial development can
continue based on a strong foundation of attachment. On the other hand, if
a parent's personality and ability to cope with the infant's
needs for care are minimal, the relationship is at risk and so is the
By six to seven months, strong feelings of attachment enable the infant to
distinguish between caregivers and strangers. The infant displays an
obvious preference for parents over other caregivers and other unfamiliar
, demonstrated by crying, clinging, and turning away from the stranger, is
revealed when separation occurs. This behavior peaks between seven and
nine months and again during toddlerhood, when separation may be
difficult. Although possibly stressful for the parents,
is a normal sign of healthy child attachment and occurs because of
. Most children develop a secure attachment when reunited with their
caregiver after a temporary absence. In contrast, some children with an
insecure attachment want to be held, but they are not comfortable; they
kick or push away. Others seem indifferent to the parent's return
and ignore them when they return.
The quality of the infant's attachment predicts later development.
Youngsters who emerge from infancy with a secure attachment stand a better
chance of developing happy and healthy 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 for future social connections. Secure infants have parents who
sensitively read their infant's cues and respond properly to their
When children move from infancy into toddlerhood, the parent-child
relationship begins to change. During infancy, the primary role of the
parent-child relationship is nurturing and predictability, and much of the
relationship revolves around the day-to-day demands of caregiving:
feeding, toileting, bathing, and going to bed.
As youngsters begin to talk and become more mobile during the second and
third years of life, however, parents usually try to shape their
child's social behavior. In essence, parents become teachers as
well as nurturers, providers of guidance as well as affection.
Socialization (preparing the youngster to live as a member of a social
group) implicit during most of the first two years of life, becomes clear
as the child moves toward his or her third birthday.
Socialization is an important part of the parent-child relationship. It
includes various child-rearing practices, for example weaning, toilet
training, and discipline.
Dimensions of the parent-child relationship are linked to the
child's psychological development, specifically 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, nonresponsive parents are aloof,
rejecting, or critical. They show little pleasure in their children and
are often insensitive to their emotional needs. Some parents are
demanding, while others are too tolerant. Children's healthy
psychological development is facilitated when the parents are both
responsive and moderately demanding.
During toddlerhood, children often begin to assert their need for autonomy
by challenging their parents. Sometimes, the child's newfound
assertiveness during the so-called 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 the healthy development of
independence is promoted by a parent-child relationship that provides
support for the child's developing sense of autonomy. In many
regards, the security of the first attachment between infant and parent
provides the child with the emotional base to begin exploring the world
outside the parent-child relationship.
Various parenting styles evolve during the
years. Preschoolers with authoritative parents are curious about new
experiences, focused and skilled at
, self-reliant, self-controlled, and cheerful.
During the elementary school years, the child becomes increasingly
interested in peers, but this is not be 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 remains the most important influence on the
child's development. Children whose parents are both responsive and
demanding continue to thrive psychologically and socially during the
middle childhood years.
During the school years, the parent-child relationship continues to be
influenced by the child and the parents. In most families, patterns of
interaction between parent and child are well established in the
elementary school years.
As the child enters
, biological, cognitive, and emotional changes transform the parent-child
relationship. The child's urges for independence may challenge
parents' authority. Many parents find early adolescence a difficult
period. Adolescents fare best and their parents are happiest when parents
can be both encouraging and accepting of the child's needs for more
Although the value of peer relations grows during adolescence, the
parent-child relationship remains crucial for the child's
psychological development. Authoritative parenting that combines warmth
and firmness has the most positive impact on the youngster's
development. Adolescents who have been reared authoritatively continue to
show more success in school, better psychological development, and fewer
Adolescence may be a time of heightened bickering and diminished closeness
in the parent-child relationship, but most disagreements between parents
and young teenagers are over less important matters, and most teenagers
and parents agree on the essentials. By late adolescence most children
report feeling as close to their parents as they did during elementary
Parenting has four main styles: authoritarian, authoritative, permissive
(indulgent), and detached. Although no parent is consistent in all
situations, parents do follow some general tendencies in their approach to
childrearing, and it is possible to describe a parent-child relationship
by the prevailing style of parenting. These descriptions provide
guidelines for both professionals and parents interested in understanding
how variations in the parent-child relationship affect the child's
Parenting style is shaped by the parent's developmental history,
education, and personality; the child's behavior; and the immediate
and broader context of the parent's life. Also, the parent's
behavior is influenced by the parent's work, the parents'
marriage, family finances, and other conditions likely to affect the
parent's behavior and psychological well-being. In addition,
parents in different cultures, from different social classes, and from
different ethnic groups rear their children differently. In any event,
children's behavior and psychological development are linked to the
parenting style with which they are raised.
Authoritarian parents are rigid in their rules; they expect absolute
obedience from the child without any questioning. They also expect the
child to accept the family beliefs and principles without questions.
Authoritarian parents are strict disciplinarians, often relying on
physical punishment and the withdrawal of affection to shape their
Children raised with this parenting style are often moody, unhappy,
fearful, and irritable. They tend to be shy, withdrawn, and lack
self-confidence. If affection is withheld, the child commonly is
rebellious and antisocial.
Authoritative parents show respect for the opinions of each of their
children by allowing them to be different. Although there are rules in the
household, the parents allow discussion if the children do not understand
or agree with the rules. These parents make it clear to the children that
although they (the parents) have final authority, some negotiation and
compromise may take place. 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. This style of
parenting often results in children who have high
and are independent, inquisitive, happy, assertive, and interactive.
Permissive (indulgent) parents have little or no control over the behavior
of their children. If any rules exist in the home, they are followed
inconsistently. Underlying reasons for rules are given, but the children
whether they will follow the rule and to what extent. They learn that
they can get away with any behavior. Indulgent parents are responsive but
not especially demanding. They have few expectations of their children and
impose little or inconsistent discipline. There are empty threats of
punishment without setting limits. Role reversal occurs; the children act
more like the parents, and the parents behave like the children.
Children of permissive parents may be disrespectful, disobedient,
aggressive, irresponsible, and defiant. They are insecure because they
lack guidelines to direct their behavior. However, these children are
frequently creative and spontaneous. Although low in both social
responsibility and independence, they are usually more cheerful than the
conflicted and irritable children of authoritarian parents.
Finally, disengaged (detached) parents are neither responsive nor
demanding. They may be careless or unaware of the child's needs for
affection and discipline. Children whose parents are detached have higher
numbers of psychological difficulties and behavior problems than other
—A period of life in which the biological and psychosocial
transition from childhood to adulthood occurs.
—In psychology, a term that refers to a person's patterns
of response to stress.
—A test in which a sample of body fluid is placed on materials
specially formulated to grow microorganisms. A culture is used to learn
what type of bacterium is causing infection.
—In health care, a specific area of preparation or training,
i.e., social work, nursing, or nutrition.
—Two or more emotionally involved people living in close
proximity and having reciprocal obligations with a sense of commonness,
caring, and commitment.
Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishment to Reason
Riveside, NJ: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
Post, B. Bryan, et al.
For All Things a Season: An Essential Guide to a Peaceful Parent/Child
Mountain View, OK: M. Brynn Publishing, 2003.
Available online at
December 18, 2004).