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Distinguishing between poor/dysfunctional parenting and child emotional maltreatment: Childrearing Methods

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Childrearing Methods

Although we would expect a considerable range in ability and resources among Canadian families, certain features of a child's environment should be fundamental and expectable. For infants, an expectable environment requires protective and nurturing adults, as well as opportunities for socialization within a culture. For older children, an expectable environment includes a supportive family, contact with peers, and ample opportunities to explore and master their environment (Cicchetti & Lynch, 1995).

Parent-child relationships are the earliest and most enduring of all interpersonal bonds. For most children, the relationship that they have with their parents is positive and beneficial and makes a substantial contribution to their overall sense of well-being and capacity for resilience in the face of challenge. Positive parenting contributes to child development in many ways; most notably, it lays the foundation for future relationships with friends, classmates, teachers, and other adults in the community. Looking farther into the future, the romantic relationships that most individuals eventually enter into as adults are also significantly shaped by their childhood interactions with their parents; these patterns set the stage for their expectations about how they will be treated by a loved one and their views about how worthy they are of this attention and care (Collins & Steinberg, 2006).

Essential to the formation of close relationships across development is the ability to understand and adhere to the rules and roadmaps that govern interpersonal interactions. Parents provide this critical socialization function to their children and are responsible for teaching them formative lessons about the socioemotional and behavioural conventions that are appropriate within their particular cultural context. This type of knowledge is often transferred quite explicitly by parents in terms of the limits they set for their children, as well as the manner in which they enforce them.

Developmentally appropriate boundaries help children to structure and make sense of their inner worlds, scaffolding their ability to identify and manage difficult feelings like frustration and irritation, especially when their will is blocked and they are expected to compromise with another towards a shared goal. Emotion regulation is the foundation of all successful conflict resolution as it facilitates active listening, as well as the calm expression of one's own point of view (Calkins & Marcovitch, 2010). Children who have been socialized in this manner typically make pleasant and thoughtful playmates and students, and their future close friends and romantic partners are benefitted by their ability to maintain positive connections in the face of normative disagreements and feelings of stress.

Positive Methods

The provision of love and limits are the key ingredients of positive childrearing methods. Child development experts formally call these dimensions responsiveness and demandingness/control (Collins et al., 2000). Responsiveness refers to the level of acceptance and sensitivity that the parent expresses to the child, whereas demandingness/control refers to the clarity of expectations that the parent has for the child's behaviour, as well as the supervisory and disciplinary strategies utilized to achieve these ends. Both elements must be present in order to maximize the positive developmental outcomes of the child.

The authoritative approach to childrearing is the optimum relationship style because it balances the dimensions of responsive and demandingness/control. Authoritative parents are characterized by the provision of ongoing warmth and support, especially during times of uncertainty and stress, and yet their emotional care is not devoid of the application of helpful guidelines, limits, and the structuring of a predictable routine. Authoritative parents do use disciplinary measures, but these tend to be moderate in nature, proportionate to the offense, and delivered calmly and with an eye towards restorative justice and the modeling of relationship repair. When appropriate, authoritative parents provide their children with a rationale as to why their behaviours were inappropriate. In this manner, they facilitate the internalization of social norms and moral codes so that their children can eventually socialize themselves in this regard, much as they will be required to do as adult members of society (Kochanska & Aksan, 2006).

Although authoritative parents are characterized by the consistent way in which they balance the two dimensions of parenting, it is important to note that they vary in the application of these elements as their child changes and develops. During the first two years of life, research suggests that the responsiveness dimension is critical (Sroufe, 2005). Caregivers must attune themselves to the physiological and safety needs of their infants. Correct reading of their child's signals is especially important in this regard as the provision of sensitive care hinges first upon the specificity and appropriateness of the support offered. As episodes of successful signalling and care accumulate, the infant comes to trust the parent and to anticipate ongoing need fulfilment in the infant-parent relationship. This process underlies the formation of a secure emotional attachment, the critical milestone of this developmental period. In addition, an emerging line of evidence suggests that the child's current care environment is just as important as parental consistency, if not more so. A positive, nurturing childcare environment contributes positively to children's socioemotional development, especially for individuals who may be genetically more reactive to environmental change (Belsky & Pasco-Fearon, 2009; Belsky & Pluess, 2009).

Even though children may have been exposed to positive parenting at a young age, this does not immunize them from the effects of inappropriate responsiveness or demandingness/control at later points in their development. Circumstances may change in the family, including divorce, loss, trauma, or economic downfall, which may alter the availability of the parent and affect their approach to childrearing. The opposite also seems to hold true: children who experienced insensitive care earlier in their life are often able catch up if their current caregiving environment is more positive and consistent with the practice of authoritative parenting as outlined above. This shift has frequently been uncovered among families who have received counselling regarding parent strategies (Belsky & Pasco-Fearson, 2009), which speaks to the benefit of intervention, especially if provided early-on while the distance between the child's progress and typical developmental outcomes is relatively narrow.

It is also important to note that no two authoritative parents will look alike, as they need to bend towards the specific developmental needs of their child. The notion of goodness-of-fit between the parent and child lies at the core of current scholarly thinking about child development. Considerable research into the way in which parents and children mutually influence each other has been done with regard to infant temperament, or simply stated, the relatively stable tendencies and preferences that an individual is born with (e.g., activity level, tolerance for change, sociability, inhibition, ease of soothing, fussiness; Lahey et al., 2008). Parenting approaches that work with easygoing infants and children may not be appropriate with more temperamentally difficult youngsters, even though skilled parents are able to respond to the cues of their child by adapting the quality of their emotional responding. Turning to the dimension of demandingness, parents of children who have intellectual or developmental delays also must adjust their expectancies in light of the unique profile of their son or daughter. These children may require additional scaffolds and supports to achieve developmental outcomes that are reflective of their maximum capacity.

Poor Methods

Parental styles that do not balance responsiveness with demandingness and control generally fall under the umbrella of poor childrearing methods, according to experts in child development (Bornstein, 2006). For example, some parents may be out of balance because they are overly permissive; the support they provide their children is generally unmitigated by behavioural or mastery expectations, nor do they use proper discipline to manage socially inappropriate behaviours. The children of permissive parents tend to have difficulty regulating their emotions and, in adolescence, these youth are highly susceptible to engaging in risky behaviours such as substance use and precocious sexuality (Wolfe, Jaffe, & Crooks, 2006).

Other parents may be out of balance in that their approach to childrearing is overly rigid and strict. These parents may place unrealistic expectations on their children, without couching these messages in the context of praise and encouragement. Child development experts term this the authoritarian style of parenting (e.g., Bornstein, 2006). Authoritarian parents tend to have children who are stifled in their ability to solve problems creatively and who are more likely to resort to unilateral or antisocial means of solving conflict. In adolescence, these youth readily conform to peer norms that may put them at risk for rule-breaking and acting-out behaviours, especially if they belong to a relatively delinquent peer group (Chang et al., 2003).

Research on positive and negative childrearing practices underscores the importance of limit-setting and boundaries for moral development and positive relationships with friends, family members, and other adults in the community. Yet, not all approaches to limit-setting are equally valuable in this regard. In particular, a distinction has been made between parents' attempts to regulate their child's behaviour through moderate and concrete forms of discipline (e.g., time-outs, temporary rescinding of privileges), and parents' attempts to control their child's behaviour using psychological tactics aimed at undermining their emotional security or sense of self (e.g., guilt induction, negative comments regarding the stability of family relationships, hurtful remarks about the child's developing competencies). Optimal development is facilitated by parents' consistent application of the former disciplinary style and their general avoidance of the later technique that focuses on the exertion of power through psychologically coercive means (Bornstein, 2006).

Variation in developmental outcomes, especially in the domain of socioemotional functioning, is partially affected by the type of control enacted by the parents, be it behavioural or psychological (Gray & Steinberg, 1999). Parents who fail to apply behavioural controls often have children who exhibit conduct problems, such as the violation of social norms, or defiance and oppositionality at school or elsewhere in the community. Parents whose management style is comprised predominantly of psychological control, in contrast, tend to have children who report significant emotional distress and are at increased risk for internalizing problems such as anxiety and depression (Steinberg, 2005).

Psychological control has been framed as an especially stylistic means of navigating the parent-child relationship. Parents who use this technique tend to do so consistently, across situations, and over time as their child develops and changes (Barber & Harmon, 2002). The consistency of this parenting style is noteworthy to developmental experts because it has the potential to carry those exposed children even further off of the normative developmental trajectory as they age.

In adolescence, friendships and romantic relationships are thought to suffer from such poor parenting, especially as these youth carry forward negative expectations about their own success in relationships outside of the family (Nelson & Crick, 2002; Smetana, Campione-Barr, & Metzger, 2006). Adolescents who have experienced psychological control by their parents may either stifle their own opinions and values to maintain the relationship, or they may adopt the approach of their parents to impose their will on their friends and romantic partners.

In summary, positive childrearing styles (in contrast to negative styles) reflect:

  • Adequate knowledge of child development and expectations, including knowledge of the range of children's normal development;
  • Adequate skill in coping with stress related to caring for small children, and ways to enhance child development through proper stimulation and attention;
  • Opportunities to develop normal parent–child attachment and early patterns of communication;
  • Adequate parental knowledge of home management, including basic financial planning, proper shelter, and meal planning;
  • Opportunities and willingness to share the duties of child care between both parents, when applicable;
  • Provision of necessary social and health services;
  • Emphasis on proper behavioural methods to control unwanted child behaviour rather than guilt- or fear-inducing methods of psychological control

These healthy patterns depend not only on parental competence and developmental sensitivity, but also on family circumstances, social networks and supports, and the availability of community resources such as education and childrearing information. The family situation itself, including the parents' relationship and the child's characteristics provides the basic context for childrearing.

Emotionally Abusive or Neglectful Methods

In general terms, emotional maltreatment of children includes abusive or neglectful behaviours by the parents or caregivers that have caused, or could cause, serious behavioural, cognitive, emotional, or mental problems (Glaser, 2002; Trickett, Mennen, Kim, & Sang, 2009). Emotionally abusive behaviours include excessive and continuing criticism, denigration, terrorizing, repeated blaming, insults, and threats against children by their caretakers. For example, parents/caregivers may use extreme or bizarre forms of punishment, such as lengthy confinement of a child in a dark closet. Emotionally neglectful behaviours include gross indifference and inattentiveness to a child's developmental or special needs (Brassard & Donovan, 2006).

Guidelines from the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC; Myers et al., 2002) state that psychological maltreatment (which for all intents and purposes is the same term as child emotional maltreatment) "involves a repeated pattern of caregiver behavior or a serious incident, that transmits to the child that s/he is worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered, or only of value in meeting another's needs." APSAC classifies CEM into 6 types: spurning, terrorizing, exploiting or corrupting, denying emotional responsiveness, isolation and neglect. The American Academy of Pediatrics (Kairys et al., 2002) uses the same APSAC categories, while adding unreliable or inconsistent parenting and witnessing intimate partner violence to the list.Footnote [1]

As noted previously, the definition of CEM used for the policy think tank follows closely from the above conceptual and operational definitions:  Child emotional maltreatment involves behaviour of caregivers (verbal or nonverbal, active or passive, and intended or not) that has the potential to damage the social, cognitive, emotional and/or physical development of a child, and includes:

hostile rejecting and degrading;
threatening or perpetrating violence against the child;
placing unreasonable limitations or restrictions on a child's social interactions;
encouraging the child to develop inappropriate behaviour;
Denying Emotional Responsiveness:
ignoring the child's attempts and needs to interact; and
Exposure to Family Violence:
an indirect form of emotional maltreatment in which a child is aware of violence between caregivers, either through seeing or hearing the violence or its effects.

We return to these definitions in the final section of this paper as we grapple with ways to operationalize CEM, examine whether potential harm to the child should be part of the definition, and distinguish such acts from poor dysfunctional parenting approaches.

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