Children Need Structure More Than Warmth, Says Child Psychologist


3 girls sitting on stairs on their cellphones

Every parent wants the best for their children, but sometimes it’s unclear what ‘the best’ is. There are so many parenting styles and methods that it’s hard to know which one would work for a particular child.

No good parent wants to see their kids suffer or struggle. Yet they also want to give them tools to succeed in the future. Parenting is a constant see-saw of choosing to be loving and help or let them figure things out on their own, and although both are important, often love comes more naturally (or easily). These are their children, after all. They mean the world to them. Besides, many parenting guides propose unconditional love and care as the ultimate method. [1]

Child psychologist Lisa Damour, who specializes working with adolescent girls and authored Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood, disagrees. She states that structure is more important than affection to help children develop into successful, secure adults.

“They can get warmth from their teachers, from their friends’ parents, but they can only get structure from parents,” said Damour.

This is not an unfounded statement. Studies have shown that children raised in austere, business-like style may become less happy as adults, but they are successful, having been given the tools they need to function in the adult world. Children without rules of discipline were ill-equipped for adulthood, almost stunted in their childlike ways.

The worst cases were kids who were brought up without either, and they were at risk of delinquency. It’s best to have both.

“They need to feel loved, and they need to know the rules,” Damour said. “That’s your job [as parents].”

The Four Types of Parents

Damour describes four general types of parents:

  • Authoritative: high on structure and warmth
  • Authoritarian: high on structure, low on warmth
  • Permissive: low on structure, high on warmth
  • Uninvolved: low on structure and warmth [2]

Authoritative parents are considered to be the ‘optimal’ parents since they infuse structure and affection into their children’s lives and prepare them well for adulthood.

“Some days, most parents find themselves being more structured,” said Damour, “and on other days they’ll find themselves being very warm. It’s the mix of the two that we hold out as the ideal in parenting.”

The second-best method is creating a strict, rule-adhering environment albeit lacking warmth.

“Kids really deserve to get warmth at home, but these children and teenagers do gain the benefit of having high and clear expectations at home,” Dr. Damour explained.

Third-best is a home with a lot of affection but a lack of discipline.

“They may enjoy a lot of warmth at home which is, of course, a great thing,’ she said. “But they can struggle to manage the demands of the outside world if their parents don’t have or maintain rules and expectations.”

The worst case is when children are raised without neither. 

“Not surprisingly,” Damour said, “They tend to be the kids who are most likely to struggle.” [3]

Raising Teenagers with Structure

Although most teenagers beg for freedom, they do crave structure from their parents. Parents who are overly permissive and inconsistent with rules can cause them anxiety.

“Being a teenager feels like you’re out of control and you’re surrounded by people who are out of control,” Damour said. “You don’t want parents to be out of control.”

Social media has been a game-changer for the relationship between teenagers and their parents. Teens now have social lives active almost every hour of the day, and parents are able to monitor what would otherwise be private conversations and track the teenager’s locations. Damour advises that it’s not always best to know as much as possible. 

“It’s always best for parents to appreciate adolescence as a difficult developmental time that a teenager is going through, not something that the teenager is doing to the parent,” she said. “When parents can take teenage behavior less personally, things tend to go more smoothly.’

Damour is also the mother of a teenage daughter, and here is her advice on how to create structure for adolescents:

  • The teenager should understand the reason behind the rules, and most of the time, that reason should be their safety. They will be more likely to listen than if they are told “because I said so,” which can easily backfire. [4] 
  • Don’t hold back apologies. In cases where apologizing to a teen is appropriate, don’t neglect to do so. Contrary to what one might think, this builds trust and shows the teenager the respect they crave.
  • Stress is normal for teenagers to experience; it teaches them resilience and helps them grow. There’s no need to swoop down and fix every stressful situation that comes their way, but stress becomes an issue if the teen is left with no time to relax and recuperate.
  • Introduce technology to the child as late as possible, and keep it out of the bedroom. The internet, games and social media hold kids’ attention, even past bedtime, which makes them lose valuable sleep that it’s vital for their health. “You may lose the battle, but I’d rather you lose the battle with a 17-year old than a 13-year old,” she said.

Damour ends with a quote that is very comforting to parents who are often laden with guilt about the million things they’ve done wrong raising their kids. She said that parents are the best judge of what’s best for their children. “There’s a million ways to get this right.” [5]

If you would like a copy of any of Dr. Lisa Damour’s books you can find them on Amazon here:

Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood

Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls

  1. Sandi Schwartz. How a parent’s affection shapes a child’s happiness for life
  2. Jordan L. Mullins. Parenting Styles and Child Behavior May 16, 2018 
  3. Abigail Miller. Structure can be more important than warmth for teenagers to develop into functioning adults, child psychologist claims August 1, 2017 
  4. Raising Children. Discipline strategies for teenagers January 10, 2019
  5. Oliver Staley. Kids need structure more than warmth from their parents, according to a top child psychologist July 27, 2017

The post Children Need Structure More Than Warmth, Says Child Psychologist appeared first on The Hearty Soul.


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