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What a Child Needs From a Parent

Each child, no matter their age or gender, has unique needs, but a healthy relationship with a parent can support them all.

Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.
Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.

Noreen and Nia
“I know that I can say anything to you and even if it’s something bad, you’ll just say, ‘OK, so how can we fix it?’” Nia Lee, 10, of New York City, tells her mother, Noreen. “Most moms probably wouldn’t do that.” Nia, who has been playing piano since age 4, has entered competitions across the city, which can be stressful for both mother and daughter. “It’s a big deal that she’s there,” Nia says. “One time I was so nervous that I messed up and came out crying. She didn’t know what had happened, but she was just there for me.” And when it goes well? “Mom takes a lot of pictures and puts them on Facebook.” “That was for my father,” Noreen says. “Every time Nia did anything, he’d say, ‘Post it on Facebook,’ so all of his 85-year-old friends could see.” Her father died of Covid last year in the Philippines, where he had moved in retirement. Noreen and Nia had visited him there every summer. “In the morning I would play piano for him,” Nia says. “He loved it so much,” Noreen recalls, “because my mother played the piano too.”

The Research on Raising Great Kids

By Daniel Flint, MA

Not all kids are raised by two parents, or necessarily by their biological parents at all, and these children are not at a disadvantage. But a large body of research on biological child-and-parent relationships within and across genders has highlighted a range of “needs” mothers and fathers or other guardians are able to fulfill for children. Each represents one factor in what is always a complex connection between parent and child. If one of these items goes unmet, it does not mean that a child is in jeopardy or cannot have a satisfying relationship with parents or guardians, or with others.

    What a Daughter Needs From Her Mom

    • Self-confidence and body acceptance. Research suggests that a mother’s sense of shame and rejection of her body is closely connected to her daughter’s lack of confidence in her own body. Specifically, mothers who performed frequent surveillance of their own body (checking in the mirror, examining flaws, etc.) were more likely to raise daughters who did the same. This research team encouraged mothers to demonstrate to their daughters that “an adult woman’s body is acceptable” and to remember that body image–related behaviors may be closely mirrored by daughters, especially if they resemble or share physical traits with their mothers.
    • Emotional burden-sharing and physical comfort. In a study that measured stress levels using galvanic skin response, teenage girls were instructed to make a 3-minute impromptu educational speech, to simulate social stress and anxiety. Meanwhile, the girls’ mothers were instructed either to hold their daughter’s hand while she spoke or to sit silently next to her. Evidence from galvanic skin response data suggested that when a mother held her daughter’s hand, the daughter did not experience as much anxiety during her speech as daughters whose mothers sat silently beside them. However, in mother-daughter pairs with reported high relationship quality, the emotional burden-sharing effect was felt even when physical contact was not present. The researchers concluded that confidence in a solid mother-daughter relationship may protect against emotional threats as robustly as does actual supportive physical touch.
    • Authoritative parenting. Parenting styles are typically categorized as authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, or uninvolved. Authoritative parents are pragmatic and flexible, setting clear boundaries but encouraging independence and employing supportive, not punitive, dicipline. In a study of adult daughters, authoritative parenting in childhood was linked to the development of positive cognitive schemas—how someone thinks about herself and the world. For example, daughters who reported being raised by authoritative mothers were significantly less likely to hold schemas related to shame or defectiveness, social isolation, dependence on others, and external locus of control (the idea that one has minimal control over one’s life experience), which have all been linked to the development of mental and behavioral health problems.
    • High, but not impossible, expectations. Researchers who tracked a group of daughters for over 20 years found that a mother’s belief in her 10-year-old daughter’s ability to finish schooling on time predicted the daughter’s self-reported sense of control over her life when she was 30. This effect remained significant even after researchers statistically controlled for ethnicity, career choice, intellectual ability, mental health problems, socio-economic status, and parental family structure, among other variables. This is a simple strategy moms can incorporate into their parenting: Believe in your daughters, let them know it, and hold them to high standards. They may come to thank you, even if it’s not until adulthood.

    What a Son Needs From His Dad

    • Time. It’s well established that positive parenting behaviors are protective factors for kids against the onset of both externalizing (disobedience, aggression) and internalizing (anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders) problems. In a recent study examining these protective factors, married fathers who reported frequently shopping, playing a sport, going to entertainment events, playing games, cooking, and/or watching television with their kids were more likely to have children who did not exhibit either externalizing or internalizing symptoms—an effect that was even more pronounced in sons than in daughters.
    • “The Talk.” Any trusted adult could talk to boys about sex at an appropriate age, but research shows that for boys with a father in the home, this conversation is typically facilitated by him. Studies suggest, however, that fathers experience a low sense of self-efficacy when it comes to having these conversations with their kids—for example, evidence implies that fathers feel especially incompetent in explaining to their sons how to say no to sex. Researchers fear this parental insecurity will limit the amount of information and guidance boys receive.
    • An upstanding, law-abiding example. According to longitudinal research on thousands of fathers and their sons, men who break the law are far more likely to have fathers who did the same. Among sons of law-abiding fathers, only 4 percent were convicted of more than one delinquent act. In contrast, about 40 percent of sons of law-breaking fathers committed more than one such crime. The authors of this study were careful to caution that a wide variety of socio-cultural factors also play a role in increasing or decreasing the likelihood of delinquent behavior.
    • Affection and tenderness. Research shows that children of dads who treated them affectionately as an infant scored higher on standardized measures of cognitive ability in reading and math at age 4, findings that held true regardless of ethnicity. Specifically, a dad’s frequency of kissing and hugging his son at age 2 was one of the factors loading onto a construct of “warmth” that positively predicted his son’s scores.

    What a Son Needs From His Mom

    • Non-coercive parenting. Coercive parenting refers to a common cycle in which a parent directs a child’s behavior, is met with refusal, and increases the severity of the demand on the child, who responds with arguing, yelling, or acting out until finally the parent gives up, which reinforces the initial misbehavior. In a large sample of young boys and their mothers followed for more than 10 years, researchers found that boys with mothers who employed coercive parenting experienced higher rates of conduct problems and social problems, including rejection by other children, while more positive, adaptive parenting strategies helped boys develop positive social skills and a stronger sense of self.
    • Minimal conflict and maximum warmth. “Warmth” does not mean permissiveness or over-indulgence: Warm mothers are loving, firm, kind, and invested in their son’s development. But warmth, like conflict, is not a variable that is entirely under the control of a parent. Still, moms who work hard to minimize conflict and maximize the warmth they share with their son, research suggests, are more apt to set their child up for developing healthy social skills like making friends, while lessening the boy’s likelihood of engaging in such behavior as acting out in school.
    • Encouraging executive function. Modeling is an important part of positive parenting. A “do as I say, not as I do” philosophy is not a firm foundation on which to teach the next generation about life skills. In a study about what attributes helped mothers foster their son’s ability to self-regulate—which broadly encompasses self-control, decision-making, and emotion-management skills—researchers discovered two key factors. Women who maintained a trusting, attached relationship with their son aided in the establishment of such executive control. Conversely, mothers with antagonistic parenting practices, such as undermining or manipulation, had sons who did not as readily display these behaviors.
    • Avoidance of harsh criticism. Mothers’ harsh criticism of their young son, research has found, predicts symptoms of oppositional defiance: Moms who are more vocally critical are more likely to have a son who misbehaves. It is, of course, true that boys who misbehave are more likely to elicit criticism from their mother, but harsh criticism generally doesn’t help. When moms employ harsh criticism, they do not effectively target their son’s misbehavior. Interestingly, the same link with misbehavior was found for emotional over-involvement—defined as extreme over-protective and self-sacrificing behaviors.
    Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.
    Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.

    Miguel and Dylan
    “I grew up without my biological father, so I never really had a dad I could go to and help me figure stuff out. I had to figure out most things on my own,” says Miguel Vasquez of Brooklyn, New York, father of Dylan, 9. “When I got older and my girlfriend at the time was pregnant, I thought about how I would be as a dad, not knowing what a dad really is all about because I never had one. I had to ask: Do I follow my life cycle or try to break it? I took it as a challenge to break it. That led me to being fully present and giving all my attention to her—probably at her age a little too much, and that may be annoying for her, but it’s coming from a place of love. She’s like my little broke best friend. If she wants to get her nails done, we’ll do it together. We go to the movies, we ride our bikes, we run around in the park, and we watch wrestling. I’m looking forward to watching her become more independent. It’s going to hurt a bit because I want her to be a little dependent on me, but I know she has to continue to grow, and that’s going to be pretty cool.”

    What a Daughter Needs from Her Dad

    • Permission to be a child. Responsible parents should be careful not to rely on their children to assuage their own psychological insecurities. Evidence from a sample of over 500 adult women asked to recall their childhood with their dad suggests that many experienced “parentification,” the maladaptive process in which a child begins to take on typical parental caregiving responsibilities and feels obliged to meet her parent’s own psychological needs, such as for validation. For these women, adult romantic relationship satisfaction and relationship security were lower than for counterparts who grew up without feeling parentified.
    • Acceptance, availability, and positive affect. A study that compared a group of depressed adolescent girls with a never-depressed cohort highlighted the importance of the father-daughter relationship. Girls who were diagnosed with depression were significantly more likely to report that they felt rejected or neglected by their father or had a cold, detached relationship with him. These findings held regardless of whether the girls’ parents were married or separated. Furthermore, while fathers’ own reports indicated that they agreed with their daughter’s assessments, fathers of depressed teen girls did not seem to recognize the lack of warmth and parental attachment felt by their daughter—likely due to poor communication between them.
    • Shared physical activity. A group of fathers was trained using a program called Dads and Daughters Exercising and Empowered (DADEE), which focused on improving their basic positive parenting skills, maximizing their investment in their daughter’s well-being, and engaging with her in active, collaborative, fitness-related play. Compared to a control group, nine months later, daughters who participated in the training group experienced larger increases in social-emotional competency, decision-making skills, social awareness, relationship skills, personal responsibility, and self-management skills.
    • Closeness, reliability, and permission for autonomy. In an investigation of three groups of women—one diagnosed with an eating disorder (ED), one diagnosed with a non-ED psychiatric disorder, and one with no such diagnoses—researchers had participants recall the nature of their relationship with their father while growing up and answer a range of quantitative and narrative response questions. Results indicated that women who had a psychiatric disorder were more likely to describe their father as less caring, overprotective, unkind, and punitive; women who described their father as being high in control but low in affection were more likely to restrain their food intake, express concerns about their physical appearance, and experience depression, as compared to peers who reported having relatively caring fathers.

    Daniel Flint, M.A., is a doctoral candidate in Bowling Green State University’s clinical psychology Ph.D. program and a doctoral intern at Western Youth Services in Orange County, California.

    Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.
    Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.

    Diane and Stefen
    “Stefen told me he was transgender in 2017, a couple of months after my husband passed away,” says Diane Lempert of New York City. “His death was unexpected, devastating, and very traumatic to Stefen and his younger sister. At a time that was incredibly dark and sad, I was glad to be able to do something that would make Stefen’s life better. I connected him with a medical team and changed his name and gender marker on every legal document. Stefen was concerned that so soon after the loss of my husband, I would also feel the loss of the child I knew, but it was a privilege for me to do this for him, and we know my husband would have been with us every single step of the way. I had the chance to help him live as his authentic self and that was a gift to me. He needs to know there is nothing he can't come to me with.” “When I was starting to transition,” says Stefen Lempert, 19, “my mom made it possible. She was able to help her kid, who up until then had pretty much always struggled in silence. The unique reality of being a trans kid is you’re 15, and you feel like if you don’t convince every adult in your life that you’re adult enough to be treated like one, you’ll die. I’ve never had to sacrifice parts of my transness for my mother’s comfort, though, and I’m so lucky for that. I don’t think she realizes how uncommon her unconditional support is. I’m one of the lucky ones.”

    9 Ways Parents Can Support Their Nonbinary Child

    By Oakley Phoenix, with Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D.

    As a young nonbinary adult who’s been out of the closet for more than a year, I’m comfortable with who I am, and my mother is as well. I came out slowly over time, first mentioning that I was considering changing my name and then suggesting that I was starting to use they/them pronouns alongside she/her at school. When I finally officially came out to my mom, she wanted to understand what being nonbinary was, why I wanted top surgery if I wasn’t a trans man, how testosterone therapy would affect my personality, and why I wasn’t comfortable being a sometimes masculine-presenting girl. After months of heart-to-hearts, individual therapy, and support group sessions with my mom, I feel I can share this advice to parents of newly out nonbinary youth.

    1. Listen without centering yourself. Your kid being nonbinary, gender non-conforming, and/or trans is not about you. You didn’t do anything wrong or show them the wrong TV show. Try not to let your emotions override your ability to put your child first. They need to know that you have their back as they figure things out. Be grateful that they trusted you enough to tell you that their gender has been on their mind.
    2. Do research without asking your kid to guide you. Look for articles, podcasts, essays, and zines or just start Googling your questions. There are a lot of resources on nonbinary identities aside from your own kid. Seriously, they have a lot on their plate, navigating gender while also being a full-time human being. They cannot also be your gender and sexuality dictionary. Do ask them what words to use when thinking of them, but don’t ask them what every single word means.
    3. Explore your gender on your own time—or with your kid if they’re interested. Gender questions are not exclusive to Gen Z. You can ask them of yourself as well: What makes you a woman or a man? Why do you stick to one section of the store when you shop for clothes? Have you ever considered doing something reserved for the “other” gender? What is it about being called she or he that feels right for you? How does your gender affect your work, your hobbies, or your way of speaking? You might learn something about yourself, and you’ll better understand the time and energy that has gone into your child's coming forward with their newfound understanding of themself.
    4. Don’t out your kid without their explicit consent. When you go to seek support, you may think of asking a friend, family member, or religious network to provide you with comfort. Ask your kid first. Their identity is not yours to share with others without their explicit permission. Let your kid determine who knows about their gender journey and give them time to work up the courage to share it more widely. Coming out as genderqueer is exhausting, and your child deserves to feel as if they have control over their own narrative.
    5. Seek gender-affirming support for your kid and for yourself. Get a therapist. Go to a support group. Find a Facebook group or a positive Instagram comment section. You aren’t the first people to walk this path. Anywhere you and your child can find others with shared gender experiences is a huge help. Find an affirming community, and start making yourselves feel at home in this new space.
    6. Prepare for your kid’s gender presentation to change drastically, not at all, or somewhere in between. Your kid is still your kid, no matter what. If they go on hormones, change their name, have a gender-affirming procedure, or alter their physical form in any other way, they’re still your baby. They’re still that person that you helped raise. In fact, they’re more authentically themself now. Don’t take it personally if your kid decides to get a different haircut or asks for a new wardrobe or starts behaving differently than you expect them to. Embrace it. Maybe you can change up your look as well and bond over it. That said, your child might not change visibly at all. Being nonbinary doesn’t have a “look,” and their identity is no less valid if they choose to continue to present in the same or a similar way as before.
    7. Know that gender journeys do not have clear ending points. I changed my name, started taking testosterone, and had top surgery over the course of a year. That’s fast. And my journey is not over by any means; my gender is always shifting and evolving and flowing and breakdancing and strutting its stuff. Your kid’s journey could go a million different ways. Don’t expect an endpoint or a clearly defined goal because we don’t all have those. My goal was to feel better and safer in my body, and that’s a goal I will always be trying to attain. Love your child as they evolve over time.
    8. Stand up for your kid. Being nonbinary is not a new idea, but it seems new to many people, and not everyone is going to “get it.” If your coworker makes an offhand comment or your friend says something snide, stand up for your baby. Your kid is already entering the world as a marginalized identity, and they will shoulder far more of that burden than you ever will. If people to whom your kid is out misgender or misname them, correct them calmly and compassionately. If they refuse to correct their behavior, consider whether you want someone in your life who doesn’t respect your child.
    9. Lead by example. Your kid is looking to you for support because you’re their parent or guardian. How much you care about their gender sets the example for how much everyone else thinks they should. If you blow off their name or pronouns or requests for support, others will do the same. You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to try your best every day. The more effort you put into broadening your understanding, the easier it will become to say the right things. Your child is awesome, and they’re lucky to have you in their life.

    Oakley Phoenix is a senior at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, and a blogger focusing on gender, sexuality, mental health, and youth culture. Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., is a licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist.

    Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.
    Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.

    Martine and Sophia
    "I need her guidance, big and small,” Sophia Gallo, 24, of Brooklyn, New York, says of her mom, Martine Beudert. “Something small would be, like, I have a mouse in my apartment. What should I do? But there are also bigger things, like how I should deal with my landlord. I feel that, overall, mom’s always right, but that doesn’t mean I should abandon all critical thinking.” “I had children late,” Martine says. “I was never the kind of person who really wanted to get married or have children, and then I did both. I tried to raise an independent, articulate person, and I wanted her to know that if there’s something I could do to support her on her journey, I would do it.” Sophia, a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, says, “When I went to college, it was the first time I realized that other people didn’t have parents who were supportive of them artistically. That was something I always took for granted. But then I met all these people who said, ‘My parents think I’m wasting their money.’ I thought that was terrifying and terrible. I’m lucky to have someone who said, ‘OK, you want to paint? Cool.’ I don’t have to prove to her that art is a worthy pursuit.”

    What Adult Children Need Their Parents to Understand

    By Michelle Maidenberg, Ph.D.

    I recently surveyed 50 adults, asking them to share the one thing they felt they needed their parents to know. This letter represents their responses.

    Dear Parents,
    As an adult, I am aware of my judgments of you and your judgments toward me. Some of my judgments are remnants of the past, but some circle back to more recent behavior. Just as you want to be proud of me, it is important to me that I can be proud of you. I want a parent I can look up to and respect.

    It hurts when you react out of frustration and anger toward me. Even as an adult, I need your acceptance and approval; that feeling never fades. Please take notice of my strengths, and let’s talk about those sometimes rather than focusing on what is wrong or not right with me. When you criticize me—out of love, you say, or because you worry about me, want to protect me, or want better for me—it chips away at my core and sometimes makes me feel worthless. Instead of pushing me to change, your criticism makes me feel insecure and self-conscious—or that I want to rebel and fight back.

    It is especially disappointing when you compare me to other people. I am my own person, and I worked hard to get here. Ask me about what I take pride in and what drives me. Commit to getting to know and understand me as I evolve.

    Respect my individuality and independence and let me find my own way—whether or not you share my values or approve of my decisions. If I stumble or fail, trust that I will learn from it and be the better for it.

    I need to hear you say how much you love and care about me; just assuming it isn’t enough. It is important that you are explicit about why you’re proud of me and why you care about me. I still need your acknowledgment and admiration; I have an inherent need to be noticed and, yes, adored by you. I want to feel that I am a priority in your life and that your love for me is unconditional and enduring.

    When you check in with me, listen to me, even if you don’t agree with everything you hear. It really hurts when you discount my feelings or suggest what I may “really” be feeling. I am different from you. I think how I think, and I feel how I feel.

    Take notice when I’m not acting like myself. There is usually a good reason for it. Just like you, I sometimes get overwhelmed and feel befuddled. Instead of judging and instantly reacting to me, ask if I’m OK. If you are caring and patient with me, I am more likely to calm down and revert to my genuine self instead of pulling away.

    I know no one is perfect, but I need you to accept personal responsibility for the mistakes you made. When you get defensive, it makes me feel invalidated and as if you are dismissive of me and my feelings. We can’t go back in time and fix the past, but I need to feel sure that I will not be hurt in the same way again. And I know that I have made mistakes too, but please do not constantly remind me of them or throw them in my face. We are both evolving and, I hope, both taking personal responsibility, but it’s not helpful for us to stay stuck in the past. It will just create further distance between us.

    We both deserve to be heard, validated, and respected. We have to be able to look into ourselves and apologize when we hurt each other. It may not necessarily make sense to each of us why we think, feel, or react in the way we do, but we can still try to understand and have compassion for the other’s position.

    Thank you for teaching me valuable life lessons. I learned through modeling your behavior, through seeing and experiencing what did and did not work for you, and deciding to do some things differently. I have gratitude for your lessons because they helped shape me into the person I am today. Thank you for influencing my life and for being willing to help our relationship continue to evolve and grow.

    Michelle Maidenberg, Ph.D., MPH, LCSWR, is a therapist in private practice in Harrison, New York, and an adjunct of mindfulness practice at New York University.

    Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.
    Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.

    Brandon and Cole
    “If I can demonstrate or role model the ways that I want them to behave that’s what I want to do,” says Brandon Zimmerman, of Brooklyn, New York, father of Cole, 9 (above) and Logan, 7. “I want them to try to always be positive, to be respectful, and to work well with others. They love sports, and I want them to win but also to know that winning isn’t everything. If you play hard and you don’t win, but you did all you could, that’s totally fine. Humbleness is important to us. We try to be very humble people—confident, but humble. I try to get that across to them, and when I see them demonstrate that, it makes me feel good.” Brandon is giving a lot of thought to how much independence Cole is ready for—whether it’s riding the subway alone or biking on his own in the city. For now, “I try to give him some space, but he still always wants to check in and make sure I’m watching him.” “He’s very encouraging, and he gives me a lot of advice,” Cole says. “But I’m a better soccer player.”

    5 Ways Parents and Adult Children Can Get Along Better

    By Sarah Epstein, LMFT

    It’s always easier to maintain the status quo in a relationship, particularly between a parent and an adult child, even when it leads to frustration. Change is the harder choice, but it’s also the best path to greater connection and satisfaction.

    Speak to one another like adults. Having spent decades in communication with each other, parents and adult children risk falling into age-inappropriate patterns. Adult children may lapse into speaking and acting younger than they are, particularly during disagreements. Parents, in turn, may lapse into speaking to grown offspring as though speaking to children, making inappropriate demands or offering unsolicited advice. If this happens, take a step back and shift into speaking more like adults.

    Take responsibility for the relationship. Both parents and adult children must take responsibility for shaping, maintaining, and managing the relationship. That includes initiating contact, compromising and negotiating, and finding mutually enjoyable ways to connect. When a child or parent simply waits for the other to do the work of building and maintaining the relationship, resentment builds.

    Learn constructive conflict. Unhealthy conflict styles can calcify during childhood and feel hard to revise. The silent treatment, guilt trips, passive aggression, screaming, and ignoring difficult issues are just some of the destructive patterns that adversely affect the relationship. Both parties should recognize their particular role in these cycles and start to consider how they might respond differently.

    Respect boundaries. Boundaries go both ways, and parents and children may both feel resentment when the other violates them. Parents must decide what sort of access adult children should have to information and what level of support they are willing to provide. Adult children too, must decide what level of privacy and involvement they will seek and accept from parents, particularly in the realms of career, finance, relationships, and lifestyle.

    Accept feedback. Accepting feedback is a cornerstone of a healthy relationship, and it means accepting responsibility for one’s role in hurting or irritating the other person. A parent might tell a child to call earlier in the evening, express frustration at the presence of a cellphone during in-person conversations, or indicate that they’d like their own life asked about sometimes. An adult child, in turn, might tell a parent which conversations feel comfortable or uncomfortable or ask that a certain tone be exchanged for a different one during conversations.

    Sarah Epstein, LMFT, is a marriage and family therapist in Philadelphia.

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