The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Relating to our children

Dr Carol Craig asks if parenting styles are eroding young people’s resilience.

Almost every month the media relays worrying statistics about the state of child and adolescent mental health – suicide, self-harm, depression and anxiety are increasing. Similarly, the age at which youngsters are suffering from mental health problems is decreasing.

When the media, various experts and politicians discuss the issue they tend to focus on child and mental health services or, more precisely, the lack of them. As a result what’s rarely discussed is why our young people’s mental health is declining. There is some discussion about the role of social media but the data gives mixed results. Some surveys suggest that screen time is an issue while others do not corroborate this finding.

What few people are asking is whether various cultural shifts are responsible for the erosion of young people’s mental health. I’m a great believer that it’s important to discuss issues even when we don’t have data to guide us. After all, unless we speculate on possible causes where will the impetus for empirical research come from?

Changing parenting styles

In my view one potentially fruitful area of research is parenting styles. I find it interesting that if you talk to older teachers, who have been in the profession for decades, they report a noticeable erosion in children’s resilience. They’re also aware that parents relate to their children in a different way. 10-ways-to-boost-resilience

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, Scotland still had a punitive and authoritarian culture. The majority of parents smacked their children. Teachers, too, routinely belted children not just for gross indiscipline but also trivial misdemeanours and academic mistakes. It was only when I was undertaking research for my latest book Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland’s Ill Health that I discovered that Scotland’s use of corporal punishment was not only excessive but exceptional.

I know from leading various workshops with people over decades that many parents very deliberately wanted to protect their children from what they had experienced both at school and at home. Not only did they not want to use traditional discipline but they wanted to protect their children from any negative feelings.

Research shows that authoritarian parenting is not good for children’s academic success or their wellbeing. But going to the opposite extreme is not good for children either. Extensive research shows that the best type of parenting for children is authoritative – child-centred, loving and focused on the child’s welfare but with clear rules and boundaries. Authoritative parenting can be described as “warm and firm” in that it is both responsive and demanding. A systematic literature review of 131 papers on parenting styles and academic achievement concluded that “Authoritative parenting tends to promote better and positive outcomes in child development.”

But as far as I can tell most modern Scottish parents have not adopted an authoritative style: they have become permissive and indulgent and can’t bear to think their child has a bad day or a bad experience. The tragedy for contemporary parents is that in the long run it’s exhausting to think that you must always protect your children from negative feelings.

Even more importantly you undermine your child in the  process. Children only become resilient when they meet challenges and manage to overcome them. Trying to cocoon children in a world of positive feelings inevitably undermines their development.

Challenge doesn’t mean dangerous stress

From an educational attainment perspective it’s worrying that so many parents now think that any learning challenge is too much for their child to bear and should be avoided. In short they equate challenge with dangerous stress. Yet learning anything worth learning is frustrating and often challenging.

When I was young we were continually held accountable for our behaviour, often unfairly. Now we have the opposite. Many parents now find it almost impossible to accept that their child may have done anything wrong or may have to change their behaviour. Failure to accept any responsibility as a child or an adult is worrying as people cannot adequately grow and develop if they are unable to face up to the need to change their behaviour.

Independent play outdoors is one of the ways that children have traditionally learned to calculate risk and manage conflict and the absence of independent play is, for me, another contributory reason for the erosion of young people’s resilience. But, yet again, overprotective parents find it difficult to allow their children to play outdoors in case they encounter challenging experiences.

Teachers and schools have an important role in counteracting this unhelpful, overprotective atmosphere. One of the main things they can do is try to normalise negative feelings: setbacks and failures are a normal part of life. At the Centre for Confidence and Well-being we have come up with a list of ten things adults can do to help boost children and young people’s resilience. Not only could these key messages help improve youngsters’ ability to navigate challenges, they might also make their parents’ lives easier.

About the author

Dr Carol Craig runs the Centre for Confidence and Well-being, a small charity which she founded in 2005. She is the author of The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, and The Tears that Made the Clyde. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland’s Ill Health. She is the commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland book series published by the Centre.