Brief Review: Factors that Support Resilient Parenting

Delivering quality parenting in a difficult and ever-shifting world is a challenge. The picture of what enables resilient parenting is highly complex, but some common factors emerge in the literature. Find out what they are, here.

Author: Tyler Phillips, Research Psychologist and Lead Content Specialist

What does it mean to be a resilient parent? As a person in general, being resilient means being able to overcome challenges, setbacks, and adversity – to withstand breakdown in the face of them – and to learn and grow in the process. When we transplant this definition into the family home, it retains much of the same meaning. For example, according to a model proposed by clinical psychologists, childhood resilience is “the ability of children to achieve positive outcomes in spite of prominent risk”. Similarly, parental resilience is “the capacity of parents to deliver competent, quality parenting in the face of significant risk and adverse circumstance”. 

So then, what defines ‘competent, quality parenting’? Beyond the obvious factors required to ensure a child’s survival (like nutrition, shelter, clothing, health care), some psychologists suggest it includes things like knowing when and how to appropriately delay children’s urges for gratification, tolerating children’s frustration, balancing warmth and affection with firmness and discipline, responding consistently to children’s behavior, and being involved in the various spheres of children’s lives. 

Lists like these, it must be said, are dependent on certain social, cultural, and economic contexts in which a family resides. For example, the above qualities and capabilities – exemplifying an authoritative (but not authoritarian) parenting style – have been linked to children’s thriving development (academic success, low behavioral and social problems, and positive self-esteem) in Western cultures in particular. What characterizes and enables the success of children’s growth – and caregivers’ parenting – in other cultures is likely at least a little different. Furthermore, in any milieu, a parent can only utilize the resources that are available to them. Resilience is always in relationship to environment, and so different conditions in the wider settings of a particular family, or parent-child dynamic, will have an influence on the methods of and responses to rearing that are most adaptive. 

The picture is made all the more complex by the fact that these differences are not static, but dynamic. As a child grows, they move through different stages of psychological, biological, and social development, so the nature of what constitutes resilient parenting will also change as a child ages. The American Psychological Association provides a guide for teachers and parents about these changes in resilience-building needs as a child moves from preschool through elementary school, middle-school, and high school.

Being able to notice and rise to these changes in children requires a parent who is also amenable to change in themselves and their circumstances. The process of becoming a new parent itself is quite a steep learning curve in many ways. According to one review of the psychological literature, the transition into parenthood entails changes to (or at least a partial destabilization of) adults’ physical health, self-concept, romantic partnerships (whether or not they are co-parenting relationships), emotional landscape, social life, and mental health. Coping with becoming a parent, and adapting in all these domains, requires many resilience-building resources. 

The review identified a few of these resources. A good sense of optimism and self-efficacy can help new parents deal with feelings of uncertainty, helplessness at trying to understand a newborn, and the finality of becoming a caregiver. Optimism and self-efficacy can do this by supporting a new parent’s underlying faith that the necessary skills will come with time, that they are capable agents who will address problems as they arise, and that they can be good at parenting at the same time as being imperfect at it (because, truly, there is no such thing as perfect parenting). Social support (including wider family relationships, friendships, and parent peer-groups) also dominated the review, highlighting a seemingly crucial need for interpersonal validation and a community of support in the journey of resiliently transitioning into new parenthood. 

These resources have also been identified as important for the maintenance of resilient parenting beyond the status of ‘new parent’. This is unsurprising, since social support from close relationships is important for humans during any difficult or uncertain time, whether related to parenting or not. Similarly, a solid sense of self-efficacy helps a person deal with stress in general, regardless of it being related to parenting. 

An additional factor that promotes resilient parenting is a parent’s own mental health. Caring for one’s own psychological difficulties is paramount if one is a caregiver, partly responsible for the psychological health of one’s children. Yet another important factor in resilient parenting is family functioning, meaning the everyday routines, activities, and the meanings given to them by both parents and children. In a reliable structure of doing particular things and relating to them in particular ways, a family (both parents and children) tends to be better able to accommodate adversities when they happen. 

It bears repeating that the picture is very complex and nuanced, as several other things can affect resilient parenting. For example, there are differences in children’s temperaments and their physical and/or mental ability that make things easier or more challenging. Different family structures (e.g., dual-parent homes, single-parent homes, divorced parents with shared custody) also present variations in the resources for and strains on resilient parenting. All of this points to the fact that resilience is a complex capacity; that individual experiences, personalities, and lived contexts combine to create a unique set of conditions that influence any given parent’s capacity to parent resiliently. 

Likewise, the APA’s guide to fostering resilience in children cautions that it is a personal journey; not a case of one-size-fits-all children. That being said, it is quite interesting to see how the guide’s tips for building resilience in children appear to mirror the factors identified in the reviews of resources for building resilience in parents. Parents and children alike need to (learn to) make and rely on connections, maintain daily routines, nurture a sense of self-confidence, address their emotional experiences with flexibility and care, cultivate an optimistic outlook in the face of troubles, and accept change. A resilient relationship – between parents and children indeed, but perhaps between any of us humans – is one that recognizes that we are in the continually shifting experience of life together.    

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