By Ilse de Beer, Psychologist
Your parenting style influences your child’s emotional and mental health. Just how much is becoming increasingly evident in some young children emerging from almost six months of social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unaddressed anxiety, boredom, social isolation and lowered physical activity can lead to emotional and mental health troubles in children. We also know that parenting styles have a profound influence on children’s mental wellbeing and ultimately how they develop into young adults.
During the unprecedented lockdown, many children were anxious, isolated, inactive and bored. Being at home for such an extended period with an either overly authoritarian or neglectful parent has been emotionally debilitating for some. Faced with going back into the world, these young people may struggle and could possibly become withdrawn, anxious and even depressed.
Inconsistency in parenting practices is harmful to children’s mental health
There are four main parenting styles; authoritarian, permissive, democratic/well-balanced and uninvolved. Often, parents don’t fit into just one category. However, during lockdown, parents faced unique challenges in home schooling, entertaining and disciplining their children, which may have contributed to an overemphasis on the manner in which they parent.
On one extreme, authoritarian parents have demanded strict obedience from their children, while on the other hand; uninvolved parents have left their children to their own devices, with no structure or consequence whatsoever. Neither is particularly healthy for a child that has been thrown into an unfamiliar world where routines such as going to school, as well as social and extramural activities outside the home, have been removed.
Inconsistency in parenting practices is harmful to children’s mental health. If children know and understand what to expect, as well as what is expected of them, they feel safe and secure. In other words, predictability is very important for children’s mental health.
Lack of structure is also detrimental
Children need good routine and boundaries, but within these structures, they should have some leeway to experiment and make independent choices. Children need a safe and supportive home environment, but with enough space and opportunity to be age-appropriately independent and responsible. This will contribute to their development into well-balanced young people.
Discipline should also be consistent. General rules in your home should not be negotiable and parents should be on the same page when it comes to discipline. The concept of cause and effect is important for children to learn. Children need to learn and understand consequences for their actions.
All of these factors play a role in developing a child’s ego strength (also referred to as grit). Children (people) with good ego strength have healthy ways of satisfying their needs and coping with difficult situations.
Adaptability and balance are critical
Adaptability and balance are two of the important ingredients for good ego strength. During the COVID-19 pandemic the whole world, including your family’s day-to-day life, has been unpredictable and even chaotic. If parents and children are able to be adaptable during these kinds of situations, it reduces daily stress and promotes healthy functioning. Parents should remember that their children will mirror their behaviour and the way in which they handle difficult situations.
Children, like adults, have experienced worry and anxiety during the pandemic. They may have worried about their loved ones getting sick, missing out on schoolwork, getting to grips with online learning and venturing out into the world again. They may have missed their grandparents, social excursions, their friends and extramural pursuits. If their feelings of fear, anxiety and uncertainty have not been acknowledged or comforted by a supportive parent or adult, they are more likely to be emotionally impacted by COVID-19 crisis.
The importance of spending quality time with children, especially at a time like this, cannot be dismissed. Children struggle when their parents are not emotionally available to them. This will have a negative influence on their sense of security, their self-confidence and their courage to venture into the world again.
So, while you strive to bring predictability to your children’s lives through good structures, routines and discipline, it is also important to be accessible to them. Make time for small talk every day and take an interest in your children’s feelings and daily activities. Look out for signs of stress and anxiety because many children are unable to articulate how they are feeling.