Attachment theory (Bowlby, 1999) put forth the idea that a child is impacted by his or her relationships with the significant adults in care-giving roles. Depending on how those adults respond to the child’s needs (e.g. closeness, affection, praise, safety, etc. ) the child will develop an internal model of relationship that would provide a basic blueprint of hopes, expectations and concerns for all future relationships (Bowlby, 1979). Children are not necessarily aware of their emotional needs and may not always be able to convey those needs in an intelligible way to their caregivers. Therefore behaviour becomes the vehicle of expression for these needs. Parents, especially in early days, learn by trial and error to interpret their child’s behavioural signs in order to respond in effective ways, e.g. provide food in response to a hunger cry (Schore, 2003). But as children grow and change, parents may have difficulty interpreting their children’s behaviours effectively, more so when children begin to move towards independence and separation from the parent.
Parents also bring into the relationship with their child their own internal model that guides them through various stages of change and growth. This internal model is at times helpful and at other times hinders the transition that is required for the parent-child relationship to grow and reach a new balance. The difficulty in striking a healthy balance becomes more evident at times when the parent’s personal needs (e.g. need for validation or respect) overwhelms the relationship with the child. It is at these times that children show difficult or undesirable behaviours (e.g aggressive behaviour, internalizing and externalizing problems) in the hope of obtaining the satisfactory response to their attachment needs. Obsuth, Moretti, Holland, Braber, and Cross (2006) showed that parental attunement, empathy and effective dyadic affect regulation can greatly diminish unhealthy behaviours in adolescents.
Strayer and Roberts (2004) show that empathy is a significant factor in shaping the prosocial behaviour of the child. Parental empathy, paired with warmth and emotional expressiveness, can result in emotional insight, self-regulation, and empathy in the child.
These are important findings when seen in the context of the lives of children today. Children within child protection or child adoption systems face inconsistencies in their relationships with care-giving adults that can severely and negatively impact the child’s emotional insight, regulation, and empathy. The negative outcomes in these unfortunate children are often seen in the form of anxiety, depression, uncontrollable anger, and violence (Trentacosta & Shaw, 2008).
Educating parents on the strengths of their relationships with their children helps them rely on their own resources to improve and deepen the parent-child bond. These changes, along with reduction of stress and increase in confidence, are possible in the context of a group of peers facilitated by accepting and non-judgmental professionals (Levac, McCay, Merka, & Reddon-D’Arcy, 2008).
Parents also benefit from reflecting on their own life experience in their childhood and adolescence, where they formed their model of significant relationships. By focusing on the fundamental feelings, values, and beliefs, parents can refocus and modify their approach to parenting (Moore, Moretti, & Holland, 1998; Obsuth, Moretti, Holland, Braber, & Cross, 2006; Stemmler, Beelmann, Jaursch, & Lösel, 2007). Parent-training in generic skills such as problem solving, communication, affective responsiveness, and behavior control has also been shown to bring about remarkable positive changes in the family relationships (Adams, 2001).
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