I often discuss parenting styles in the context of feeding your toddler, it’s something I offer some education on inside of my Feeding Toddlers course, and something that can actually have a big impact on how successful mealtimes are with your toddler. I’ve done my research on them, but this isn’t my area of expertise, so I recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Dr. Jenna Elgin and Dr. Shanna Alvarez, the co-founders, and child psychologists, behind Helping Families Thrive – and this is something they have expert knowledge about.
So I chatted with them about each of the different parenting styles, and really got some insight into which style we want to be aiming for, and also how to begin to work towards that goal. If you’d like to listen to the full episode, you can find that here. I’ll be sharing all the main info with you down below as well!
Background info on helping families thrive:
Shanna and Jenna met in graduate school, at the university of Washington in Seattle back in 2008, and became good friends and worked together on a lot of stuff throughout graduate school. And then after they finished graduate school, where they studied psychology, they worked together in different capacities. They’re both child psychologists, and Shanna is actually a speech language pathologist as well. So even before she went to graduate school to be a psychologist, she had tons of experience working with young kids with communication difficulties. One of the projects that they did together, after they graduated, was a lot of evidence-based parent training courses, one in particular called The Incredible Years.
And then Jenna took some time off of practicing after having her second child, and then decided to leave the workforce altogether after she had her third baby in the middle of COVID. That’s when she decided to start helping families thrive as, 1) an outlet since she was home with three young kids. But also because she was turning to social media a lot for parenting information. She’s an expert in some things, but not necessarily in, for example, feeding. And so she would go for feeding stuff, or different areas, and realize that there’s so much good information out there, and there’s also some stuff that wasn’t evidence-based, or was misleading. And so she felt that Shanna and her could contribute to that world, providing evidence-based information specifically around mental health, challenging behaviors, and different parenting tools that families could use.
Of course, throughout this time, Shanna and Jenna remained in contact, and they actually had started their parenting journeys around the same time as well. Shanna was still in practice and supervising doctoral psychology students at her new job, but she was seeing more and more parents that were just coming in with a lot of information already and kind of seemed to be paralyzed by the amount of information, and also the contradictions of the different types of information they were getting. This was kind of a new trend that she was seeing, and she really started to understand that more, and where that was coming from, when Jenna started sending her snippets of what’s out there.
And again, some of it’s really consistent with evidence and very consistent with what they learned as research scientists, and what they do in practice, and some of it is…really not. So that was concerning for them. And Shanna suddenly understood where all this anxiety that all of her families were coming in with, where it was coming from, and really it’s quite overwhelming.
They have no issue with lots of opinions, and lots of paths, about parenting! Parenting is so cultural, it’s so personal. Shanna is first generation Latina, and was not raised in the “Brady bunch style, or Betty Crocker home”. They’re all about different paths up this parenting mountain. But what they noticed was that there’s a lot of claims about things where people are saying, “research shows us”, or “neuroscience shows us” this. And also fear-mongering; like if you don’t do this one specific thing, you’re going to ruin your relationship with your child, which is just not found in research. But it then causes this level of parent distress that has been found in research to do harm. So, this was their mission, figuring out how they bring all the parenting science they know about, to everyday parents on Instagram. ‘Cause there wasn’t really a good job being done of getting this information out to social media.
Now that we have a bit of background on Helping Families Thrive and what their goal is for parents, it’s time to get into the topic of the different types of parenting styles and how we can kind of relate that all back to feeding experiences and parenting at the table. I do teach a lot of that, to whatever capacity I can, inside of my toddlers course and just daily online, particularly when it comes to parenting your toddler at the table. Because toddlers are learning how to eat, it’s a skill, and it’s something that does require parenting. So I asked Drs. Alvarez and Elgin to explain what the different types of parenting styles are, and just really simply, which ones do we want to adopt?
Types of parenting styles:
In order to start that conversation, we need to distinguish between what parenting styles means in the research, and in evidence-based practice, and then what parenting styles refers to in the social media or popular media world. So parenting styles in the research world is really talking about measuring two different dimensions of parenting behavior. Typically these styles are measured across the dimension of control, which is basically, how are you limit setting, drawing boundaries, and controlling your child’s behavior. And then the other dimension is warmth, so providing positive, warm interactions, affection, connection, those types of things.
When you are high in the control domain and low in the warmth domain, then you’re falling into a trend of being what is referred to as authoritarian style parenting. You’re falling into this kind of overly harsh trend where you’re quite good at setting boundaries, maybe too many, but you might set them too harshly or too rigidly. And it’s harder for you to do more of that warm and fuzzy stuff. So, our parents, our grandparents, this was familiar to them, it was a time when children are to be seen and not heard. And so it’s understandable where that trend comes from, typically this generation grew up with that style, but that extreme, which would be considered kind of overly harsh parenting, has been shown, throughout decades of research, to have negative impacts on kids.
So, physical discipline, lots of yelling, lots of shaming, and lack of consistent warmth is associated with increased aggression, and increased emotional regulation difficulties for children in the long-term. And of course it’s not great for the parent child relationship. That’s on one extreme. On the other side is being really high in warmth. So the focus is on the positive relationship, and little moments of bonding, responsiveness, all of those things, but the boundary setting is hard for you. Setting limits and following through, and being able to tolerate your kids’ distress that might come with setting those limits, and still choosing to set them anyway, is difficult. This would be high in warmth and low in control and boundaries. And this, in the research, is known as permissive parenting. Permissive and authoritarian are the two extremes of the four styles.
There is one more style that is discussed as being both low warmth and low in control, and that’s neglectful parenting. And oftentimes that’s associated with parental mental health challenges, or environmental challenges, that really make those things difficult to provide.
So far, we’ve done a really good job of spreading the research, and discussing, how the “old school” style of parenting, aka authoritarian, isn’t the goal. There’s some great things to be learned from it, but it was too much, and there’s long term damage that can happen with it. So, we need to find a better way. We haven’t done as good of a job of describing what happens with permissive parenting, and while being warm is necessary, it’s not sufficient. You can’t “warm” your way out of everything, out of every challenging situation with your kid. And by trying to do so, and falling into permissive parenting, the research has found that kiddos struggle more with emotion regulation because they don’t have that practice. We’re never allowing them to build a tolerance to low levels of stress in the presence of a good relationship. They tend to be kids that expect good outcomes. So there’s this sense of entitlement. For example, in academic settings, when they get to college and they’re like, “I didn’t do the work and I still don’t get an A…what?” Those types of outcomes are found with permissive parenting. So what do we do? Here’s this old school extreme, and then now to be honest, what I’ve seen more in practice is swinging more to this other extreme. Understandably so, because lots of parents experienced things like spanking as a child, or were given two hour time outs, so they say “I’m not going to do that. Let me go over here and try this. But wait, that’s not quite it either.” Here’s where the balance has been shown to be effective in the research.
The balance is having high warmth and high control – warmth and boundaries – a combination of those two. And that is termed as authoritative. And there’s just decades of research about this having the most positive outcomes. You have lots of warmth in your parent child relationship that is prioritized, and you can do the work, including tolerating your own distress and your kid’s distress, which you need to do to set those boundaries around your child’s behaviors.
So, how do you do this? There’s some evidence-based programs that have been shown to provide the tools that are needed to have that balance of warmth and boundaries. There’s the four top ones, meaning they have the highest level of research behind them, they are: Incredible Years, Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, Parent Management Training, and Triple P. So these help a lot for figuring out what the specific tools are that you need to get that balance.
Styles as per social media:
When we talk about these styles, this authoritative, authoritarian, permissive, that’s what the research talks about for parenting styles. What we see on Instagram, or on social media, is positive parenting, compassionate parenting, attachment parenting. And there’s nothing wrong with any of those things. But, some of those things are people’s individual paths up the mountain. So we look at authoritative parenting as the compass to get you up the mountain of parenthood. Now the path you take up the mountain? There’s so many different paths you could take up that mountain, depending on your culture, your background, your personality, etc. But there are some truths here about some basic pillars that we need on that path. If it combines those things, that might be a great path for some parents, but not necessarily for all. And that’s okay, it’s not going to break your relationship with your kid if that path is not for you. Your friend might be taking one path, and you’re on another path, and you both might be balancing warmth and boundaries in a really acceptable way.
There are so many different styles, labels, terms, and programs out there, that seem to all be the “latest thing”, and we all want to be up-to-date, we all want to do what’s best. And so sometimes we’ll grab onto one parenting style, or way of teaching, or one philosophy or theory, and then take it to an extreme because we think that’s good because it’s the new thing, or the best thing. And we only want to do what’s best. And then we don’t really put it into that context of the balance that they’re talking about. The warmth and the boundaries, the two can co-exist, and it doesn’t have to be one extreme.
Where I see lack of balance affecting meals:
Often with permissive parenting, that’s where everything is okay, there are no “no’s” ever said to our child, and that’s when we see all-day snacking, or all day grazing. Or maybe we do say no, but it quickly becomes “Okay, fine.” And that’s because a little pouting was happening, and we wanted to avoid that.
So, the balance is trying to figure out how we maintain that connection, keeping in mind the latest research, but still taking a step back, putting it into that holistic perspective, and realizing that typically anything done to an extreme is not going to be helpful.
On the other hand is authoritarian parenting, which describes my parents’ approach. So at mealtimes it was very clear that you needed to finish your food, so it was much more strict. It was much more “Do what I say, not necessarily what I do, but just do what I say because I’m the parent and I know what’s best and you have to have this much food.” They often had me stay at the table until I had three more bites or four more bites, and if you didn’t finish dinner you were having it for breakfast the next day. Because to them, they thought they needed to teach you how it’s done, and that they knew best, but how could they have known it was just a different approach? We’ve learned a lot from previous generations, and it doesn’t mean that we all turned out bad or horrible, or we’ve ruined this generation of adults, that’s not it at all, but we know better now.
So, what are the hardest parts of adopting the authoritative parenting approach? Now we’ll talk about the tips that Helping Families Thrive had to share for parents who struggle with it.
Tips on adopting an authoritative parenting style:
When we’re looking at authoritative parenting, and that balance that we’re trying to strike, the thing that’s tricky is that it’s not so precise that you must do X, Y, and Z every single time to find that balance. And that’s actually really relieving as a parent. They don’t have to nail it every time. There’s no one exact script that’s going to get them there, but it also can be tricky. Shanna and Jenna talk a lot about constantly scooting on your own teeter-totter. Maybe you do something that was a little harsh, or maybe you set too many boundaries for something, so it’s time to move over to the warmth a bit. Or, maybe you’re not setting enough limits around feeding, you’re noticing your kids are snacking too much, so it’s time to pull back a little bit.
When we think about how to strike this balance, it’s this idea of making sure that we look for opportunities. Shanna and Jenna talk a lot about this emotional piggy bank concept. It’s the idea that our children have an emotional piggy bank. You can kind of imagine it on their chest, and we’re looking for all these opportunities that we can fill up that emotional piggy bank throughout the day, so that they have enough emotional reserves in that piggy bank, for when we have to set those limits and boundaries. Because if we’re not filling that up, those limits and boundaries get really challenging to set. And that’s when we find ourselves pulling back and doing whatever we can to avoid a meltdown.
Some ways that you can fill up that piggy bank are through child directed play, praise, affection, and they talk about other strategies in their parenting course using many moments of interaction. So that’s kind of the basics, you’ve got to have that down and then you have to set those boundaries.
When setting boundaries, whether it’s for safety or feeding, etc. you set those boundaries, and have warmth with your child in that, but be firm and follow through. So when we think about feeding, for example, permissive feeding might be letting your child eat anywhere in the house and snack whenever they want. Maybe we do this because we think of it like allowing them to listen to their bodies, they have to eat when they’re hungry right? This sounds great in theory, but we do still have to teach our kids, they still need our guidance. So thinking about how can we teach them to listen to their body and do it in a way that’s developmentally appropriate?
Another example of permissive parenting might be a short order cook situation. Where you’re making food for your child for every meal because the tantrums are too much at meal times, or you’re so worried about what they’re going to eat and that they won’t get enough food.
Whereas an authoritarian approach, which is what most of us grew up with, is the idea of making them take one more bite, or they have to finish it, you have to eat all your vegetables before you have dessert. All of those types of things, where the parent is in control and the child’s not learning to listen to their body at all.
Now, authoritative is using division of responsibilities. The hardest part in this is letting go. One of the biggest things you can do to prevent power struggles is letting go of the things that are not in your job description. So what is the parent’s job? If we take feeding, it’s choosing what’s being served, when it’s being served, and where it’s being served. And the child’s job is if they’re going to eat, and how much. And so with an authoritative approach, parents let go of those things that aren’t in their job description, which is the hardest part. They have to manage their own emotions, their own feelings that come up when their children don’t eat the thing that is served, or they have a meltdown because they’re not giving them that snack right before dinner time like they asked. So, doing your own work as a parent around those things is really important.
So, what do you say when your toddler screams and says, “No! I don’t want this.” or “This is not what I want. I don’t like it.” Next I asked Shanna and Jenna for some examples of things you can say at the table that would fall within this authoritative approach.
How to respond when your toddler protests during mealtimes:
Let’s look at the example of your child asking for a snack right before dinner time, first we need to know that how we set that boundary can be really important. You don’t have to find a creative yes for everything in your life. That’s a big thing right now, the creative yes. It basically implies, don’t ever say no, and try to find a creative yes. Although, it can be helpful to set boundaries with empathy. For example, “I see that you want a snack and we’re having dinner soon. It’s not time for snack.” Now, let’s say they have a big protest – “I want a snack right now!” Then respond with: “I understand you want a snack. And it’s my job to set the schedule for meals. So we’ll have dinner soon.” Go back to the child’s job vs. parent’s job, validate, and then set that boundary.
Now, let’s say it happens at a mealtime. “I don’t want this.” The script that Jenna uses in her home is: “I understand. You don’t have to eat it. It’s your choice.” So just be very factual about it and allow them to choose. And that’s the script, simply “You don’t have to eat it.” It doesn’t have to be drawn out. It really is about connecting, having that warmth and empathy, and then still being really confident in implementing that boundary. Sometimes this is the hardest, as parents it’s so natural for us to feel like if we get that protest then we’re doing it wrong. We think we said the wrong thing, or did it the wrong way, and now they’re crying, but really that’s developmentally appropriate for them to react that way to a boundary. You could even take that as a good sign, especially in the beginning when they’re starting to understand that transition. Thinking from their perspective, they went from no boundary to having a boundary, so they’re recognizing that there’s going to be a change and that you’re firm about this. It’s almost like it’s a sign that it’s working to an extent because they’ve understood that message.
And it’s also true that sometimes we feel this pressure to convince our kids. So if a child’s protesting at mealtime that they don’t want it, well, we want to convince them that they’ve had it before and liked it, they eat it all the time, it’s yummy, etc. And we go into a lot of this verbal processing, and trying to be so kind and soft, that sometimes we need to remove ourselves a bit from it and say: “It’s okay, you don’t have to eat it.” Less is more sometimes with our kids.
There’s no exact thing that’s going to work every single time. But then that important work is what we do after, and in managing our own emotions when our kids are upset. Reminding ourselves that them protesting is their job. A kids’ job is to have emotions, and a variety of intensities, and to have reactions to how parents set boundaries. That’s their job. Our job is to stay firm and steady in that. And sometimes, we need that firmness more than we realize about some of these things.
The trap of over-explaining to toddlers:
There is a trend right now that Shanna and Jenna have been seeing a lot, which is anxious over-explaining. So, because we’re having to set those boundaries, and we anticipate them being upset about that, we start thinking to ourselves, “Oh gosh, please don’t be upset.” and we worry about that, but that’s about us. So when this happens we may say something like: “Well, buddy, I know you’re really hungry (warmth), and it’s not time for a snack right now (boundary). I know you’re hungry, and you’re really upset right now. And it really doesn’t feel good. And you do love crackers buddy, but you know, mommy works really hard all day to make sure that we have a good dinner, and it’s almost dinner (anxious over-explanation).” So, because we feel anxious about how they’ll respond, or how they are responding, we add a lot more information than is needed to that explanation. And this is just about a moment of recognition, no judgement, because we have all fallen into these traps. All we want is just to have a peaceful dinner, so we think okay let me explain, let me show you that I empathize. But then the thing is, that it keeps going and going. And our kids pick up on this distress that we’re having. The level of explanation and anxiety we are giving to this topic is demonstrating to them that this is a topic worthy of lots of anxiety. Instead, Shanna refers to the program Incredible Years, and how her colleague, Dr. Davis, teaches kids about a bounce back. So basically, something is disappointing, acknowledging it, but then show them what a bounce back looks like. So, you set the boundary, you connected, and now let’s keep going.
Advice on using praise at mealtimes (and elsewhere):
Over the last five or six years, I’ve heard, especially from family members, that if you praise your child, or praise them too much, that that’s essentially not really a great thing. But then I saw posts that Helping Families Thrive put up saying that basically it can work for somebody, for example, for a child who’s experiencing a challenge. But, in the feeding world, we hear a lot that there’s different types of pressures, which we want to avoid at the table. We don’t want to pressure a child to eat. We also don’t want to overly praise our child, and we don’t want it to be like, “Good girl, you ate your broccoli.” because that can be seen as a form of pressure. But I was wondering how we could distinguish who would see that as being pressure – because for some kids it works. I get parents who say that their child loves that. And it encourages them to try more, but for others it is discouraging and it might set them back or make them feel like you’re watching their every move which is just too much for them. So, I asked Helping Families Thrive to weigh in on how praise at mealtime might work, based on the research.
hanna started off with chatting about praise in general. What the research says, which is similar for a lot of things, is that it’s nuanced. So not quite as fancy as saying something like, “Did you know that this is awful for your child? Never do it.” Praise can be very effective and healthy for children and families, when it’s done in a certain way. And it can be ineffective, it can reduce the internal motivation to do things yourself just because you want to do well, when it’s done ineffectively.
Praise is not easily labelled as good or bad. It’s effective when it’s sincere and authentic, and when it’s based on something that’s actually kind of a challenge. Which means that we don’t want to be praising everything, it’s ineffective when it’s not specific. An example of non-specific praise would be: “Good job, bud, you’re awesome!” This isn’t harmful for your child, it’s just not as effective in getting them to tie that to the behaviour. The praise is more effective when it’s labeled. Examples of specific praise would be:
“Good job picking up your room. Thank you so much for being helpful!”
“Your bottom is on the seat at the table. Thank you for sitting still at the table.”
There’s a list they go through in their course, for example, it needs to be pure, not sarcastic, all of this is everything that research has found. There’s been big studies about this, there’s ways to use praise that increases internal motivation, and increases positive relationships between parents and children.
One issue that they see in practice for families struggling at mealtime is that the topic of conversation has become only eating dinner. Meal time is like this rapid fire chain of commands, and stress, and food related conversation. And so a lot of the intervention revolves around actually stepping back, and picking your battles. Maybe picking two behaviors that you’re going to focus on. Using that framework of what is effective praise, there isn’t going to be any harm in focusing on behaviors. We want to see it more in terms of the basics of mealtime behavior. So keeping your bottom in the seat is an example. A lot of times what’s happening at mealtimes is, we’re trying to do this division of responsibilities, we’re serving a variety of foods, maybe one safe food and some less desirable foods, and kids have small attention spans. So we see kids getting up and down and all the different things. Using praise, and positive attention, to increase the likelihood of your kiddo staying in their seat, having polite behaviors, and being friendly, maybe some of these things, or all of them, are going to increase the likelihood of your child trying new foods. The more they’re sitting at the table, the more their bottom is in their seat, and selectively ignoring some of the wiggly behaviors or the kind of frustrating behaviors that might be getting a lot of attention right now, those are all going to be really helpful at getting more of what you want, both in the behaviors, but also in feeding. The more positive emotions your child is having, the more likely they’re going to be to touch that broccoli, or to do some of these things that we want to see more of, even though we’re not focusing on it at all.
Now, if we want to think about praise for feeding specific behaviors, it is kind of the thing right now to have zero pressure, no praise at all with feeding or related to eating certain foods. And while Jenna may not know the deep dive into the research exactly on what effective praise looks like at mealtimes, she did share that when she was working at Seattle children’s in the autism center, there was a feeding clinic there. They had a program called Adventure Bites, and one of the strategies was praise for being adventurous. So that is not so much praise for choosing carrots over chocolate on their plate, because that is going to feel very pressured for a child. But what it might be is that we’re kind of acknowledging that they’re feeling some anxiety and they’re being brave by touching the thing that makes them feel the anxiety. And that could be true for chocolate, or it could be true for broccoli. It’s just acknowledging that piece of it, and this process can be really effective.
To further emphasize this point, we know that from anxiety work in other fields, unrelated to feeding, that praising kids for being brave when they feel anxious is one of the core strategies for anxiety work. Which is really consistent there, and for a lot of feeding difficulties, anxiety is one of the emotions that is probably related to it. So Jenna recommends that if you’re going to use praise, to use it for adventurous behaviours, but keep the pressure super low. So you’re not scolding them for not being adventurous, you’re simply saying something like: “You grabbed the broccoli, you’re being adventurous today, awesome!” This falls exactly in line with what I teach, even though I know other experts have different opinions on this. The way I see it is when I boil it down to exactly what they said, if your child is, let’s say, an anxious child, and has a true difficulty around touching a food, seeing a food, smelling a food, etc. It may be difficult for them, it’s uncomfortable, they may have this perceived danger around it, they could have this neophobia around it, whatever it is, and you know as their parent that it’s a safe thing for them to eat, and you want to help advance them to get to a point where they can be comfortable at meal times, where they can learn to take a bite without thinking something horrible is going to happen, praise in that situation makes total sense to me. It really is encouraging, and in the children that I’ve seen, that I’ve counseled, it has provided that encouraging base that they need to feel empowered, to feel like it’s okay, to feel like they can do this.
On the other hand, sometimes the focus is really all about the food at meal times. And that’s where we see praise can be just unhelpful, at least again, from my experience, it’s especially true, when it’s around how much your child is eating. Going back to the roles of parents and the roles of the child, if we’re praising our child for doing something that we want, and are influencing their role in feeding, ie. how much they’re eating, what they’re eating from what we offer, and if they’re eating, then children can sense where and why this praise is coming. Especially if we praise them eating the broccoli, but when it comes to chocolate, at best we say nothing, and at worst we try to influence them not to eat it. So, basically, are we providing the praise to help them build their confidence, or do we have a hidden agenda of influencing what they’re choosing to eat and how much of it?
How to maintain the balance between warmth and boundaries:
Earlier on they mentioned this seesaw, with warmth and boundaries on either side. What Helping Families Thrive is talking about learning to do is to stand in the middle of that and balance the two. And what they see a lot is parents will swing from one side to the other. Because they want to be positive, they want to be empathetic, they’re trying to be respectful and child led. But then they explode because they’re trying to be so purely positive all the time that they blow up, and swing to the other side. And that actually has been found in studies, where families that are really believing that they want to be really democratic and really respectful, all those things, actually sometimes end up being the ones that yell the most because it’s so pressured. Nobody can white knuckle it that hard core.
What they want to try to replace that with, and encourage, that’s not so fancy and flashy, is the idea of instead of swinging wildly from side to side, stand in the middle to find some balance. And then, scooch, replace swinging with scooching, and forgiving ourselves. And just recognizing when you scooch a little too far one way, let’s repair and then scooch back the other way. There’s research to back this up, you don’t have to follow this exact script all the time, you have wiggle room, and that’s healthy. Perfection is not required in parenting.
If you’re looking for more help with parenting, be sure to check out Helping Families Thrive Parenting Essentials course. They will walk you through all of their top tips, so you can learn strategies that will work for your family.
And, of course, if you’re looking for help with feeding your toddler, managing their protests, learning how to expose them to new foods, and prevent or reverse picky eating, check out my Feeding Toddlers course! I’ll take you step-by-step through all of my tips and strategies, so that you can feel confident in what and how to feed your toddler.