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Topics In Brief

All Topics In Brief

Major Findings about Parent-Child Connectedness

Basic Findings about PCC

  1. A definition for parent-child connectedness. Parent-child connectedness is an emotional bond between a parent and a child that is both mutual and sustained over time.
  2. Parent-child connectedness is bidirectional. In order for true connectedness to exist, it must be experienced by both the parent and the child. Connectedness reported only by the parent and not his/her child lacks strength and impact.
  3. Parent-child connectedness develops differently during the different developmental ages and stages of a child. The behaviors required of parents and their children to establish connectedness will differ along the lifespan. Behaviors needed to establish warmth and trust between a parent and a one-year old (e.g., touch, feeding, comforting) are different than the behaviors that would be used between a parent and a 16-year old (e.g., sharing thoughts/ideas, problem solving together, autonomy granting).
  4. Currently, there are very few interventions specifically focused on strengthening parent-child connectedness. In our review of the literature, and in our discussion with experts in the field, ETR was able to find only a couple of programs that specifically focus on the strengthening of connectedness between parent and adolescent child.
  5. Parent-child connectedness is a super protector. During our review of the literature, ETR found parent-child connectedness (or lack of parent-child connectedness) associated with 33 adolescent outcomes such as tobacco use, depression, eating disorders, academic achievement, pregnancy, HIV infection and others.

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Major Findings from the PCC BRIDGE Project: Year One

Attachment Theory and Parenting Styles
Attachment Theory and parenting styles offer partial descriptions of how parent-child connectedness develops and is maintained, and how it works as a protective factor. Attachment Theory (Bowlby 1969), is based on the idea that an infant's first attachment experience (initially to her/his mother) profoundly shapes the social, cognitive and emotional developments that follow. After initial attachment, the relationship with a child is largely shaped by the chosen style of parenting.

Using a combination of measurement scales, researchers have named four common parenting styles: authoritative, authoritarian, permissive and neglectful. Authoritative parenting combines high levels of warmth with moderate levels of behavioral control (i.e., monitoring and supervision) and the granting of psychological autonomy to a child. Many researchers believe that this parenting style is the most productive of connectedness, although there is probably some variation in the matching of style and connectedness across ethnic and cultural norms.

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Top 24 Determinants
ETR's literature review surfaced 98 possible determinants of parent-child communication. Fifteen national experts (practitioners and researchers) evaluated these determinants and selected the ones they thought had both the highest potential to impact parent-child connectedness and could be affected by typical intervention activities and programs. Below is the final list of the 24 factors that these experts would try to target using interventions.

A "-" indicates a risk factor for establishing parent-child connectedness and a "+" represents a protective factor for establishing parent child-connectedness. An intervention would seek to reduce the impact or eliminate risk factors and strengthen or create protective factors.

1. Child has antisocial peers (-)

2. Parent neglects child (-)
3. Communication between parent and child communicate (+)

4. Nurturing parent or caregiver (+)
5. Consequences of poverty (-)

6. Openness (+)
7. Consistency (+) 8. Parent knows where child is (+)
9. Parent provides encouragement (+) 10. Parent and child share thoughts and feelings (+)
11. Parent provides guidance (+)
12. Problem solving (+)
13. Child has knowledge of parent (+)

14. Mutual respect (+)
15. High levels of parent/child conflict (-)

16. Parent is responsive to child (+)
17. Child or parent has history or current experience of witnessing violence/abuse (-)

18. Parent supports teen (+)
19. Living in a dangerous neighborhood (-)

20. Parent has support system/social network. (+)
21. Maternal depression and family mental illness. (-)

22. Parent has connection to school. (+)
23. Parental monitoring and rules. (+)

24. Teen has voice in family. (+)

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Model of How PCC Develops
Having a basic definition (written above) for PCC is useful. However, this definition has raised important questions about: 1) what one would look for to observe PCC in families; and 2) what the process is by which PCC develops between parent and child. ETR proposes the model below to answer these two questions.

Trust must be created for bonding to occur. Trust comes from physical and emotional support, protection, openness and encouragement.

These four elements are communicated to the child by the parent(s).

The communication of trust creates a climate of trust, a condition that both child and parent can come to expect.

Children communicate positive reactions to a climate of trust back to their parent(s). This supports more communication of the elements of trust from the parents. (Many PCC processes are bi-directional.)

As a climate of trust is being established, parents also contribute new elements to the relationship: structure and time together (shared activity, which is also initiated by the child.) These elements shape the character of the connection and also introduce possible points of conflict. With a climate of trust, conflict is negotiated and resolved. Conflicts that are resolved successfully contribute to the connection between parent(s) and children.

Together, these processes promote parent-child connectedness.

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Communication, Connectedness and Involvement
Findings from ETR's on-line survey of practitioners suggests that communication (topical discussions between parents and children e.g. sexuality, or parental skill-building around initiating topical discussions or communicating rules and expectations) is not distinguished from connectedness. Parental engagement or involvement (parents being active, or advocates, in aspects of their children's lives such as school or health services) can also be mistaken for connectedness.

Communication and involvement are part of the picture of how parent-child connectedness develops and is maintained, but neither one alone results in a state of high parent-child connectedness. This is important information to consider when developing and marketing interventions. Parent-child connectedness needs to be clearly distinguished from communication and involvement and worked with explicitly.

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Culture
Is PCC the same across different cultures and ethnicities? This is a very important question and we do not have a definitive answer yet. There is research to suggest that the basic elements that make up connectedness in families are the same across ethnic or cultural lines. Other research suggests that these elements of connectedness will look differently in different families. For example, the behaviors and interactions signifying emotional support between a father and daughter in a family of Vietnamese immigrants probably looks different than it does in an African-American family whose members have all been born and raised in the U.S.

There are also researchers that say that particular parenting styles, namely authoritative parenting, promote PCC regardless of culture, ethnicity and socio-economic status. However, other researchers have questioned this finding based on the fact that these studies are largely conducted with white middle-class and upper middle-class families in the U.S.

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Family Structure
The effects of family structure on PCC are varied and complex. Parent-child connection comes about as a result of the act of parenting, and is not dependent of the presence of biological parents or a particular family structure, such as the nuclear family. This makes it clear that a single parent can create the same quality of connectedness as a two-parent or extended family. This finding suggests that other adults, such as foster parents or mentors, may be able to act as surrogates for parents and develop similar connectedness with similar benefits.

While the absence of a parent does not prevent connectedness, it is also clear that "female parenting" and "male parenting," or "mothering" and "fathering," each make unique and positive contributions to connectedness within families. The recognition of the contributions of fathering is particularly important because it has gone largely overlooked in the literature. Typical fathering approaches to parenting, namely fathers' tendency toward physical play and their tendency to hang back more than mothers when their child is exploring something new, can have specific positive effects on connectedness.

Non-traditional family structures have effects of connectedness. The introduction of a step-parent into a family can have either a positive or a negative effect on connectedness.

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Ecological Context
"Ecological context" describes the environment in which the family lives. Ecological contexts such as economics, public policy and infrastructure (housing, transportation, et. Al.) have significant effects on how families and their ability to promote connectedness. For example, parents coping with poverty are apt to spend more time trying to provide financially for families and may experience stress, mental illness or drug abuse.

These effects from poverty may mean that parents have less time and energy to devote to connecting with their children, or may lack the knowledge, skills or capacity to parent in ways that promote connectedness. Some researchers have shown how living in a neighborhood where crime and violence are prevalent may affect choices about parenting styles.

While authoritarian parenting had been demonstrated to have potentially negative effects on connectedness, some parents might feel forced into more authoritarian behavior towards their children in an effort to keep them from physical harm.

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"Bad" Connectedness
When children imitate negative behaviors, such as following in the footsteps of alcoholic or abusive parents, it is easy to wonder if connectedness can be a bad thing. Since connectedness describes a positive bond between a parent and child, in and of itself it is a good thing.

However, there is a strong relationship between connectedness and modeling (i.e. the demonstration and reinforcement of specific behaviors). If a child feels connected to a parent, then the child is more likely to adopt the behaviors modeled by that parent, regardless of whether those behaviors have positive or negative results.

So, the bad news is that parents can have a strong connection and model "bad" behaviors, resulting in negative outcomes for the child. The good news is that parents with a strong connection are more likely to see positive results when they model positive behaviors, even when their children are faced with other negative influences from peers or their environment.

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Lack of Voice from Parents and Teens
ETR completed a literature review and met with national experts on PCC. The next important step for the PCC BRIDGE project is to talk with parents and teenagers and find out more about how they understand parent-child connectedness. This discussion is likely to address some unanswered questions about PCC, including: 1) the type of support parents and teens would like from interventions aimed at PCC, and 2) the characteristics of connectedness and parenting style across different ethnicities, cultures, geographic regions and socio-economic situations.

We will also be talking with practitioners about implementing programs designed to strengthen PCC. We want to find out what type of interventions they think will work in their settings, what they are able to implement and what training they need to work explicitly with connectedness in local families.

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Take Away Message for Practitioners

  1. Parent-child connectedness has been associated with 33 adolescent outcomes. Understanding what increases parent-child connectedness, and how parent-child connectedness contributes to positive outcomes with adolescent, will guide the development of interventions that will be effective at promoting PCC in families where it is low, or non-existent.
  2. Parent-child communication is NOT the same thing as parent-child connectedness. Communication plays a role in developing parent-child connectedness as a factor that determines it. The potential impact of connectedness on outcomes appears larger than that of communication by itself.
  3. There is no "bad PCC," but PCC can increase the effects of modeling. Children who feel connected to their parents are more likely to adopt behaviors and attitudes from their parents than children who feel little or no connection to their parents. Parents can have a strong connection to their children and still model positive and/or negative choices and behaviors that will influence their children because of the connectedness.
  4. Look for the ways that the context in which a family lives might be having a negative impact on parents' ability to promote connectedness with their children. The best help you can provide might be to help parents find the time, energy and financial resources that will free them up to focus on connecting with their children.
  5. PCC may develop differently, and look different, across cultures or ethnicities. As practioners consider implementing programs intended to increase connectedness between parents and children in families, it is critical that we develop and bring cultural competence to this work. This means 1) partnering with members of the communities and populations where the work will be done, 2) employing staff from those cultures or communities and 3)conducting appropriate training with staff members who do not have knowledge of, or experience with, the cultures or communities with whom the work will be done.
  6. Stay tuned to ReCAPP for future developments. Over the next two years, we expect to develop an applied understanding of PCC and how to develop effective programs to promote it within families.

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