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What is "autonomy support"?
A style of parenting called "autonomy support" can help minimize behavioral problems in 2-year-old children, according to a study led by University of Cambridge and University of Birmingham researchers, and published in the journal Developmental Science.
In a nutshell, "autonomy support" parenting means:
- Sitting back and watching how your child handles an activity, rather than trying to direct him to do it a certain way or achieve a predetermined goal
- Being patient and encouraging, and not stepping in to do tasks for him
- Following your child's lead and adapting activities to his interest and comfort level (in other words, going with the flow)
"Rather than trying to make a child achieve a rigidly defined task, autonomy support is more of a playful interaction," says Claire Hughes, joint first author of the study and deputy director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge. "It promotes the child's problem solving and their ability to learn by letting games or tasks evolve into experiences that engage them."
What the research says
The researchers recruited more than 400 new parents in England, the Netherlands, and New York state. They visited the families when the children were 4 months, 14 months, and 24 months old, and filmed their interactions as the child carried out a range of simple tasks, such as playing with a jigsaw or building-blocks puzzle. The research team rated the level of autonomy support for each interaction and got the parents to fill out questionnaires about their child's behaviors at each age.
One task involved giving the child farm animal pieces to fit into cut-out shapes on a board. Some parents tried to help their child put the pieces in the right places. Others – in an example of autonomy support parenting – noticed the task was too challenging for their child and instead followed the toddler's lead to turn the task into something easier or more fun.
The researchers found that, when parents practiced autonomy support with their child at 14 months, their kid demonstrated greater self-control and had fewer emotional outbursts at 24 months, compared to toddlers whose parents were more anxious and controlling of their child's activities.
It's important to note that the correlation only played out in children who were generally happy and adaptable as babies. Kids who were irritable as babies were more likely to misbehave at age 2, even if their parents provided autonomy support.
A limitation to the study is that most of the children had mothers who were highly educated – an undergraduate degree or more. A more diverse group of parents could have yielded different results. The researchers also acknowledged that autonomy support parenting isn't always easy. The most important takeaway is patience, Hughes says.
"As we cope with the upheavals of being in lockdown, we're having to be patient with ourselves in so many ways," she says. "Parents particularly need to be more patient with the toddlers who found life a bit more challenging, even in ordinary times."
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