An Interview with Rosemary Christoph, Ph.D.
By Meghan Vivo
“Parenting comes in all sizes, shapes, colors, and styles,” says Rosemary Christoph, Ph.D., a therapist at the Academy at Swift River (ASR), a therapeutic college prep boarding school located in Cummington, Massachusetts. “Most people begin parenting using their own parents as examples, or by reacting against the example their parents set for them. In either case, it’s often an unconscious process, and we find ourselves doing things that we may question after the fact. But there’s a learning curve, and children are often training us as much as we are attempting to train them.”
Whether you realize it or not, every parent has a style of interacting with their children. Parenting style isn’t determined by an isolated event, like a moment of conflict or a disagreement, but by a parent’s overall demeanor when engaging with their child. Whatever your style, your interactions undoubtedly have a profound impact on your child’s future.
Dr. Robert Brook has identified four basic parenting styles in Western culture – authoritarian, permissive/indulgent, permissive/disengaged, and authoritative (referred to as “individuated” by Dr. Christoph to avoid confusion with the authoritarian style) – each with its own strengths and limitations. There are all kinds of variations on these themes, but most parents relate to one style more than others. Which style are you? There may be more than one answer.
These are the “Because I said so” parents. The authoritarian approach was popular in the 40s and 50s (and most of Western history) when parents believed children were to be seen and not heard, and when corporal punishment was considered a sound way to discipline children. One parent, often the father, was the law-giver, and children were expected to do their chores and schoolwork and obey – no questions asked.
Authoritarian parents set rigid rules based on compliance and obedience without considering their children’s feelings or even discussing their rationale. These parents tend to be heavy-handed rather than nurturing; they express love and acceptance only when the child behaves in accordance with the parents’ wishes. Because these children live in fear of punishment and rejection, they often are inhibited, fearful, withdrawn, and depressed.
On the positive side, children of authoritarian parents learn limits and boundaries and thus generally excel in school. But because they’re used to being told what to do, they frequently struggle to understand how to be independent, form their own opinions, take risks, and find activities they truly enjoy.
“I grew up in an authoritarian family,” Dr. Christoph explains. “My father came home and everyone was afraid of what would happen next. I never knew when I’d be hit with a book, newspaper, or hand. This authoritarian approach produces children who are obedient, but frightened, and who can be passive-aggressive with their defiance because it’s too risky to be out in the open with it. In the end, this behavior causes a kind of self-sabotage of the child’s efforts in school, sports, the arts, and in life.”
“My sense is when the authoritarian model was attacked by Dr. Spock and others in the 60s and 70s, the permissive style of parenting was born,” Dr. Christoph states. “Permissive parents are ‘hands-off’ and believe children will learn best on their own. They prefer to be their child’s friend, buddy, and confidant.”
Though permissive parents generally are loving, supportive, and warm, they don’t set rules, expectations, or goals for their children. As a result, their children can be spoiled, self-indulgent, undisciplined, and/or demanding. These kids may seek boundaries by acting out and throwing tantrums. When parents finally try to say no, the child becomes defiant, having become accustomed to being in charge.
“We see lots of these kids at the Academy at Swift River,” explains Dr. Christoph. “Parents then want the school to set limits and act as the authority figure because they are unwilling or unable to do so. For example, we insist that students be on time, do their homework for class, treat people respectfully, and dress according to code. We establish a structure and insist upon boundaries that are essential.”
Disengaged parenting commonly occurs in two very different situations, according to Christoph. In one, high-income parents foster disengagement through their focus on money and career. When people are consumed with work 12-14 hours per day, family life suffers. In the other, single parents or families struggling financially find themselves disengaged from their kids by the sheer economics of survival, working multiple jobs to make ends meet. While the disengagement stems from different reasons, the impact is the same. Parents are focused on work rather than the emotional and social lives of their children. They become strangers in their own home because they haven’t taken the time to develop bonds with their children.
Experts agree that the disengaged style is the most damaging. Disengaged parents are often neglectful and unattached, and leave schools and society to be the parents. They not only fail to provide structure and rules, but they also fail to show love or foster emotional connection. As a result, these children are at high risk for emotional and behavioral problems, academic difficulties, low self-esteem, and alcohol or substance abuse.
“Children of disengaged parents are the hardest to deal with,” says Dr. Christoph. “They are traumatized, neglected, and unmotivated and they need a great deal of nurturing to get back on track.”
Parents who integrate the best qualities of both the permissive and authoritarian approaches achieve what Dr. Christoph refers to as the “individuated” (or authoritative) style. These parents are warm, loving, supportive, and involved – all within the construct of establishing guidelines, limits, and expectations. They listen actively to their children and encourage them to make their own decisions. With an emphasis on positive reinforcement rather than punishment, they involve their children in the process of creating rules and consequences and explain the rationale behind the rules. They give unconditional love to their child whatever his personality, interests, or behavior.
Children of individuated parents have healthy self-esteem, positive peer relationships, self-confidence, independence, and success in school. They also have fewer behavioral or emotional problems than other children. Because of their positive parental role models, they know how to manage stress, strive toward goals, and express their opinions.
“At schools the like Academy at Swift River,” Christoph explains, “the goal is to teach families to take the best of the authoritarian and permissive approaches and end any disengagement, and show families how to grow and connect with each other. Ongoing dialogue is essential in these programs. Just as the child’s behavior is changing, the parents’ behavior must change for a successful integration to take place when the child returns home.”
CONFLICTING PARENTING STYLES
“Understanding your own parenting style is just one step toward improving your family dynamic,” Dr. Christoph suggests. “What is your partner’s parenting style? Is it very different from your own? In many cases, when one parent embraces a particular approach, the other parent will try to achieve balance by taking an opposite approach. For example, one parent being authoritarian makes the other parent more permissive in response to the person’s rigidity. As a result, one parent sets strict boundaries and punishments, while the other parent bends the rules.” Parents go back and forth with this “good cop, bad cop” routine, and children can take advantage of the division.
Sometimes these differences in parenting styles, if too profound or unbalanced, can break apart marriages. “Parents have to observe themselves impartially and analyze if their styles are complementing one another or if they’re pushing each other to further extremes,” Dr. Christoph continues. “It’s also critical that parents back each other up and discuss any areas of disagreement in private so that they present a united front to their children. Parents don’t need identical styles to work it out, but they have to acknowledge and accept the importance of other styles. In the best case scenario, both parenting styles should be integrated.”
FACTORS AFFECTING PARENTING STYLE
Just as people change over time, parenting styles change as families move through different stages of life. It is common for people to fall into or react against the model they had as children. “I was permissive with my daughter as a young parent, reacting against growing up in an authoritarian home,” Dr. Christoph reveals. “But I quickly began to realize my daughter needed boundaries. For example, I couldn’t go out to dinner with her because she was too wild. By the time my daughter turned 8, I was angry at myself and her for what had happened, so then I overcompensated toward the authoritarian approach with more structure, rules, and discipline. At another time in my life, I became disengaged because I began to focus on my career. When you’re disengaged because of work or financial stress, there may be a period of time when the child really feels your absence and their only hope is for other adults to meet their needs at that time.”
Parenting style can also vary depending on the child. One child may evoke an authoritarian response while another child may evoke a permissive one, depending on their personality and behaviors. Dr. Christoph tells a story of one family at the Academy at Swift River in which the parents used three different parenting styles for each of their three children. They were authoritarian with their eldest daughter who was academically precocious. By the time their son came along, his difficulties with dyslexia and ADHD caused them to become more permissive when the authoritarian approach didn’t work. This resulted in him being sent to Swift River by age 15 because he acted out in school and at home. Over time, they were able to integrate the best of the two approaches and take an individuated approach with their third child. Each child in the same family had a different experience based on the parents’ stage of life and the child’s particular temperament.
As parents gain more experience and become more settled in their lives, they may finally achieve the individuated style, even after years of experimenting with other approaches. According to Dr. Christoph, if children get 5-10 years of the individuated approach, where their parents recognize their individuality, set some basic expectations, demonstrate how to relate to others in positive ways, and teach them to handle the stresses of life without giving up, they have a good chance of success.
COMMON PARENTING MISTAKES
As a therapist at ASR, Dr. Christoph sees a wide variety of mistakes parents make. One of the most common occurs when parents don’t realize their children do in fact listen to them, even though they may seem disengaged or hostile. “Even when kids disagree, they are listening to the discussion. Treat disagreements as a chance to have a real encounter, to understand what your child is thinking without having to win the argument. Be glad the discussion is happening,” says Christoph.
Another common mistake, according to Christoph, is failing to make family a top priority. Modern American culture encourages parents to place career, money, and personal satisfaction above family. “In other cultures, family is the highest priority. In the U.S., it’s fourth, fifth, or sixth in importance. You have to really make the choice in our culture to emphasize those values in your own life. Put family first not just in terms of words or thinking, but also in terms of actions and the investment of time,” advises Christoph.
THE PATH TO INDIVIDUATION
Parents have a dual role – to nourish their children’s individuality and teach them to function in society. Dr. Christoph warns, “You can’t achieve an individuated parenting style just because you want it. You have to deliberately create structure and nurture a connection with your child.”
The term “individuated,” coined by Dr. Christoph, suggests the child needs to be seen as an individual. Some children excel in school while others diligently help around the house or have some unique skill. “There are enormous ranges of human interest and giving kids a wide range of possibilities through art classes, music lessons, or athletic events can help a child find his strengths. The key is nurturing the positive rather than focusing on the negative. Children need their particular gifts seen, commented on, praised, and encouraged,” Christoph counsels.
The parent’s style must be individual as well. “A good parent is like a good teacher – some people instinctively do it well and others have to work hard at it by watching others and trying to adjust their behaviors,” explains Christoph. “It’s a process to learn how to set boundaries that respect everyone’s needs and differences while showing unconditional love and support at the same time. Parenting has to be treated with great self-awareness and consciousness rather than just following one’s own parents, personality habits, or the path of least resistance.”
In any parenting relationship, it is the parent’s job to guide their little being into adulthood. “Find what you need to teach your particular children before they have to take on the responsibility themselves,” says Dr. Christoph. “At ASR, parents are on a steep learning curve about how to be a better parent. But that’s really what it’s all about.”