Flexible Parenting and Boundaries

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS

Too much of anything is not a good idea, but most things in moderation are fine.

A balanced parenting style

It can be so difficult to get a balance between too much and not enough, in parenting. And yet, that is what you should aim for. Flexible parenting and boundaries. No parent is going to get the balance right every time. My philosophy relies heavily on the idea of a “good enough parent”“. Aim for good enough, not perfect!

Take technology as an example.

Technology use in children

We have all heard about the “dangers” of technology being reported in the media. Without a doubt, many hours each day spent on electronic devices could impact a child in many ways:

  • Takes away from opportunities for face to face social contact and practising friendship skills.
  • Takes away from time which could be spent engaging in physical activity.
  • Research studies show that the short-term “buzzes”/rewards provided by computer games and social media actually change the way the brain works; in particular, the dopamine reward system in the brain changes. This means the child increasingly seeks short-term buzzes and is less able to wait for rewards.

On the flip side, some computer games teach valuable skills. Some apps or games allow introverted teenagers to meet and engage with others, practising their friendship skills. Becoming an expert in a game such as Minecraft can help children build self-esteem.

Of course, a more difficult question is “how much is enough”. That is where your parenting intuition comes in. One hour a day might feel okay if your child does plenty of physical activity, and seems happy and settled. If your child does not have an active lifestyle and has sleep difficulties, one hour per day is probably too much.

Other areas of a child’s life in which balance is essential to include:

Routine and spontaneity

Children feel more secure if they have a daily routine, and sleep better if they have a regular bedtime and wind down, in the same way, every night. However, it can sometimes be fun to be spontaneous. Children can benefit massively from new experiences with a change of routine, such as holidays. If a child learns to cope with the odd late night or a change of plans, she will develop a view of herself which says “I am a strong person and I can deal with the unexpected”. With sleep, possibly more than any other area, flexible parenting and boundaries need careful thought, as sleep heavily influences mental wellbeing.

Indoor and outdoor time

The majority of UK children spend too much time indoors. Outdoor time gives them the chance to:

  • Experience a less predictable world.
  • Learn through taking risks.
  • Develop more physical confidence.
  • Develop their imaginations by inventing games and exploring.
  • Burn off stress, and release any pent-up emotions by being loud and crazy.

Also, there is emerging evidence that we need the microscopic organisms present everywhere in the outdoor environment, to help balance our gut “flora”. Our gut flora impacts our physical and mental health. We evolved to spend a great deal more time on the move than we currently do, hunting and gathering. A lack of physical activity can lead to restlessness, irritability and difficulty focusing.

Demanding activities and simplicity

In the Western world, there is increasing pressure on children to be busy. Children are facing the highest ever academic demands. It is also the norm for children to engage in clubs and activities after school. These activities can be rewarding and build skills and confidence. However, too much demand can lead to overload and poor wellbeing.

When a child’s brain is overloaded, the brain feels under threat, and triggers the “fight or flight” system, causing stress and often anxiety. The fight or flight response can also lead to exhaustion, sleep problems and irritability/ aggressiveness. Children need time each day to experience calm and quiet. This allows the body and brain to rest and recover. It also creates freedom and “mental space” that can stimulate a child’s imagination: If a child’s life is 100% scheduled he will have no space to develop new ideas (games, plans, stories) or use his imagination.

Supporting you in developing balanced parenting strategies

In this section of the website, I will be posting about small changes you can make to encourage that balance between routine and spontaneity. That difficult-to-achieve balance which will help your child thrive!

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