Why Supportive Parenting is Key to Child Mental Health

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Clinical Psychologist Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell, Clinical Psychologist

We all want to be supportive parents to out children, of course we do.

But what actually is supportive parenting?

What does the science tell us, and how can we make some small adjustments in our parenting style to ensure that we are fully supportive parents?

Supportive Parents :What Do They Look Like?

1. Supportive Parents Give Warmth and Nurture Consistently

Supportive parenting involves creating a warm and nurturing environment where children feel loved and supported. Studies have shown that children who experience unconditional love and warmth from their parents have better mental health outcomes, including higher self-esteem, and lower anxiety and depression rates.

2. Supportive Parents Actively Build Positive Identity and Character in Children

One vital of supportive parenting is helping children develop positive core beliefs such as “I am loved” and “I matter.”

Supportive parents consistently showing interest in their lives.

They offer direct support and guidance as children navigate the challenges of growing up, whilst respecting the child’s opinions. They help children identify their strengths and values.

Parents who take calculated risks and allow their children to make mistakes while still providing a safety net create an environment that fosters resilience and independence.

supportive parents playing basketball with young girl

3. Supportive Parents Maintain Fair Yet Firm Boundaries

Setting clear household boundaries is another essential aspect of supportive parenting.

Clear boundaries and expectations help children feel safe and create a solid base for children to build on as they grow and develop.

For example, I know that my two teenage children get annoyed at me when I consistently expect them to wind down from 10pm and aim to be in bed by 11. But they also respect this boundary because I have taught them that sleep is crucial for a happy and successful life.

Clear boundaries will also prevent your child from developing a sense of entitlement.

Narcissism is normal and appropriate in very little children (they believe their parents’ world revolves around them, and it often does). But as children get older they need to learn consideration for other people through rules and boundaries.

a father being a supportive parent to distressed teenage son

Supportive Parenting: Human Connection Not Perfection

As a clinical psychologist with 20 years experience, I can attest to the importance of connection over perfection in parenting.

Focus on building a positive relationship with your child rather than striving for perfection. This will allow you to consider your needs and parental wellbeing as well as your child’s needs.

Try to be responsive to your child’s behaviour, seeking support from family members, and ensuring sufficient social support for your family unit to function optimally.

Modelling a connected and supportive approach to the parent-child relationship can also have long-lasting benefits for your child’s development. By prioritizing connection over perfection, you’re creating a safe and nurturing environment that builds your child’s emotional well-being and growth. Remember, supportive parenting isn’t about being perfect; it’s about being present, attentive, and responsive to your child’s needs.

little boy and mother walking in the countryside

Supportive Parents: Age 5-11

In early childhood, parents are probably the biggest contributors to our children’s emotional and social development.

One key task we face in this age range is to help our children develop self-confidence and a sense of autonomy.

For example, we need to allow our children to gradually have more control over decisions such as the clothes they wear, the hobbies they engage in and the friends they choose.

Yet we still need to keep our children safe (for example, by steering them away from toxic friendships). This can be such a tricky balance to achieve. We need to continuously adapt and respond to our children’s changing needs.

A study published in the Journal of Family Psychology found that parents who were responsive to their children’s needs and provided autonomy support had children with better emotional regulation skills and higher academic achievement.

Supportive Parenting Means Allowing Your Child to Fail

Supportive parenting is crucial in ensuring that children’s journey of childhood goes smoothly, but not too smoothly, in the long run. Children learn through failure and it’s not healthy to “rescue” them every time something doesn’t go to plan.

I have worked with many children in my clinic who have developed high anxiety and fear of failure because they had never been allowed to fail.

It’s essential for parents to create a safe and secure environment where their children feel comfortable expressing themselves. Research shows that children who have parents who listen to them and validate their feelings are more likely to have better mental health outcomes in the future.

For example, you can say “wow I can understand why you feel frustrated” or “yes, this would make me feel angry too”, without rescuing the from the situation or taking over.

Girl sat with her parents close either side. They are talking and smiling

Supportive Parents: Age 12-17

As children age into adolescence, supportive parenting shifts towards finding a middle ground. As a parent you need to give your teen more privacy while still being involved in their lives.

Teens who feel their parents respect their privacy have better mental health outcomes and are more likely to engage in positive behaviors and coping strategies.

Supportive Parenting and Autonomy in Teens

Supportive parenting for adolescents also involves giving our kids more autonomy in a specific area, such as academic or extracurricular activities.

By allowing teens to make choices about their own lives, you can encourage independence, a sense of responsibility and self-confidence.

It’s so hard to find the right balance between scaffolding independence and taking over. We need to give our adolescents the best chance of flourishing, yet their successes must be their own.

Supportive Parenting and Firm Boundaries for Teens

For example, we can offer to help create a study planner and remind our child to eat and drink regularly, but we can’t write the essay for them.

However, as parents we must still set limits and boundaries to keep our teens safe.

One pitfall to avoid in supportive parenting for adolescents is being too hands-off.

Adolescents still need guidance and support from their parents, even as they become more independent. Research shows that adolescents who have parents who are both supportive and involved in their lives have better mental health outcomes and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors.


Supportive Parents and Parenting Style

Supportive Parents Can Have Different Parenting Styles

When a set of parents have different parenting styles, it can create confusion and tension for children. It doesn’t mean that one parent is more supportive than the other. But it’s important to communicate and find common ground to ensure a consistent approach.

Even if you have very different approaches, do your best to listen to each other’s perspectives and concerns without judgement or defensiveness.

Take the time to understand each other’s parenting styles and find compromises that work for everyone. This open communication also models healthy conflict resolution and problem-solving skills for your child.

Children benefit from having parents who can provide them with diverse experiences and perspectives, so it’s okay to parent in different ways as long as it doesn’t cause confusion for your child. Every parent has something valuable to offer.

For example, my husband offers many new and exciting experiences to our children while I am more of a calming influence. By working together as a team, we can provide our children with the support and guidance they need to thrive.

Girl making a love heart with beads while her mum hugs her

Supportive Parenting and Child Development

Social Emotional Development

Supportive parenting is crucial for healthy social and emotional development in children. When you provide warmth, support and encouragement, your child is more likely to develop positive social skills and form healthy relationships. They learn to apply these same qualities to the other relationships they form.

Supporting your child’s extra-curricular activities and encouraging them to pursue their interests and hobbies also helps children form a strong sense of identity and self-worth.

When children are allowed to make decisions and complete tasks independently, they develop important skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and self-regulation. This not only prepares children for adulthood but also helps them to build resilience and cope with stress.

Physical Development and Supportive Parenting

Supportive parenting and physical development are closely linked. From the time a child takes their first steps, supportive parents provide a safe and secure environment for children to explore and learn.

It’s your job to teach your child how to take risks safely so that their physical confidence and skill grows.

It can be so hard to help them achieve the balance between risk and safety, especially if you are anxious as a parent.

You can support your child’s physical development by breaking down tasks into small, achievable goals.

For instance, if they want to learn to do a handstand, the first step might be to learn to kick up against a wall. When children achieve physical success in this graded way, they experience a fantastic sense of accomplishment that reinforces their self-esteem and makes them feel anything is possible.

Supportive Parenting in Cognitive and Intellectual Development

Supportive parenting also plays a crucial role in your child’s cognitive and intellectual development.

When you create an environment that encourages active thinking and problem solving, you help your child develop better decision-making skills.

For example, instead of solving problems for your child, help them talk through what has happened and the pros and cons of the various solutions. Then, allow them to make the final decision.

Building healthy habits is vital for long-term cognitive development, and this is an area where you can have an important influence as a parent.

For example, if you teach your child about healthy sleep routines, they will be well-rested and achieve optimal brain function, helping them to learn at school.

Boy baking with his dad. His hand is covered in dough and he is smiling

The Positive Effects of Supportive Parenting on Child Mental Health

I’ve already touched on many aspects of mental health. Let’s look at more supporting evidence on the importance of supportive parenting for children’s mental health – and mental health throughout their lifespan.

A study of 916 Chinese adolescents in 2021 found that parental emotional warmth had a positive effect on adolescent mental health. Parental rejection and parental over-protection had negative effects on adolescent mental health by lowering self-esteem but increasing psychological inflexibility. 

In a 2006 study of 10,438 children aged 5-15 years, absence of child psychopathology (mental health problems) was connected with a combination of rewarding and non-punitive parenting strategies.

In a 2017 book on self-determination and psychological health, the author explains that when parents can be responsive to children’s psychological needs…

…children report more well-being, engage in activities with more interest and spontaneity (intrinsic motivation), more easily accept guidelines for important behaviors (internalization), display more openness in social relationships, and are more resilient when faced with adversity and distress.

In fact, parenting style can set children up for positive mental health for their entire lives.

For example, in another Chinese study this time looking at 439 elderly Chinese adults, researchers discovered that those whose parents used positive and authoritative (warm, respectful and boundaried) parenting styles had higher levels of mental resilience and lower levels of depression and anxiety.

Supportive Parenting Vs Helicopter Parenting

Helicopter parenting is an overprotective style that can result in a state of complete dependence. It involves excessive involvement in children’s lives and decision-making.

This parenting style can cause anxiety in children and limits their opportunities to develop independence skills.

Supportive parenting, on the other hand, involves providing guidance and support while allowing your child to make their own decisions. Supportive parents encourage children to learn from natural consequences, and focus on fostering their independence.

Case Studies: Supportive Parenting

Supportive Parents Example 1: Joel

Joel is a 14-year-old boy who is struggling with spending too much time playing video games and difficulty regulating his emotions.

His parents, recognizing the negative impact that excessive gaming was having on their son, decided to take a supportive parenting approach to help him develop healthier habits.

Firstly, they encouraged Joel to find non-screen activities to fill his free time.

They introduced him to different hobbies such as sports, reading, and music, and allowed him to explore which ones he enjoyed the most.

Secondly, they helped Joel develop a routine of daily tasks that needed to be completed before he could play video games. This helped him understand that gaming was a privilege that needed to be earned by completing responsibilities first.

Boy and dad sat on a sofa. The boy is playing an African drum and the dad is playing a guitar.

Joel gradually began to spend less time playing video games and more time engaging in other activities.

As he explored new hobbies, he became more interested in learning new skills and developing his talents. This led to an improvement in his mood and emotional regulation as he had more positive outlets to channel his energy into.

Over time, Joel’s school performance also improved as he became more focused and motivated. His parents were proud of the progress he had made, and they continued to provide support and guidance along the way.

Through supportive parenting, Joel was able to overcome his struggles with excessive gaming and emotional regulation, and he was on his way to becoming a more well-rounded and fulfilled young adult.

Supportive Parents Example 2: Emma

Emma, a 6-year-old girl, is having trouble forming friendships at school and struggles with jealousy towards her younger sister.

Her parents, David and Sarah, noticed her behavior and wanted to help her. They began by creating a safe and supportive environment at home where Emma could share her thoughts and feelings freely.

David and Sarah also took the time to listen and validate Emma’s emotions, helping her develop healthy coping mechanisms like sitting with difficult feelings until they pass.

They encouraged Emma to express her feelings in words rather than acting out in frustration. They praised Emma for her positive behaviors they noticed, like sharing her toys or being kind to her sister. This positive reinforcement helped boost Emma’s self-esteem and confidence.

David and Sarah then helped Emma practice social skills at home including taking turns and sharing. They invited her classmates over to play, to help her build relationships outside of school. They also worked with her teacher to identify opportunities for Emma to interact with other children during class activities.

Over time, Emma’s behavior improved, and she started forming strong friendships at school. She also became less jealous of her little sister, learning to appreciate and enjoy their relationship.

Thanks to their supportive parenting approach, Emma was able to develop strong social skills and build positive relationships both at home and at school.

a father and two daughters in nature

Supportive Parents Example 3: Ava

Ava is an 11-year-old girl who suffers from physical health problems including regular headaches, tummy aches and difficulty sleeping.

After consulting with a doctor, they decided that Ava’s symptoms were caused by anxiety.

Ava’s parents, Rachel and Tom, were concerned and wanted to provide the best possible support for their daughter.

Rachel and Tom started by showing empathy and understanding. They encouraged her to talk about her worries and fears. They validated her fear and frustration.

Rachel and Tom then focused on supporting Ava to develop healthy coping mechanisms, such as deep breathing exercises, meditation, and journaling.

They also encouraged Ava to participate in activities she enjoyed, like dance and art, to help reduce stress and anxiety. In addition they worked with Ava’s school to implement accommodations, such as extra breaks during the day and access to the school counsellor.

With a few ups and downs along the way, slowly Ava’s symptoms started to improve.

Overall she was sleeping better, experiencing fewer headaches and tummy aches, and feeling more confident and happy.

How to Be a Supportive Parent If You Didn’t Have a Supportive Parent Yourself

If you didn’t have a supportive parent, it can be challenging to know how to be one yourself.

It’s important to understand that this is a common struggle and that you are not alone.

Recognize that it is possible to break the cycle and become the supportive parent you wish you had. Your childhood experiences do not define your abilities as a parent.

In many ways they may make you a better parent, as you have more awareness of the kind of parent you do and do not want to be.

It’s essential to acknowledge your own feelings and seek help if needed. Therapy can help you work through any unresolved emotions or trauma from your own childhood.

Put your focus on building a strong relationship with your child.

Communication is key.

Make an effort to listen to your child without judgment and let them know that their feelings are valid. Provide a safe space for your child to express themselves, and offer guidance without criticism or blame.

Make a conscious effort to be present in your child’s life.

Take an interest in their hobbies and activities, and provide opportunities for them to explore their interests. Encourage them to pursue their passions and celebrate their successes.

Remember that being a supportive parent is an ongoing process, and it’s okay to make mistakes. Practice self-compassion, learn from your experiences, and continue to strive to be the best parent you can be.

Dad and son playing basketball

If You Need Help to Work on Supportive Parenting

If you need help becoming a supportive parent or building your supportive parenting skills, there are several options available.

One option is to seek support from a family therapist who can provide guidance and tools to help you develop positive and nurturing parenting practices. Family therapists can also help you explore your own experiences and identify areas where you can adapt your parenting.

Another option is to connect with other parents in your community or online to share experiences and learn from each other. Parenting classes and workshops can also be helpful in providing guidance and support.

Taking care of your own mental and emotional health has a crucial positive impact on your ability to be a supportive parent. Practicing self-care, such as exercise, meditation, or time with friends, can help you manage stress and anxiety and be more present for your child.

Supportive Parenting: Summary

In this article, we explored how to be a supportive parent.

Being a supportive parent means creating a safe and nurturing environment for your child where they feel heard, understood, and validated.

Supportive parenting involves actively listening to your child, showing empathy and understanding, and providing them with the tools and resources they need to thrive.

To be a supportive parent, it’s important to:

  • Be warm and nurturing.
  • Listen to your child without judgment and validate their emotions without rescuing.
  • Allow your child to express themselves and share their thoughts and feelings.
  • Be present for your child and always prioritise connection over perfection.
  • Create a balanced and warm home environment with healthy routines and clear boundaries.

It’s important to remember that being a supportive parent is a journey, and we can all benefit from exploring and building our own supportive parenting skills.

By reflecting on our own experiences and seeking support when needed, we can create a positive and nurturing environment for our children to grow and thrive.

Related Articles

Adult and Child Mental Health: Strategies for Supporting Yourself and Your Family

3 “Quick Wins” to Support Your Child’s Mental Health

Psychologist’s Guide to a Happy Family Life [+ Free Happiness Challenge]

Screen Time For Children and Teens: Managing the Boundaries

Creating Co Parenting Boundaries To Make Your Life Easier (and Your Kids Happier)

Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.

Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

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