Core parenting skills for parents of small children

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The ability to offer emotional security is generally seen as the single most important skill for parents to have or to learn. More specifically, they should be able to display a great degree of sensitivity when reacting upon their child’s behaviour. Sensitive parents are highly aware of their child’s behaviour and react upon it in a positive way, because they know that it often is a manifestation of feelings which the child does not yet know how to express. Other essentials skills for parents to have are the ability to take care of their child, to protect is against possible dangers and to offer it experiences which are beneficial to its development.


Parents are responsible for raising their children in a safe and secure environment. Predominantly, competent parents should offer space and support, should always be there for the child, and should be able to feel, understand and adjust to the changing circumstances and needs of the child. When aged 0 to 2, the child should be taken care of quite smoothly, by interacting with it in a responsive and sensitive way. When the child is aged 0 to 4, its parents should be conscious of the child’s ability to learn, and of the different sides to its character, and they should also offer guidance and discipline in a flexible, positive and affirmative manner. In short: as much as they can, parents need to become aware of their child’s nature and of the child’s capacities, as well as to how these influence their own behaviour, and vice versa.

History and research

Proceeding from social cognitive theory, Patterson, among others, poses that the absence of positive affirmation in case of good behaviour, as well as ineffective corrective measures, can lead to antisocial behaviour. When in a situation of conflict between the parent and the child, the parent eventually gives in to the child’s negative behaviour, this behaviour is condoned, and hence this increases the chance of repetition. Furthermore, Patterson (1976, 1982) describes that both a reward in case of positive, social behaviour and a time-out in case of negative behaviour, are effective elements in interventions aimed at diminishing problematic behaviour in children.

At the University of Queensland (1996) Sanders and his co-workers have researched and published widely and have developed training and intervention programs based on the premise just mentioned, in order to improve parenting skills. Their program ‘Triple P’ (Positive Parenting Program, or ’Positief Pedagogisch Programma’ in Dutch) is now being used in over twenty countries. The program stresses that parents should provide their children with a secure and stimulating environment, in which they offer them interesting activities; that they should educate by way of positive support, encouragement and compliments; that they should try to instigate positive behaviour; and teach their children new sets of skills. Parents should discipline their child accordingly, provide clear rules, as well as instructions, and intervene quickly when the child becomes disobedient. However, parents should not entertain unrealistic expectations of the child or expect it to do everything right at the first instance – they should let the child develop at its own pace.

Empirical studies, committed foremost by Bowlby (1958 and after) and by Ainsworth (1965, 1987), based on the attachment theory, have proven a significant correlation between a secure attachment during early childhood and the positive development of social skills and competence when the child is older. Conversely, an insecure attachment and a lack of warmth during early childhood can correlate with behavioural problems during early and late childhood, as well as during adolescence.

Within the development of (younger) children, interactions between the child and its parents are critical. Chief aspects of these interactions are: parental sensitivity towards the child, a positive kind of interaction between child and parents, attachment of the child to its parents, as well as the way in which parents discipline the child. In a meta-analytical study, Rothbaum and Weisz (1994) proved insensitive disciplining happens more often when children behave in ways particularly offensive to their immediate surroundings.

It is very important that every child develops an attachment to its primary caregiver(s). The caregiver gives the child a sense of security, for instance during moments of stress or fatigue, and provides a safe haven from which the child can explore its surroundings. The measure of availability of the caregiver, as well as the adequacy of his or her reactions to the child’s behaviour, determines the quality of the attachment. Securely attached children trust others, display confidence in their interactions with other people, become friends with others and experience social support.

Although the aforementioned theories of attachment and of social cognitive theory have different backgrounds, their basic assumptions on child-parent interactions are quite compatible with each other. The opposite of insensitive disciplining is achieved by offering warmth and empathy (Ainsworth et All., 1978), while at the same time not allowing negative behaviour and explaining why something is forbidden (Hofmann, 1984). Insensitive disciplining is considered as inadequate parenting, because it is ill-adjusted towards the actual behaviour of the child. Both the attachment theory and the social cognitive theory emphasize that insensitive parenting may cause problematic behaviour in children.

The various developmental stages children go through present them, as well as their parents, with various educational tasks. In the Netherlands Riksen-Walraven (1989), Goudema (1994), Van Yperen (2010 and Meij (2011), among others, have taken a closer look at these tasks, and have described what is expected of the parents in order for these tasks to be carried out successfully. Summaries of the age groups 0-2 and 2-4 years follow below.

Educational tasks for children aged 0-2

During this period the imperative task for parents is to react sensitively and responsively upon the needs of the child (emotional support). In the second year, in which autonomy and individuation take precedence, it becomes even more important for the caregiver to give the child the opportunity to discover things for itself and thereby experience its own competence (respecting the child’s autonomy). Nevertheless, there is an increased necessity to structure situations and to provide boundaries for the child. Finally, it is of the utmost importance for the child’s development that its caregivers talk to the child very often. Problems to be solved by the parent which will usually occur in this period are: problems with sleeping and eating, excessive crying, fear of separation and fear of strange and unfamiliar situations.

Educational tasks for children aged 2-4

The aforementioned tasks, such as offering emotional support, recognizing the child’s autonomy and providing structure and boundaries, all remain necessary. Because of the increasing intellectual and social needs of the child, parents will have to explain to the child why things are the way they are, what one is and what one is not supposed to do, and how certain things work the way they do. In order for the child to internalize the rules of society successfully, the parents will have to deal with the demands made on the child and its ambiguous attitude towards those (external) demands. Problems which usually and naturally occur during this period are: a fear of strange and unfamiliar situations, headstrong behaviour, tantrums, disobedience, noisy behaviour, as well as the child not being toilet-trained.

Advice for parents of young children

The lists of references below includes many websites offering a great deal of advice. A good English blog is: Competent Parent Blogspot Both NJI and Triple P offer clear and useful advice, which is also offered in English. Moreover, child health centres will provide support too. If you are not sure of the bonding process, you might consider applying video-hometraining, a method which uses short video-tapes in order to analyse the interaction between parents and child.


References and recommended reading – Dutch:

Blokland, G. (2007) Triple P: Positief Pedagogisch Programma. Een veelbelovend model om psychosociale problemen bij kinderen te voorkomen

Blokland, G. (2010), 'Over opvoeden gesproken' methodiekboek pedagogisch adviseren

Ijzendoorn M.H. van, L.W.C. Tavecchio, F.A. Goossens & M.M. Vergeer (1988). Opvoeden in geborgenheid – Een kritische analyse van Bowlby’s attachmenttheorie

Choy, J. & Schulze, E. (2009) Kiezen voor kinderen

Debbaut,Y., H.v.d. Bruel & H.Weekers (2005) Het Australische Triple P

Goudena,P.P. (1994) Ontwikkelingsopgaven en opvoedingsopgaven. In: J.Rispens et al (red) Preventie van psychosociale problemen bij kinderen en jeugdigen. Houten: Bohn Stafleu van Loghum

Meij, H. (2011) De basis van ontwikkeling en opvoeding (NJI)

Pas, van der A. (2008) Het nut van ouderschapstheorie en de valkuilen, in:

Polderman, N. (2004) Hechtingsproblemen, niets aan te doen? Hechten met video interactie begeleiding, in: Mobiel 3, juni/juli 2004

Riksen-Walraven, J.M.A. (1989) Meten in perspectief – Een levensloopmodel als achtergrond bij het meten en beïnvloeden van gedrag en interacties: Tijdschrift voor Orthopedagogiek,23 (pg. 16-33)

Yperen, T.A. van,(2010) Opvoeden versterken

Wubs, J. (2010), 'Liefde en leiding. Vier verschillende opvoedstijlen', in: Diekstra, R. en M. van Hintum. 'Opvoedingscanon. Omdat over kinderen zoveel meer te weten valt’.

References and recommended reading – English:

Ainsworth,M. (1965) Childcare and the growth of love.

Ainsworth, M., M.C. Blehar, E.Waters & S.Wall (1978) Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation (Hillsdale, NJ; Esbaum)

Berlin,L., Y.Ziv, L.Amaya-jackson & M.Greenberg (2007) Enhancing early attachments: theory, research, intervention and policy

Bettelheim,B. (1988) Agood enough Parent; a book on child rearing

Bretherton, I. The origins of attachment theory, in “Attachment theory: social developmental and clinical perspectives”

Bowlby, J. (1958) The nature of the child’s tie to his mother

Bowlby,J. (1988) A secure base (Routledge classics)

Hoghughi, M. & A.N.P.Speight (1998) Good enough parenting for all children – and strategy for a healthier society, in: Arch Dis Child 78: pages 293-300

Juffer,F., M.J. Bakermans- Kranenburg & M.H. IJzendoorn (2008). Promoting positive parenting: an attachment based intervention

Marrone, M., (1998) Attachment and interaction

Patterson, G.R. (1982). Coercive family process: A social learning approach. Eugene: Castalia

Patterson, G.R. & P. Chamberlain (1988) Treatment process: A problem at three levels, in: L.C. Wayne (Ed.) “The state of art in family therapy research: controversies and reccomendations (pp. 189-226) N.York: Family Process Press

Reder,P., S.Duncan & C.Lucey (2003) Studies in the assessment of parenting Rutter, M. (1985) Resillience in the face of adversity, in: British Journal of Psychiatry 147: 598-611

Sanders,M.R., T.G. Mazzuchelli, & K.M.T. Turner (1996) Every parent’s guide to infants and Toddlers, QLD, Families International (DVD)

Trevarthen,C. (1979) Sharing a task in infancy, in: ”Social interaction and communication during infancy”, pp. 57-80.

White, B.L. (1990) The first three years of life. N.York: Prentice-Hall

External weblinks




The first version of this article was written in Dutch by Michael Jeroen Kanis. This article was translated from Dutch into English by Anna Visser.


Parenting, competence, sensitivity, parenting skills, educational tasks,attchment, positive disciplining

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