By Kathryn Rea Smith, PH.D.
In psychological research, “parental warmth” is an important concept related to the quality of a parent-child relationship. Studies have shown that the presence of parental warmth is associated with a variety of positive outcomes including improved self-esteem, lower rates of teen pregnancy and underage drinking, lower delinquency rates, better parent-child communication, and greater college adjustment. Parental warmth seems to be a good thing. So what is it? And why should we try to get more of it into our relationships with our children?
When psychological researchers talk about parental warmth, they are referring to a specific set of parent behaviors towards their children. So, for instance, when parents are “warm” they say nice things to their children, offer praise and approval, are physically affectionate, and do special things together with their children. In studies of parental warmth, the researchers typically also assess the “opposite” of warmth: hostility. When parents are hostile towards their children, they yell, shout, argue, criticize, and belittle. When warmth is high and hostility is low, “parental warmth” is thought to be a salient feature of the parent-child relationship.
As with many types of psychological research, identifying the presence of parental warmth is complicated in that the degree of “warmth” in the relationship depends upon whom you ask—the parent or the child. To get at this complexity, parental warmth and hostility are measured by asking parents to rate themselves, by asking the children to rate the parents, and by having trained observers rate the interactions between a parent and child in the home. Examples of items that assess the child’s perception of parental warmth are “how often does your father tell you he loves you?” or “how often does your mother hug you?” Examples of items that assess the child’s perception of hostility are “how often does your father scream at you?” and “how often does your mother criticize you?” Parents are asked to rate themselves on similar items. In some families, there is high congruence between the parent and child ratings, but in other families, there is discordance. For instance, the children may rate the parents as less warm and more hostile than what the parents’ self-ratings indicated. When the scores are analyzed along with other variables of interest (e.g. delinquency), the presence of parental warmth is related to favorable outcomes for children and adolescents.
Given the many positive outcomes associated with parental warmth, it is well worth striving to do so.
On the one hand, it may seem silly for psychologists to spend time and money studying what most of us who are parents know to be true. We are well aware that it is good to tell our children we love them, hug them, praise them, and offer support and approval, and many of us do a pretty good job with these things. On the other hand, maintaining parental warmth when faced with the inevitable challenges of parenting can be difficult. In the course of a typical week, we may encounter such problematic child behaviors as sibling squabbles, poor test grades, messy rooms, dishonesty, disrespectful speech, rule-violations, or outright defiance. During these moments in which we don our disciplinarian hat, we may reflexively become stern and angry, raise our voice, and pile on the criticism. When warmth becomes hostility, though, the parent-child relationship takes a hit.
Even though it can be challenging to discipline without resorting to yelling, shouting, or belittling, it is possible to eschew a hostile approach in favor of a firm, warm connection with our children during the times we must correct them. Given the many positive outcomes associated with parental warmth, it is well worth striving to do so. We can find ways to communicate and set limits without yelling. We can show understanding about such lapses as poor grades and help our child figure out how to do better the next time. We can emphasize to our child that, although we find a particular behavior unacceptable, our love and support are nonnegotiable.