Balancing Structure & Nurture

balancing structure and nurture

We know that parenting or caring for children from hard places requires a very specific set of parenting skills that may require modifying the way you are programmed to parent or care for children. Perhaps you have closely modeled your caregiving or parenting style to that of your own parents or maybe someone else in your life whom you greatly admired. Being mindful or self-aware of your caregiving style is the first step toward positively reshaping the challenging behavior of children who have come from hard places. 

The key is having a healthy balance of both nurture and structure. This balance allows a child to stay connected to you while you provide them with a thoughtful learning experience.  It is important because a healthy balance of both allows a child to trust and grow. Some caregiver styles may lean toward too much structure, while other styles may lean toward too much nurture. A balance of both is better. It is important to remember that the goal of correction should always be connection, which is why the balance between structure and nurture is so important. Your own parenting or caregiving style might be to lead with structure, and that is okay, but remember to follow that up with nurture. Perhaps your style is to lead with nurture, and that is okay too, but you then must follow that up with structure.   

Ideally, authoritative caregiving styles are the best at managing challenging behaviors for children from hard places. Below is a list of four very different caregiving styles beginning with authoritative:

  • Authoritative Caregiving Style: This style provides a balance of structure and nurture. It allows for guidance and support while setting clear limits and expectations. Power is shared, choices are given to the child, redo’s are encouraged, and when resistance still occurs, compromises are offered. (There are of course non-negotiables around safety) This style allows the child to have a voice which in turn disarms the fear that their needs will never be met. Children who are guided using this parenting style have less internal distress, greater self-esteem, and more social competence. 
  • Authoritarian Caregiving Style: This style values obedience and compliance above all else, is typically punitive when children misbehave, and believes that all children should accept rules without question. In this style, there is too much structure and not enough nurture. There is little respect for the voice of the child which in turn, does not encourage the respectful verbal “give and take” between child and parent.
  • Permissive Caregiving Style: This style is always very warm and supportive, sets very few limits, and rarely corrects behavior. In this type of relationship, children can appear to “run the show” because of very few limits and boundaries. Children who are guided using this caregiving style have difficulty with self-regulation and they lack motivation. In this style, there is too much nurture and not enough structure
  • Neglectful Caregiving Style: This style often rejects children to the point of being neglectful of their physical and emotional needs. This caregiving style is low on both structure and nurture. Children who predominantly experience a neglectful caregiving style exhibit significant behavioral problems and have higher rates of psychological difficulties.    

Some traditional discipline models focus solely on punishment. However, what if we viewed discipline from the lens of correcting and teaching? That would certainly make it easier to sneak in some nurture with the structure. You might try this while kneeling down to your child’s eye level: “It seems like you’re having a hard time right now, I’ll be right over here when you’re ready to talk to me about it” or “What do you need right now, I want to help you but you need to use your words.” Providing a nurturing and safe place while reinforcing boundaries and setting limits promotes connection with your children.  

As parents and caregivers, there is usually one caregiver style that we tend to gravitate toward. We may even quickly phase in and out of all these styles at one time or another depending on the kind of day we ourselves are having. Remember to give yourselves some grace. We are all learning and growing no matter our age. As parents and caregivers of children from hard places, we know that there are days that are hugely rewarding and others where you feel great despair and maybe even some hopelessness. It takes great courage and resolve to guide children from hard places because these children do not feel like they have a voice and they do not trust easily. Please know that on this journey we see you, we hear you, we support you and we commend you. These children are precious, and they need to feel their preciousness from all of us before they begin to believe it themselves.

Want to learn more about Trust-Based Relational Intervention and the Connecting, Empowering, and Connecting Principles? Join us for ongoing trainings in person or via Zoom video calls. Details can be found at The Connected Community.

Written by Angie Woodhead, Adoption Social Worker at The Maine Children's Home for The Connected Community @ MCH.