An Autonomy-Supportive Approach to Parenting

Headshot.Edlynn, Dr. Emily

Written by: Where Parents Talk Staff

Published: Nov 6, 2023

by Katherine Martinko

You may not have heard the phrase “autonomy-supportive parenting” before, but it could revolutionize your approach to raising children.

The phrase, which has existed in academic circles for over 30 years, has recently been brought into the mainstream by the publication of a new book called Autonomy-Supportive Parenting: Reduce Parental Burnout and Raise Competent, Confident Children.

Written by Dr. Emily Edlynn, a clinical psychologist, practicing child therapist, and mother of three, the book offers a fresh framework for navigating family life that balances both parental and child perspectives with science.

Click for video transcription

Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a clinical psychologist and practicing therapist specializing in adolescents and children. Dr. Emily Edlin is also an academic, a blogger and author and a mother of three. Her latest book is called autonomy, supportive parenting, reduce parental burnout, and raise competent, confident children. Dr. Edlynn joins us today from Oak Park, Illinois. Thank you so much for being here.

Thanks so much, man. I’m excited to be here and talk to you today.

Well, and you know, there are so many parenting strategies out there. So I’m curious as to what led you to autonomy, supportive parenting?

yes, there are so many out there, and even more experts, and different ways of guiding parents. And I think after I became a mother, myself as also a trained psychologist who had studied child development, psychology, family systems for my whole professional career, and I still felt unsure of myself as a mother. When I looked to that guidance, it to me fell short in a few ways. One is, as a social scientist, I realized how a lot of what’s out there that’s very popular doesn’t have much evidence or science behind it. And that was very concerning to me, because of the second component, which was how much I felt like a failure. Even knowing what I knew, and having the background I did, in my new motherhood with a newborn, and then a toddler and a newborn, there were so many times I would look to guidance and end up feeling worse about myself. And that was somehow failing, and there was guilt. And I started hearing that a lot all around me from other parents, especially mothers seeking that support. And so I really started to think about how I can create content. And eventually, hopefully, a book, which is what I was able to do, that had a different tone and approach, where it was really understanding the parent experience centering the parent experience as much as the child experience in some parenting guidance, and also with really good science base behind it. And I was familiar with autonomy, supportive parenting, from my training, but I hadn’t really dug into it until I started working on this book. And then I realized, you know, this has been studied rigorously for the last 30 years. And a lot of the principles have made it into mainstream things like taking our child’s perspective and having empathy for their experience, offering choices. But I hadn’t seen it wrapped up in the whole framework of autonomy, supportive parenting, with the theory and science behind it. And that’s what I was really excited about with this book to be able to do for parents. So it’s, it’s sharing science, but also a set of strategies. So there’s the theory of it, and the big picture and the mindset of a time as part of parenting along with actual tools, and how to use those tools across parenting points of tension across dilemmas across ages. So I was really hoping to create kind of this roadmap for any parent at any point in their parenting journey.

It’s so interesting to hear you provide that background, because you’re saying this is a an approach that has existed for 30 odd years. How can we haven’t heard more about it? Or where should we be looking to hear more about it? If we’ve missed it all this time?

Well, I found it in journal articles, you know, in academic journals, which most parents aren’t reading for good reason, and aren’t. I mean, I have the training to as a social scientist to know how to get through those articles. They’re not written for the mainstream reader. So there, there are some writings out there that have taken some of these ideas into a more applied way. But it’s not it just hasn’t hit the mainstream, like we’ve seen with all these other approaches like gentle parenting, positive parenting, that have gotten so much attention and focus. So I’m really hoping that we’re at a direction right now. We have been a bit at a tipping point with how intensive our parenting has been, and so focused on meeting our children’s needs. It’s kind of burning us out that I think parents are ready and eager for this other way of thinking and approaching parenting that’s more balanced.
So how would you go about then distilling that science and defining what autonomy supportive parenting actually is?

Okay, so I’m gonna start with the theory and bear with me because it’s important. And I’m trying to take like, hundreds of pages and distill it. But there is a theory called self determination theory that has been backed by research cross culturally around the world around all different types of communities, that really, all humans at all ages have three fundamental human needs, autonomy, competence, and relatedness. So when those needs are met, we have as humans, greater life satisfaction, greater health, greater outcomes across the board. So so that’s the theory piece of it. And then the science of it has been these last 30 years of parenting studies, contrasting autonomy supportive approaches, with the opposite, which is considered controlling parenting and the research. So controlling parenting, which I spend a lot of time on in my book, because I think it’s a really important concept for us all to understand. Controlling parenting can be very similar to intensive parenting, or we’re trying to manage our kids daily lives and even their outcomes with by using controlling impulses, but it’s undermining those fundamental human needs. So with our best intentions, our kids end up not feeling autonomous, not feeling competent, and not feeling as connected. So. So I think it’s really important because the parenting research has contrasted these two approaches and found consistently, that the autonomy, supportive parenting approaches lead to these healthier, happier outcomes for not just kids, but parents and families. But the controlling approaches relate more to the risky outcomes, like depression, anxiety, substance abuse. And so it’s really important to get this science out there. I think.

It is interesting, because there are a whole host of reasons presumably why different parents, fathers, mothers use a controlling style. It’s easier in many ways. Some people that’s how they were raised, it’s all they know, when you’re dealing with multiple children, you got to get things done, schedules, etc, etc. So it’s an easy, sort of, I want to say trap, but maybe traps not the best word to fall into for many families. What are some of the arguments for why that in the long term and even the short term is not the best approach? And why autonomy supportive parenting should potentially be something to consider?

I’m so glad you asked this questions is basically my entire book, I start with the very beginning, an experience I had with my 11 year old daughter, where she had, we had been using cell phone limits, you know, for her age at 11. It was appropriate. She was getting upset about it. And she as I’m writing this book, she screams at me, you’re so controlling. And I’m thinking but I’m working so hard to be autonomy supportive. And so throughout the book, I really acknowledge that controlling is a continuum for one thing. So the extremes of controlling are things like inducing guilt, and shame, and trying to really psychologically control children. And most of us aren’t doing those extremes. That’s more in abuse of family dynamics. And, and so that’s very clearly related to poor outcomes. But what I, what I get into is the more middle of the controlling continuum that many of us fall into, and you’re correct. Stress, anxiety, all of that makes us more likely to be controlling. It’s a human impulse. And it does make things easier in the moment. For example, my big thing was, I knew I was supposed to let my toddler click their own car seats. And I just, I was always running late. So I’m like, I just gotta I gotta click the car seats. You know? So one thing I really talk about in the book is I have a lot of vignettes throughout the book about common parenting dilemmas. And then I give examples, scripts of controlling responses versus autonomy, supportive responses, and I admit the controlling ones are so easy for me to come up with. I mean, it’s things like, if you don’t put away that, you know, iPad, you lose it for the week. I mean, we’re just Like in the moment, we just need to get something accomplished and work we become controlling the problem over time big picture is that our children aren’t learning about themselves, or how to solve problems, or to think critically, and developing their own authentic sense of self when we’re constantly directing and managing and intervening. And really the big picture zooming out, autonomy as an author is understanding one’s authentic sense of self like feeling like I know who I am, I have mastery over my life. And I respect others, those are kind of the components of being an autonomous person. And so when those really, when those controlling moments add up over time, they’re not having that sense of I’m in charge of my life. Now, a three year old can only be so much in charge. But there are ways we can step back in certain moments. And think about how is my child feeling a sense of agency in this moment? And are there things I can do to help them feel a little more agency that’s appropriate and safe, obviously. So. So I think that’s, that’s where the research misses is the real day to day reality of doing all of this. And that was my hope and intention with this book is to translate what’s happening in these scientific labs, and bring it to real life for for real parents.

Let’s go back for a second to the example you provided about the iPad and the controlling response. What would an A thought autonomy supportive parent provide as a response in that specific example?

Okay, so the child is supposed to stop playing on their iPad, it’s time to come to dinner, let’s say, that happens in my house almost every night. So we say, Okay, it’s time to come to dinner, and they don’t listen. Okay? So you point out, it’s really hard for you to stop playing your iPad right now, because it’s so much more fun than coming to eat broccoli, right? But, but your foods, so then you provide a rationale, your food’s gonna get cold, and then dinner is gonna be gross. And if they’re still having trouble, you say, Well, what should we do about this, it’s really hard for you to turn off your iPad and come to dinner, but it’s important you to come to dinner to get your food for your body. What should we do? So even asking a child for their idea of a solution? They could come up with? Well, could I just finish the five more minutes of this game? And then you decide, you know, is that going to ruin dinner? Or is that appropriate? You know, so there’s some flexibility to to allow for their experience? And have them come up with some solutions? Or maybe they say, Would it be okay, if I played this much after dinner, because I really want to finish this level. So I think what we forget is when we are on our agenda, and this is really true with devices, there could be right in the middle of something. And we’re telling them to stop now and come. And that’s really disruptive. And we don’t like that as adults. Like if we’re in the middle of a TV show, we want to finish the TV show. And so I think it’s really also understanding what is this like for my child right now. So that’s where it’s taking their perspective. It’s also I want to point out maintaining the behavioral expectation to come to dinner. So there is not that an option can’t be to skip dinner, and stay on the iPad, right? So it’s within, within reason.

So using that same example, now we’re talking about teens, you know, adolescence, everything becomes slightly more tricky when you’re navigating that age and stage of parenting. How would you approach that from an autonomy supportive strategy approach?

So I think with teens, what is easier than younger children is that they can think bigger and more longer term. And so if there’s a regular difficulty with putting away a device to come do something else, you talk to the team about this is a problem that’s been happening in our family. When we need to get out the door or have a meal, you’re having a really hard time getting off your phone or your iPad. And I want to understand why you know, what’s going on for you. So it’s having that open and curious mindset. So you state what the problem is how it’s getting in the way. You ask for their experience and input for what it’s been like for them to get their there perspective. And then you say, well, let’s, let’s figure out how we can address this problem. Together. So it’s collaborating involving them in the decision making of what to do next with it. I have learned with my own and my oldest is 13. So I know I have a long way to go with adolescents. But I’ve learned, I have said, you know, we’ve had something in place a rule in place, she breaks the role. And I say, What do you think the consequence should be for this? And she comes up with great ones. And so I think it’s involving them in all of it, you know? So this is the expectation makes, maybe you’re a little flexible as the parent, maybe you change a little bit what you’re thinking based on what they tell you. But then you come up with them. Okay, but what if it continues to be a problem? What would motivate you to stick with our plan? You know, in the moment, well, if then I didn’t get my phone the rest of the night. Okay, so we have an agreement together. And so you come up with it together?
It sounds so simple as you describe it. And in the moment, of course, you know, it’s a whole different ballgame. A lot of the time, right? So I’m curious as to your family situation, you gave us the example of your daughter, and the phone and the cell phone. While you were researching your book, I wonder, do you practice autonomy, supportive parenting on a regular basis in your home? And if so, have you found it making an impact of some kind?
Yes. And it’s so funny, because I realized, as I was researching it, I had been doing a lot of it very naturally. I mean, the offering choices, having empathy, you would hope a practicing psychologists would have empathy for their children. I really do take their perspective very easily, things like that. But I think I was missing some of the components that like the involvement in decision making, and really having that curious mindset from the outset, I was sort of missing that sometimes. And it’s funny, because when we when my husband and I would face a parenting dilemma over the last year, he would say to me, Well, what is your framework, say to do about this one? And I would have to stop and think what, what would I say? Sometimes I’d have to think what would I write to another parent, if they were going through this difficulty, this challenge. So I would say that it has helped me be more thoughtful and less reactive, I have become much more aware of my own controlling impulses. And so in those moments, it is easier for me to take a beat, and shift gears, because I’ve immersed myself so much in understanding the framework. And I will say, I’m going to share an example without giving too much details, because I do want to protect my children’s privacy. But there was an instance where my husband and I found out from another set of parents something from their perspective that our child had said to a good friend, and we’re all friends, the parents or friends, the kids or friends. And it upset us a lot that we felt like our child wasn’t behaving by their values, that we had taught them differently for how to treat people. So we were heated. I mean, we were ready for a big old lecture to sit them down and really, like, read the riot act to them. And I realized, that is exactly opposite. But I am encouraging other parents to do. So we I said, we need to calm down. We need to wait. And then when we’re calm, we’re going to ask our child to come talk to us. And we’re going to start with only open ended questions. We’re going to say, so what is going on with the situation? Tell us what’s been happening for you. This is what and then after we heard that we could add Well, this is what we heard. And what ended up happening is we got so much more information about what our child had been going through and their experience. And it connected us in a way that was really important. And we would have lost that entire that entire experience had we just resorted to our injury lecture. And it really just hit me and stayed with me for why this mindset and approach can be so powerful.
It’s such a relatable example that you provide. And you know, as I listen to you describe it. What sort of comes to the surface for me is the idea of greater self awareness as a parent, right. When you’re talking about things that happen in the heat of the moment, it’s usually very reactionary.

And it’s having that discipline to take that extra time to pause like you suggested, with your husband and that example. Not all of us practice that maybe not all of us have that self discipline. But if you start to become aware of it, it’s like anything, I guess you’re practicing it, it should become easier over time. Right?

Yes. And I really repeat over and over autonomy. So positive parenting is not a label, it’s not an identity, it is a practice. And every day, you have an opportunity to practice autonomy, supportive parenting, it doesn’t matter how controlling you were the day before, or the hour before, there’s still opportunity to have that mindset, I have plenty of moments where I snap at my children. I mean, I am human, you know, and I am very vulnerable about that, because I think it’s important to normalize that we all get impatient, and we all get our buttons pushed and react. And that’s human and normal. What I want us all to think about is, what kind of overall environment are recreating in our homes with our families. And that’s what’s important is the bigger picture. So I may have snapped at my kids in the morning when we’re rushing to get out the door. But I’m able to spend really good time with them. After school or over dinner, we have a really fun conversation at dinner in our family. So I think it’s it’s remembering all of the pieces that this is not, this is not a 100%, you know, autonomy, supportive parenting or bust. Being very kind to ourselves, which helps the self awareness, I think we’re going to be more open. If we can be self compassionate as well of Well, I had a moment and move on.
Absolutely. I think it’s such a critical point. Because all of us, you know, mother of three myself, I’ve done it multiple times. And I probably will do it multiple times in the in this weekend, for example. And it’s just having again, that ability to say, Okay, stop. Let me just, you know, think about this for a second.

Dr. Edlynn, can I ask you when you did the research for your book, you talked about this sort of style of parenting been having been around in science journals for 30 odd years? Did was there anything in the science in the research that you uncovered that really struck you?

I mean, what struck me and why I wrote a book about it is how consistent the findings were across. I mean, we’re talking setting toddlers, studying school aged kids, studying adolescents, studying young adults, doing lab based studies, self report studies, meta analyses, which is like the big study of all the studies, it was the consistency of the findings, that really struck me, which was why I felt it was worthy of a book, pulling it all together to very confidently say, this approach is good for us, all of us. And I do want to point out, one important piece is that the more our needs are met, so the more we feel autonomous, competent, and related to others, the better we can do that for our children. So it’s really important. And it’s the whole oxygen mask metaphor. But it’s very true, that we have to prioritize those things first, for ourselves in our lives, the best we can, and know that that helps us have the energy and vigor to do that for our children.

You alluded to some of the tools that underpin autonomy, supportive parenting, namely, empathy. You know, taking a child’s perspective, I wonder if you could describe some of the others, for example, aligning values to behavior and scaffolding as well.

Yes, so there’s about 10 tools that I won’t get into in detail, but those are, these are all really important. So the empathy and perspective taking, which I know a lot of other parenting approaches focus on, it’s really important for building the relationship, understanding our child’s experience. But the other pieces are really important as well, the scaffolding is really critical for the competence, piece of self determination. And so it’s knowing where our children’s skills are. And we have to do that by really understanding them. But and remembering each of our children’s siblings could have very different places of readiness for different skill development. But once we really have an understanding of our child’s skills, then we scaffold by like, nudging them to the next step. So making their own breakfast, for example, you know, a three year old may be able to get out the cereal and the mill, but the pouring may be a little sloppy, right? And so maybe they can get out the ingredients and then we can pour for them. But then when they get a little older, they’re better with their fine motor skills and they can pour it all and They can do it all on their own. And so it’s, it’s meeting our child’s where they’re at skills wise, and then nudging them to the next level. And then when they’re ready, we keep backing off, so that they keep growing. And I think that’s a really critical piece for the competence. The values piece is the big picture, which is really important for us staying motivated to keep up this approach and mindset. So remembering that just because we’re practicing autonomy, supportive parenting does not mean everything feels like it works, quote, unquote, in the moment, it’s still Rocky, we’re still going to have conflict, things are still going to be stressful. It’s not taking away all of that. But if we realize with clarity, that that we are having this rule in our house, for example, because of our family, valuing something, so we, we have a rule around dinners together. Because we value our family time and connection where everyone’s spending together and our meals regularly. Even when there’s some argument about that from the teenager who wants to stay in their room, you stay focused on the values, the reason that you are staying steady with a rule that may be causing some upheaval. But I think values keep us focused and study, if we remember what we’re doing this all for in the big picture.

Many parents listening to or watching this interview would fall into the category of being helicopter parents. And there’s been many of them over the last certainly, you know, a couple of decades, at least, that do everything for their kids hover, really. And so how would you suggest to a parent who falls into that category to kind of make this shift and make this pivot, potentially to autonomy supportive parenting?

Yes, and I want to say I do I think helicopter parenting has gotten bashing. Like, it’s definitely more a pejorative term. These days, no one wants to be a helicopter parent. However, I would call it intensive parenting. And I would say that most of us aren’t doing that most of us are intensive parenting without fully realizing it. And a part of that is because it’s become so culturally normative, in many cultures, to be very involved with our children. And also, we’re in an ultra competitive culture right now around academics and youth sports and readiness for college. And there’s a lot of pressure to keep up socially. And so part of this intensive parenting really is evolutionary based, where we are primed as parents to protect our children, and raise them to have good social ranking. And so we’re responding to that culture around us with these intensive practices. However, we know from the research from everything that’s been coming out that this does not actually protect our children, the long term effects are not good for them. They don’t feel ready for college, emotionally, for example. And so I think, going back to the self awareness piece, and the values piece of taking a step back and thinking, what kind of child do I want to raise? What kind of future do I want them to have? What is important to me as a parent? And am I parenting by those goals and values in these in the day to day, so I want to raise an independent, responsible human? am I allowing them opportunities to do things independently at eight years old? So I think it’s asking ourselves those questions, having that self awareness. And then my hope is that with my book, I’m providing tools, so you can’t just understand it. You need to know then what to do with it.

Absolutely. Dr. Edlynn what did you learn in the course of writing this book?

I will say it was such an adventure to I did a lot of self examination I had to and it was very humbling. I realized many areas that I was open to growth. And so I have a lot of compassion for anyone who reads my book around this experience of parenting. And, but what I got out of it was how empowering it actually felt to practice this mindset and these strategies and to have this frame work, it gave me more confidence, I felt like I could take a step back and know the why, of what I was doing in certain moments or how we were handling a problem in the family. And in that process, I will say, I feel really a lot closer to my kids. I feel like the relationships grew even more. And I think about the times that I stopped myself from lecturing that I offered a comforting hug instead of you know, instead of getting so angry, which I still get angry, but I think there was just a real shift for me internally, that then was able to affect the relationships. And so if anything comes from writing this book, I feel like I as a mother kept growing because of it. And I hope that other people get get that out of reading it.
Dr. Emily Edlynn child psychologist therapist and author of autonomy supportive parenting. Thank you so much for your time and your perspective today.

Dr. Edlynn spoke to Lianne Castelino, host of Where Parents Talk, about the impetus for her book. “We [are] at a tipping point with how intensive our parenting has been, so focused on meeting our children’s needs. It’s kind of burning us out [and] I think parents are ready and eager for this other way of thinking and an approach to parenting that is more balanced.”

Autonomy-supportive parenting is founded in self-determination theory, which has been widely confirmed in research around the world. Edlynn defined it, saying, “All humans at all ages have three fundamental human needs—autonomy, competence, and relatedness. So, when those needs are met, we have, as humans, greater life satisfaction, greater health, greater outcomes across the board.”

The autonomy-supportive parent recognizes that the child has valuable perspective on a situation and can benefit from expressing it. Conflict is approached with open-ended questions, instead of aggressive rants. If there’s a problem, it is stated upfront, the child is asked for input, and then the child and parent work together to find a solution.

When a child misbehaves, he or she is asked, “What do you think the consequences should be?” This approach helps the child to develop a sense of independence and autonomy, which makes the parent’s job easier and reduces their tendency to helicopter-parent.Book cover.Edlynn, Emily

The book includes advice on “scaffolding,” a strategy for building children’s general competence. It recognizes where a child’s practical skills lie and then “nudges” them to the next level. “And then, when they’re ready,” Edlynn says, “we keep backing off, so that they can keep growing.”

This parenting style is not a label or an identity, but a practice. “Every day, you have an opportunity to practice autonomy-supportive parenting. It doesn’t matter how controlling you were the day before or the hour before, there’s still opportunity to have that mindset.”

Edlynn maintains that this approach will make feel parents feel more self-aware and empowered, and that children will thrive.


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