Five Key Principles of Parenting according to Science: Dr. Aliza Pressman

Pressman, Dr. Alize B&W.headshot

Written by: Where Parents Talk Staff

Published: Apr 23, 2024

By Katherine Martinko

Parenting can feel like a daunting job, but Dr. Aliza Pressman, developmental psychologist, believes that the task can be boiled down to five basic principles. Once parents understand these principles, which hold true across countless scientific studies, cultures, and children’s varying ages, the task of raising little humans to adulthood becomes more manageable and rewarding. 

Pressman is the author of a new book, The 5 Principles of Parenting: Your Essential Guide to Raising Good Humans.
She is an assistant clinical professor at Icahn Medical School, founder of the Mount Sinai Parenting Center and mother of two teenage daughters. She spoke to Lianne Castelino, host of Where Parents Talk, from her home in New York City.

Click for video transcription

Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a developmental psychologist, Assistant Clinical Professor at ICANN medical school in New York, and founder of the Mount Sinai parenting Center. Dr. Elisa Pressman is also a podcast host and author and a mother of two teens. Her first book is called The Five Principles of parenting. Dr. Pressman joins us today from New York. Welcome, and thank you so much for being here.

Thank you for having me.

I’d like to start and get right into it by asking you Dr. Pressman, what was the impetus for the five principles of parenting.

So I wanted to write a book that I thought could kind of house everything that really matters in the science under one roof for every age, that could clear away some of the noise that can tend to be thrust upon us parents. And I also wanted to make it practical so that I could take the science and apply it in practical examples, enough that it could become sort of fluent for any parent who reads it. And I felt like I actually was not planning on writing a book. I’ve been doing this for a couple of decades now. And I felt like, first of all, there are some amazing books out there that colleagues of mine have written and there are so many books that I was like, I don’t need to add to the burden for parents. So I was unwilling to write a book unless I could feel like it would unburden and relief parents while giving tools. And so that was kind of where I landed on. Can I boil down what really matters that’s actually in our control into something that is manageable for parents?

Do you feel that you’ve achieved that?

I think so. I think I have, I think it took some time and experience and thought, but I think with, you know, a lot of support. I feel like this book is what I’m what the feedback I’m getting it is that it is very relieving and practical.

So you talk about the noise, you talk about sort of an ocean of different books and resources that parents can tap into. And then you talk about the tools and resources that you offer in your book, would you say that is what you would call the differentiator of your book, when you look at what is else is out there currently?

Yeah, I mean, I would say the differentiator is first, it’s not a single topic book. And it’s not a single age. So I really boil down the science. And then I feel like it was curated enough that I made sure that the science that I mentioned matters in any context, in any culture, and any community, instead of feeling like I was writing it for one particular community. And the I think the distinguishing feature is making practical from from the the lens that I have, which is a developmental psychologist. So I don’t look at ticker pathology, I’m looking at change over time, and how we come to be who we are. So I was able to say like, here’s how it applies with infants. Here’s how it applies to toddlers. Here’s how this applies with preschoolers, here’s how it applies with school age, here’s how it applies for adolescents, and not make parents do the work. And also, then you you kind of can keep it and go back to it as a resource, but not read it all at once.

You mentioned you have been a developmental psychologist for more than two decades now. And I wonder, with all of that knowledge, what was your approach in terms of the research that you undertook for this book?

My approach is, including research that’s pretty robust, that is held true over time and in different contexts. And shown to move the needle, a little bit on outcomes for kids and parents. And I also, you know, I have a pretty good lens to look at what content is out there that is maybe not as helpful as we think it is. In our fields. Like sometimes things are really interesting, but they’re not helpful and you can’t do anything about it. So I don’t really feel like that is needs to be a burden for parents. So I think my lens just is is one on the one hand very quick to look at the science and then on the other hand, I have a lot of practical experience with families. So I know what the pain points are and the questions are in the worries and I wanted to include them at every Ah, so that it just felt like I wasn’t burdening parents with more work to do.

So how then did you go from the robust research to the applicable science, and then distilling it down to five principles?

Well, I really, you know, if you talk to any, and I think this is why I’ve gotten so much support from colleagues and scientists in this field and in adjacent fields, like neuroscience, etc, is that you really like can boil it down to these five core principles, relationship, reflection, regulation, rules and repair. Once you realize their umbrellas for so many different things, like just looking at relationships, you’re getting anything to do with connection, attachment, sensitive caregiving, attunement, listening, presence, that’s all relationship. And so when you really think about it, there isn’t that much that is critical for our children to thrive. And so we really can boil it down to five, but I think it probably would be intimidating for someone who’s just looking at piles of research. But over the years, like I have clarity to be able to distill it down to what I know really matters. And I feel like it took a while to have the confidence or audacity to say that, but I feel pretty good about it.

So you talk about relationship, one of the five principles, could you take us through the five of them and why each is important?

Sure. So I think relationships, the easiest one to explain, because we all are in relationships, whether they’re challenging, or easy, or good or bad, or whatever. We’re relational creatures, humans, and we have learned through the science. And frankly, you know, there are so many other lenses, you could look at this because you could look at art and literature and mindfulness and spirituality, and you’d still find the core at the core is relationship and the quality of our relationships. But the science also shows us that relationships are so powerful, that they can actually move the needle from what is considered toxic stress that would be harmful. Like not just harmful in the short term, but harmful decades later, we know that those having chronic unmitigated stress just like it never, it never lets up, there’s just constant flooding of cortisol, which is the stress hormone, that that can lead to heart disease in your midlife, like something that was in your childhood, or, you know, mental health outcomes that we wish didn’t have to be. And then you can move the needle in how those stressors present themselves in the brain and body simply by having a close connected relationship with one adult with whom you feel safe and secure. So that’s powerful. And we also know like the longest running study on happiness, names relationship as the powerful tool for longevity and quality of life. So the science is really clear on relationships. And we know that for those not that you wish, these big giant stressors on children ever, but the idea that the buffering effect of that close relationship can move the categorizing of the stressor from toxic to tolerable. To me that is magic, because it’s free. It’s in our control. And it’s teachable. Because if you never were in close relationships, and you struggle to connect their resort resources out there to learn how to do that. And hopefully, I’m one of those resources.

relationship, then you’ve got reflection, can you take us through what is important for parents to know about reflection as a guiding principle of parenting?

I mean, I think the first thing that reflection can just like just to simplify it, pause. Give yourself a pathway to think about your intentions, and to wonder about your responses and reactions, and to think about your early experiences so that you can make intentional choices about how you parent because you’re like, I wonder if my experience is making it so that when my child does X, Y, or Z, I react to this way, or whatever it is. And it allows you to take space, and I think reflection is the least sort of popular because it’s sort of too easy almost to think that just pausing and reflecting can move any needles on anything, but it’s so enormous. And it’s also helpful to reflect back with your kids so they learn the art of reflection. And when you do that, this kind of bleeds nicely. into was in sorry, the reflection moves nicely into regulation, because it’s that pause that allows you to have the space to make intentional choices and regulate your nervous system so that you can be intentional and authentic and how you parent so that you’re regulated enough to handle it, when things come your way. So unless there’s an emergency, you don’t have false alarms going off in your nervous system, and, you know, make very spur of the moment kind of autopilot choices that you’ve regret in your parenting. Because you had the space to pause, you’ve breathed, you’ve thought through, and you now are coming forward regulated, and therefore co regulating with your child who doesn’t yet have the nervous system and the brain development to totally self regulate. So you’re building their regulatory muscles in quotes, and you are providing that for yourself. And again, we only have to do these things more often than not, we’re never going to be perfect. So that’s regulation. And to me, regulation is freedom to make choices about your parenting, and to help bolster those skills and your kids. And all of these really do that right like relationship, a close connected relationship with a child means that they will learn and it will become wired in them how to have those kinds of relationships for when they grow up. And so the next one is rules. And I think rules is kind of unpopular right now. Because it feels like it’s hard to have a sensitive relationship, if you’re upsetting a child, or anybody with your boundaries and the expectations that you have for behavior. But in fact, rules provide safety and security and predictability in a very, very chaotic world. So when we can provide that we’re actually serving our relationships, what it feels like is if we get those sort of challenging emotions, reacting to our boundaries, or reacting to the limits that we set, we can question that like, well, this didn’t work, they’re feeling upset. And that’s where I would say, we really have to believe that feelings aren’t dangerous, and that we can give our kids the space to have the range of emotions. So that they learn, they’re not dangerous, and they’re able to move through them and get past them. So that’s very important. And you wouldn’t learn that if every time there’s a rule, when you get upset about it, your parent is like, Okay, nevermind, that’s not safe. And then I would say, What, with all of that, in mind, repair is a huge part of the developmental literature, the developmental sciences, because we’re going to mess up, we’re going to be disconnected, we’re going to have discord, it’s, it’s actually part of a healthy relationship. And it’s how we come back together from those moments where we’re just dis connected, that really measure the quality of the relationship and give us the tools to know that we can handle that in our adult relationships and our friendships.

A lot to unpack there. But I wonder if you can, and it’s all so pertinent, right? And it’s so important that there, there’s an integration component as well to what you’ve just outlined. But you know, one of the things that you talk about in your book is the idea of normalizing imperfection, because not just now about perfection. However, normalizing imperfection might startle people to hear those two words together. Why do you think that this is an important concept to not only think about but practice?

So, I would say there are two really important things to remember about perfection. One, it’s not possible to it’s not healthy for kids to see that modeled. So even if you could be perfect, what burden does that place on our kids? What message are we giving them? If we’re perfect? The message would be it’s possible. And then our children grow up and feel so unworthy because they’re not perfect. And they’re like, the my primary person that I look up to and like, is perfect. So that is attainable, and it must be me. That’s the problem. So I actually think it’s urgent that if you are bending in the perfectionist direction that you acknowledge that makes sense because this is my most important job. And also part of this important job is to help to raise a child who has the self compassion to make mistakes and grow from them.
The other piece that I think goes hand in hand with what you’ve just described, that you talk about in your book, is the idea of parents re parenting themselves. Why do you think that is something to keep in mind, if we are to adopt and really understand these five principles of parenting that you’ve outlined.

So when we are able to reflect on our experience being parented were the parts that might have been missing the things that we would have needed or wished we could have had. And that doesn’t mean that our parents were bad parents, it just means like, they were also a work in progress, and what what are the skills that are missing right now that I might need, because I didn’t have that support growing up. And then you go ahead and figure that out. And with such love and compassion, offer yourself that growth, and recognize that there are going to be some things that are a little harder for you, because you didn’t learn them growing up, and you’re just learning them now. And also, this incredible thing about our brains is that the transition to parenthood is a huge moment of growth in our brains. It’s not as big as infancy through early childhood, or the boost in adolescence, but it is the third biggest boost in our brain development. Which means we’re motivated to grow and change when we repair to ourselves.

We have capacity at like, unlike any other time in our adult life. And so even if it’s hard, it’s something that we can really do.

So if you were to go about Dr. Pressman, prioritizing the understanding and use of just one of these five principles as a starting point, I don’t know if there is such a thing to prioritize one of them. But if there was, which one, would it be in your estimation? And why?
Well, that’s such an interesting question, because I didn’t order them. So what I did in the book, just to, to answer this question, maybe while I’m trying to figure it out, out loud, work with me. In the book, I didn’t separate it like, this is the repair chapter, this is the relationship chapter, this is whatever, what I did was, I explained these things as they actually occur, which is in concert with each other. And then, when I did the second half of the book, which wasn’t the science, it was the application of the science. In the examples, I do little notes, when there is one of these, you know, moments where, let’s say there’s a q&a part of the book. And in the answer, I have in parentheses repair, reflection regulation, like I’m kind of pointing out what is happening in the answer with the specific example. So let’s say I’m saying, you know, you know, and then you would look at each other, and in parentheses, it would say, repair, because that means in that moment, you’re reconnecting and repairing, so I tried to not place them in this way where it was like this is the most important to the least important, but more like they work in concert. And here’s how you can notice as you move through the world when they are working. So I could probably pitch any of them as the most important. Because in some ways, I’m like one more pair, obviously. Because that way, there’s always opportunities to come back together. And if togetherness and connection matters that much in relationship, there has to be a path forward when there’s disconnection. But then I could also say, at all costs, prioritize relationship, because we know that it buffers the effect of so many of the outside stressors in the world. And I don’t mean like the light stressors, because we need those, we actually can’t have a stress free life that would be unhealthy. We wouldn’t learn how to navigate challenges. But I’m talking about the big, big, big stuff. But then I also can see reflection, you know, and regulation and rules. So I think they really do work together. And rather than choosing one to focus on, I would do like a, like a C plus job on each, because you don’t need to get them all right. You just need a little like more often than not, to be aware and to be intentional about how you’re responding. So you can use these principles more often than not and sprinkle them in to your day to day interactions. Rather than choosing one to focus on. Or, you know, pick a favorite and like, see how it goes. And then as you get a little bit more comfortable with it, you can move on to the next one.

It’s interesting because practice is something that you stress as well right and, and a lot of people you know in the day to day He’s in the trenches of trying to raise kids in today’s world. Practice doesn’t always come, you know, so easily. But why is practice then become important?

You know, practice just wires us like what you practice grows stronger. So we got to practice things over and over until they’re baked into our system. And we have to recognize that there’s nothing in life that you can just start doing, and you’re just great at it. So it’s a practice. And I even at the end of each chapter, there’s practices for the topic that is at hand, so that you can even create regulation practices that will influence like, when you’re in the heat of the moment, I know what this feels like. Because I’ve been practicing daily for just a minute. I talk a lot about like micro meditations or micro moments. And it’s because I know parents are busy and overwhelmed. Like they, this is reality. So what are those moments that we can practice regulating our nervous system so that in the heat of the moment when we feel under attack, when we feel threatened, our nervous system is like, I know this feeling, I can distinguish between a real threat and an imagined threat. I think I can do this.

You talk about the second half of the book being application focused, I wonder if you could give us an example of a typical pain point that you’d find in any household these days, particularly, as it affects teens and adolescents, and kind of demonstrate how the five principles can be used to address that particular issue.

So okay, I’m like picking age because I go through everything from sleep to discipline, you know what, let’s do discipline, because it’s just always top of mind for people. At any age, there’s always, you know, how do I navigate helping my child or teenager or partner, whomever understand that there are certain expectations about how we move through the world? And how do I help them understand them, and get the skill developed the skills. So I would say, I would put relationship, and relationship regulation and rules into this sentence. All feelings are welcome. All behaviors are not. So there’s a chapter called all feelings are welcome, all behaviors are not meaning, I’m in relationship with you, if you have a feeling, if you’re feeling upset about something, or if you’re angry about something, I’m, I’m going to welcome that feeling. Please share with me your feelings. And also, I’m going to let you know my rules. So that’s where the all behaviors are not come in. So you can be angry at your brother and snatch his toy. And I’m going to tell you that I’m going to take that toy, because I need to either protect your brother’s body or I need to put the toy away, because it’s upsetting people, it’s a rule, whatever it is that you need. But I’m not going to tell you Don’t be angry at your brother, you love your brother, because you’re not feeling it right then. So I want the relationship to grow. And in order for it to grow, the child needs to now I accept your angry feelings about your brother, I cannot accept you swiping that toy violently from his arms. So that would be I think, an example. And so that would be relationship and rules into just like a moment that you had with your brother. And you just get you know, as you have more and more opportunities to practically apply it. And that’s why I use so many examples in the book. Because there are a gazillion courses out there like how to potty train, how to sleep train, how to discipline how to deal with bullies, how to deal with a kid who’s talking back how to deal with you name it, a death in the family. But ultimately, every answer and it’s I answer all those questions in the book, because I don’t want to leave people high and dry. But you start to realize there’s a pattern here. Like you have the tools to answer every single one of those using these principles. It’s just a matter of getting kind of fluent at it. And so I’m helping people by putting the ones that I know about into the book, while also hoping that they’re seeing a pattern and that they can apply it to any other situation in their lives.

It’s so interesting, your background in terms of all the different things you do, as well as being a mother yourself, you know, 20 years is 20 plus years as a developmental psychologist, you study how human beings grow, adapt and change. And I wonder, are there any trends that you’ve been observing in the last in the time that you’ve been practicing? that you think would be well served by people reading and applying the five principles of parenting is there one in particular.

I would say right now, because of probably social media, combined with a pandemic, and then many other sort of unimaginable, that just keeps getting piled on us. We’ve really wanted desperately to control, making our children’s environments better. And our parenting more optimizable. I think that’s very trendy. So I would say one thing that I want to help with is clearing away this idea that we should be optimizing our children or our parenting, when actually it’s making it like we’ve lost our way. And we’re really focusing on some micro stuff, some micro management and some very unnecessary noise. And I understand why. So what I think this book helps with is to help parents figure out what really matters for their values and what they’re going for with their kids to focus on that versus like, the the noise that’s there. That’s just like you have, here’s the 700 things you have to do with your kids to make them optimized. And also, I think rules and sensitivity of care relationships is confusing right now. Like there’s gentle parenting trends, which doesn’t really mean anything, because it’s defined in different ways by different people. And it’s not actually a research term. But I think it has confused parents into feeling like how can I be both sensitive in relationship and have rules?
Like that doesn’t feel like it makes sense. And I think that this book really helps it make sense.

One of the things that you mentioned earlier, it’s also in your book, and I find it really interesting is that you say that when you become more intentional as a person, you become a better parent. Can you take us through how that is how that works?

Yeah, so I think harkening back to what I said about the brain growth during this transition to parenthood, I think it’s this incredible opportunity for us to be the people we want to be, you know, and like, we’re inspired for our kids, but it benefits us. And it’s this beautiful time, where, like, whether it’s quitting smoking, or, you know, coming to terms with your temper, we get to really put energy into bettering ourselves to be the people we want to be, and just that has such a huge impact on our parenting.

Now you are a mom, yourself, have two teenage daughters, perfect mom, myself,
and perfect Mom, do you use the five principles of parenting in your own home? And if so, what has been the impact of applying that?

Well, I’m i It’s interesting, because I have to be very careful, because my children, I mean, they’ve read this book. So they’re, I really have used these principles, but they’re not I don’t, I have to be careful about language that I use with my kids, because they are, they’re very rightfully so aware of, if I’m kind of being a psychologist on them. So I have to be aware of what is harder and easier for me of these five principles. And I can tell you, I am very good with relationship like I am so into it and repair like those things are, those things come more naturally for me. But rules is much harder for me because I am so connected and in relationship and my view that like if my kids push back, which they will because they’re teenagers, I can I can find the you know, like I can reflect enough to see that I am inclined to be like, That is such a good point. And I don’t want you to be so upset. So let’s like, fix this, that would be my Achilles heel. So I really do work on it, but I am you know, I’m not great at it. i It’s my challenge. And I think it’s why I really wanted to make it very clear in the book because I know that like there are some people for whom rules come very easily, like they are graded. Because I said so. Not that you want to get graded because I said so because ideally rules have purpose behind them and you explain them but it is natural to them. They’re great with boundaries, but they struggle with connection. And so I think for me, I can point out, I can tell you with confidence, I use these principles. I embody these principles. I’m not, I’m not even like, calculating in my head, oh, let me let me lean into this principle. It’s just like, comes naturally because it’s like, been part of my life for so long. But I still have challenges, and I can see exactly what I’m having them. And I think that’s my use of reflection. But there are moments that I’m just like, Oh, I am still but this is a weak muscle that I have. I have a lot of work to do.

Dr. Pressman, what else would you like parents, and anybody who reads this book to leave with?

Relief, that like, this is a long game, and we’re doing what we can do when we can do it? And I really want people I would love and this has happened with people who have read it. Like I think they felt very validated and felt like okay, I kind of feel like I’ve got this and I just need to exercise these muscles in these ways. But I am not a terrible parent raising kids who are going to be totally screwed up, which I think is all of our fears.

Well, going to Elisa Pressman, we wish you all the best with the five principles of parenting. Thank you so much for sharing your time and your insight with us today.

Thank you. Thanks for having me.

The five principles are: Relationship, Reflection, Regulation, Rules, and Repair.

As Pressman says, looking at these makes you realize there is “not much that’s critical for our kids to thrive,” beyond these five basic concepts. They are not ordered in the book, since none is more important than another; but together, all five contribute to an environment that’s conducive to children thriving.

Relationships are powerful, Pressman explains, because the close connections we have with each other allow us to shift toxic stress to a more tolerable state. They make life better, easier, and healthier. Happiness studies have linked relationship quality to longevity. 

Mother and son cooking

Reflection, perhaps the least popular of the five principles, is also the simplest. It’s a reminder to pause and take a moment to think about appropriate responses to actions before doing or saying anything. It has enormous implications and helps parents respond more appropriately to real emergencies when they arise.Book cover. Pressman, Dr. Aliza

Regulation is the outcome of reflection. It trains your nervous system to be “intentional and authentic” in your approach to parenting and, as Pressman says, not to make “very spur-of-the-moment kind of autopilot choices that you regret.”  The goal is to “co-regulate” with a child, to help them practice building “regulatory muscles” that they will carry forward in life.

Rules are also unpopular these days, Pressman says, but they provide safety, security, and predictability to children. It is important for parents to stand firm on rules in order for kids to learn that there are limits and that “feelings aren’t dangerous.” It’s possible to move through upset feelings and get past them.

Lastly, repair acknowledges that discord exists in every household, but how we come back together after the fact reflects the quality of the family relationships. Children need to learn how to repair emotional rifts.

Pressman emphasizes that parents should work to normalize the concept of imperfection, and that they can “re-parent” themselves if there are aspects of their own childhoods that feel inadequate in retrospect. 

As for the book’s lasting impact on families, Pressman tells Castelino, “I really want people to [feel] validated and feel like, OK, I’ve got this, and I just need to exercise these muscles in these ways. But I am not a terrible parent raising kids who are going to be totally screwed up, which I think is all of our fears.”

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