Parental Warmth: Simple, Powerful, and Often Challenging

Thoughts on one of the most important but least discussed aspects of parenting.

Posted Apr 16, 2015

In the course of some reading about why some at-risk kids may turn out quite well, I ran into the concept of parental warmth.  It wasn’t the first time, as research studies looking at everything from pediatric bipolar disorder to children with early sociopathic traits have all found this factor to be important.  An excellent PT post a couple years ago by Chis Bergland describes how parental warmth can lessen the impact of earlier trauma.

Usually, my response over the years to research findings about parental warmth has been kind of a “well of course” reaction and then moving on to something more scientific.  But there is was again, and again.  Maybe, I began thinking, parental warmth deserves a little more attention and a little more respect as something important in its own right.  We discuss and debate all kinds of parenting behaviors yet warmth, perhaps in part because it is NOT controversial, is hardly mentioned.

What is parental warmth exactly?  It may be hard to define.  One thing it is probably not, however, is simply a lack of abuse or hostility.  In the heart of a child, parental warmth might be the differences being knowing one is loved and feeling one is loved. On a more micro level, warmth can look like a mother who is able to use her enthusiasm to distract a grouchy toddler rather than getting locked into power struggle.  For the school-age child, it can be applying humor and empathy to help change behavior rather than shame or ridicule.  For the adolescent, it can be an arm around the shoulder when he or she is hurting and everyone knows there is nothing really to say. 

It also occurs to me that warmth can be a fragile flower, and often is the first thing out the window when a parent feels overwhelmed, exhausted, mistreated, or depressed.  Yes warmth is related to intrinsic personality traits, but there is little doubt that it also is strongly influenced by one’s environment.  Under stress, warmth can be quite difficult to summon, not unlike the Petronus charm in the Harry Potter books in which a wizard must conjure up a powerful happy memory in the face of evil attacks.

If parental warmth is really as critical as so many studies seem to suggest, we need to dedicate more time to cultivate it.  For people like me who work with families, perhaps we could devote more energy to the subject.  Can we improve parental warmth?  Yes, I think we can.  For some parents, it may involve taking care of themselves so that there is enough in the tank for others.  For others, it could involve mindfulness practices or working on improving the relationship with one’s partner.  For still others who are struggling more, it might even involve getting treatment for one’s own emotional-behavioral problems.

No, parental warmth probably isn’t sufficient by itself to raise happy and healthy kids (sorry John Lennon), but it is a necessary ingredient deserving of additional conscious effort from everyone invested in improving the lives of children.

@copyright by David Rettew, MD

David Rettew is author of Child Temperament: New Thinking About the Boundary Between Traits and Illness and a child psychiatrist in the psychiatry and pediatrics departments at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.

Follow him at @PediPsych and like PediPsych on Facebook.