Updated: Nov 21
Fostering Supportive Family Dynamics
In September, I introduced you to my friend and colleague, Fatima Zaidi of Motivation Works. We talked about behavior as a form of communication, the benefits of a supportive environment for children, and some of the hallmarks of a supportive environment. It quickly became the most-read article on our blog! I’m absolutely gratified that so many of our followers have found it worthwhile. If you missed it, you can read it here.
Welcome Back Fatima Zaidi of Motivation Works
I’m thrilled to share the second half of this conversation with you. In this article, Fatima and I discuss characteristics of supportive and controlling environments, behavioral differences between children in supportive versus controlling environments, barriers to creating a supportive environment, and strategies for shifting from punishment and control to connection and support. That’s a lot, so let’s jump right in.
Characteristics of Support
Janice: Let’s dig into what makes an environment supportive. What are some of the characteristics of a supportive environment?
Fatima: Features of a supportive emotional environment include being trustworthy. For children to grow into emotionally mature adults, they need to be able to open up and be vulnerable; therefore, trustworthiness is an important quality to be associated with; being available to listen to their feelings and validating them, helping children use coping strategies (such as deep breathing, mindfulness, physical activity, and engaging in hobbies), and being their co-regulator when needed:
Hug for comfort: therapeutic touch helps regulate emotions.
Modeling problem-solving: children learn from watching. Show your process of dealing with difficult emotions. Highlight others who did a great job responding to their emotions effectively.
Janice: Yes! This is so important, and it can be really challenging – especially because we’re not happy self-regulating robots all the time. We, as parents and teachers, are human too, and sometimes we get stressed out or excited about something, and our focus or goals or emotions aren’t mixing well with our kids’ or students’. So we have to do hard work to stay aware of our own emotions and physical state and model self-care and these coping strategies.
Janice: If I’ve been running around all day, one thing right into the next, and I’m on edge, it’s harder to stay patient with my students. So, I started planning my schedule so that I can get to the meeting a few minutes early, have a breather, drink some water, and maybe eat a snack before I walk in. Then, I have much more patience and the ability to pause.
Janice: I remember a time I was working with a student on an English paper that was due the next day, and he whined about how it was so unfair that he had to write the whole thing in one night. Listening to him, I noticed I was feeling frustrated and thinking, “It’s not unfair. You knew about this for a month, and you ignored all of my encouragement to work on it. You decided to use our time to work on other assignments instead, and then in your free time, you decided to play Fortnite and chat with your friends on Discord all the time. You dug yourself into this hole, and now you’re facing the consequences.” All of that was true, but if I had said that to him while he was freaking out, he’d have gotten defensive or might’ve shut down completely.
Janice: So then what I actually said was, “I hear you. It’s a lot of work to tackle in one night, especially when you’ve already had a long day, and that feels overwhelming. So let’s just pause and take it one step at a time. Do you want to take a moment first to get some water or take a few breaths?” He knows he screwed up, and if he’s not getting a scolding or an I-told-you-so, he’s not going to be adding shame and resentment to the pile of feelings already overwhelming him. Instead, I let him know that it’s okay to feel what he’s feeling, and I’m still here to support him, so he can spend a couple of minutes freaking out and calming down. This way, I’m an ally not an adversary, and he’s not resisting my help. We actually had a really productive remainder of the session.
Fatima: An ally, not an adversary. Well said! You also used a very effective de-escalation technique that involves offering options to your student and reframing the demand. This removes its potency as a trigger. Additionally, it's great that you noticed that he already knew he didn't plan effectively; he saw the result. Not adding shame and expressing that you are there to support him shows your student that you are helpful, empathetic, and someone to respect because you showed respect.
Fatima: Remember, children are learning about consequences by experiencing them. Parents naturally try to protect their children; this is care. Sometimes, we need to let life teach the lessons we need to learn; this is care too. Yet, at other times, we help children by teaching them skills. That's care as well.
Janice: Right – if we never let them experience adversity, they won’t be prepared for the real world when they’re adults and on their own. It’s really important that we as parents recognize when we can release control and let natural consequences help children learn. This is especially effective because while they’re struggling with natural consequences, if we’re not adding another level of punishment or shame to it, we can strengthen our relationship with our children and students by being a support during a difficult time.
Support for Academic and Emotional Development
Janice: Let’s look at the long-term view. How does a supportive environment contribute to a child's overall development, including their academic performance and emotional well-being?
Fatima: A supportive environment establishes predictable routines for interaction and provides stability so a child knows what to expect. When children learn what is expected at home, this encourages growth in emotional regulation, cognitive development, building resilience, and understanding healthy relationships.
Janice: So, having a supportive environment is fundamental to a child having those hallmarks of success that we, as parents, really want to see in our children. I think every parent would like their child to be doing well in school, and feel happy and satisfied with their life. How can we tell if we’re providing our children with enough support? What are some of the behaviors we would see in a child who is in a supportive environment?
Fatima: Children who are in a supportive environment can communicate their needs and wants much better than a child who is under duress due to instability in the environment. They will use less socially challenging behavior and will learn anything much better.
Janice: I appreciate that you said they’ll use “less socially challenging behavior,” and not “none.” All children misbehave from time to time, even ones who are receiving excellent support from their families and communities. That’s just part of human nature. I mean, adults don’t behave all the time. Sometimes we cut someone off in traffic just because we’re not paying attention, or lie to our bosses about why we need time off, or snap at our partners even though we love them dearly. This isn’t about eliminating our kids’ challenging behaviors entirely because that’s a fantasy. The goal here is to reduce the frequency, and when they do occur, to respond to them in a supportive and compassionate way.
Janice: With that in mind, can you give some examples of the socially challenging behavior we might see in a child who isn’t getting enough support?
Fatima: A child not receiving enough support may engage in lying, never asking for help, being very quiet or on a device all the time. Sometimes I may see behaviors such as aggression, swearing, or being quick to anger. However, just because these behaviors occur, doesn’t always directly mean that the environment is not as supportive as it can be.
Fatima: Sometimes families have resource restrictions that prevent them from creating totally supportive environments. Maybe society is failing to provide a supportive environment for a family and that will affect how supportive a family can make an environment for their children.
Janice: I’m very glad you brought up external restrictions that parents in our communities might be experiencing. A parent might be doing everything they can for their kids, but so many things can get in the way of giving your kids everything they need – health issues, having to work long hours, financial strain, just to name a few. The old saying, “It takes a village,” is true, but that village can be hard to find in today’s US communities. What would you recommend to the parents reading this now who want to create a supportive environment, but who have these kinds of barriers in the way?
Fatima: Get in touch with social services in your area. We are in Santa Clara County and a grea
t place to start is contacting your county for services. In our area, it is sccgov.org. Working with the government to get your needs met is a great first step because there are resources available and sometimes the only barrier is not asking about them.
Janice: I couldn’t agree more. We all pay taxes so that these services can be available when our neighbors need them. There’s no shame in asking for this kind of help, either. I have needed financial assistance a few times in my life. The first time, as a young adult fresh out of college, it didn’t even occur to me that I could get financial support because I thought I was supposed to do it all on my own. I was anxious and irritable all of the time, and it put a major strain on every important relationship in my life. Even after working my way to financial stability, it took me years to recover from the stress. A decade later, when the pandemic hit, I didn’t even hesitate to apply for financial assistance. The support I received helped me keep my sanity through those shelter-in-place orders. So, all that to say, yes, if you are struggling to keep your head above water, please do raise your hand for support. If you’re not sure where to go for help, reach out to me, and I’ll send you some resources. You do not have to do this alone.
Janice: You also mentioned that children in a supportive environment will learn anything much better. Are grades a good way for parents to evaluate whether their children are learning well, or are there other things parents should look out for?
Fatima: That is difficult for me to comment on, I never look at grades or ask for them. I can see how an F raises a flag but the difference between a C and a B could depend on the instructor. Have you seen changes in grades due to added or removed support?
Janice: Absolutely yes. I work with students at all achievement levels, but some of my students begin working with me when their parents notice a drop in grades. Other times, parents reach out to me because they notice how stressed their child is about their schoolwork, or they’re experiencing arguments at home about getting homework done even when the student’s grades are acceptable. I could write an entire article on the various reasons a student’s grades might drop or they get stressed out about schoolwork, but generally speaking, it’s because they lost some form of support, or they need more or different support than they’re currently getting. Working with me usually is the added support that raises a grade or reduces stress, but in some cases, I recommend additional resources to a family.
Characteristics of Control
Janice: Let’s switch gears back to our home environments. Some of our readers may be living in a controlling environment and not even be aware of it. Can you share some of the hallmarks of a controlling environment?
Fatima: A controlling environment is to use punishment, shame, guilt, or force to get children to do as they are told. It is manipulating a child's behavior by posturing, yelling, nagging, and creating impossible criteria for success (“You need to get straight As immediately or you are grounded from using your computer”). Having rigid rules about friends and harsh discipline, micromanaging, lack of boundaries or open communication, and suppressing individuality all relate to a controlling environment.
Janice: This is a tough part of the conversation, I think, because there are a lot of parents who do these things, and I don’t think they realize how counterproductive it is. My own parents, who were and are fabulous parents, used some of these tactics with me. I don’t think they were trying to control me, at least I don’t think they thought of it that way. I don’t think most parents wake up in the morning thinking, “I need to control these kids by any means necessary, and I don’t care what kind of damage it does.” I think parents really just want their children to behave in responsible and morally, ethically sound ways so that they can grow into happy, successful, and respectable adults.
Janice: How do so many families get from A to Z here – from the intention of helping their kids to the actions of attempting to control their kids?
Fatima: Some families develop controlling habits for the same reason any behavior or habit develops, because it is a means to an end and the parent may not know a better way to manage their children or perhaps, given certain circumstances, it may be the only way. Some families practice high control because safety is a concern, maybe something dangerous happened in the neighborhood or at school resulting in the need for a family to restrict independence, or needing to micromanage so their children return home safely. Sometimes there is fear and anxiety from unresolved emotional issues, maybe the parent grew up in a controlling environment where they couldn’t develop the emotional regulation they needed. There may feel pressure to follow through on cultural or social expectations. Society exerts control on individual families, too, and this can trickle down into the family structure.
Janice: Hurt people hurt people. No matter what a parent’s reasons for trying to control their kids behavior, it seems it boils down to unresolved pain of one kind or another.
The Impact of Control
Janice: Even if control seems like the only option a parent has, I think it’s important to know what the impact is on the child. How does a controlling environment affect a child’s development?
Fatima: It's important to note that while some degree of parental guidance and structure is necessary for a child's development. However, excessive control can hinder a child's autonomy, self-esteem, and emotional well-being. Parents should strive to strike a balance between providing guidance and allowing their children the freedom to develop their own identity, make age-appropriate decisions, and learn from their experiences and mistakes.
Janice: Yes, that’s so true. We don’t have to do a complete 180 and let our kids just get away with everything. Kids absolutely need healthy boundaries set for them so that they understand how to stay safe, get important work done, and get along with other people in the world.
A Powerful Shift from Control to Support
Janice: For parents who are reading this and realizing they might be using some controlling strategies, how can they adjust their approach to provide support rather than control? What steps can they take to improve the situation?
Fatima: Identifying the problem is the first step and I commend families looking for support in this! Asking for help is not an easy skill! Lean on your family or friend networks, and reach out to community-based or faith-based social groups. Another option would be to seek out parent support groups and attend parent training. It is so helpful to learn from other parents; if they have gone through a similar situation. They can validate and relate to the struggles the parent is facing. Experienced families can also show new families how to access support and which coping strategies may be best in the moment. Also, try reaching out to social service agencies. You never know what support the government, county office, or school district has in place. Each situation is unique and may require some nuance. Motivation Works offers parent training and consults for behavior, too, please reach out by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Janice: Yes, please reach out to Fatima for more information on how you can create a supportive environment for your children to thrive.
Janice: Fatima, thank you so much for joining me in writing this blog, and sharing your amazing knowledge and experiences. So many families are going to benefit from reading this. It’s a big paradigm shift for us from doing whatever it takes to make our kids behave to creating the right kind of environment to allow them to behave and succeed.
Fatima: Janice, I just want to say thank you, again for inviting me on this blog! This topic is near and dear to me as it is the mission of Motivation Works to provide innovative learning and behavior solutions to families. Providing supportive environments is crucial for their overall development and well-being. It involves providing physical, social, and emotional support, establishing stability and predictability, and fostering open communication.
Fatima: By embracing a holistic approach and implementing strategies to foster support and open communication, parents can create an environment where their children can truly flourish and reach their full potential. Remember, it's never too late to make positive changes and prioritize the well-being of your family!
Janice: Well said! I know that most of us (parents or not) have habits of trying to control, and we can all use some practice letting go and focusing on connection instead.
Janice: I invite our readers to share in the comments one habit of control you have, and either a mindset-shifting phrase or a different action you can take to try and change this habit.
Janice: I’ll go first. 😀 I’ve been cooking and baking with my 2-year-old at least once a week. I still find that when he wants to put his hands into whatever it is we’re cooking, and especially when he wants to eat it, my initial gut reaction is, “No! We shouldn’t put our hands in there!” I’ve even gently blocked or grabbed his hand to keep him from making a mess. That’s such an adult way to think about it, though! My mindset shift is that it’s natural for him to want to touch and taste – he’s learning about everything for the first time. Of course he wants to know what the flour feels like! Of course he wants to know what the batter tastes like! So, instead of trying to control him and prevent him from exploring these things, I can connect with him by showing him each ingredient and telling him whether it’s okay to taste or not. I can also just expect that he will be putting his hands in everything and have a wet washcloth at the ready to wipe him up as we go. I can keep a snack on hand in case he’s having trouble resisting tasting everything because he’s hungry.
Your Journey Begins Here
Thank you so much for joining Fatima and me in this conversation. We hope it’s been helpful and informative. You can find out more about Fatima Zaidi and the services she provides to families on her website: Motivation Works. For more information about how Sol Success can support your children’s success in school and your family’s harmony at home, please contact me anytime or schedule a free consultation. Together, we can navigate your family’s path to lasting positive change.
Don’t forget to share below!
One thing you have a tendency to try and control in your life, and one mindset shift or one action you can take to provide support instead of control.
Any other “aha!” moments or thoughts you have about the power of connection in supporting children and teens.