A child's well-being is the holistic experience and functioning of the child across the physical, mental and/or emotional, nutrition, and safety domains. A child's well-being may also be impacted by their development and experience across behavioral, social, communication, cognitive, and adaptive domains. A parent's primary role in promoting their child's well-being can be categorized into three overarching areas or responsibilities. The first responsibility is to facilitate stimulating and appropriate experiences to promote healthy development across all of the above domains and more. The second responsibility is to problem solve situations that don't go as expected and provide additional medical and therapeutic support in case of developmental delay or externally caused illness and injury. And finally, the third responsibility is to ultimately prepare the child to take responsibility for their own ongoing well-being and how to get their own needs met as well as build resiliency and coping skills for when their well-being is threatened or negatively impacted in some way.
From infancy, children are linking their various areas of well-being and communicating accordingly. For example, the newborn will immediately manifest physical discomfort by crying in order to signal to the parent or caregiver that they require attention to their physical needs like hunger, as well as social reinforcement from the adult for expressing their needs. "Social" in this context does not refer to friendship or complex social interactions like playtime or having a conversation. "Social" signifies the nature of the relationship between the infant and the caregiver and its critical meaning in the context of all other areas of development. We can envision what this looks like in the small moments of the child's daily life by returning to the above example. When the child cries because they are hungry, the adult's natural and appropriate reaction is to provide comfort by holding the child, singing to them, talking to them, and patting them as they are breastfeeding or giving a bottle to meet the direct physical need. It would not "feel" natural to withhold physical or verbal attention and not speak to or hold the baby while feeding them. There are biological and behavioral underpinnings for this concept as well. The child is more likely to learn how to get their physical needs met, such as fulfillment of hunger when social attention and reinforcement is provided alongside the meeting of the physical need. This increases their well-being in the moment as well as increases the likelihood that they will build robust skills for getting needs met associated with their well-being in the future.
Parents typically provide this type of social reinforcement during infancy without even knowing that they are doing it. However, bringing additional awareness to these actions can help the parent create a strong foundation to help them continue providing social reinforcement as the child gets older and it may be more difficult or less intuitive to pair social reinforcement with direct meeting of needs. A good rule of thumb for parents is to provide some type of positive statement associated with what they and the child are doing. This works best when integrated into daily life often without being obtrusive on the family's routine. For example, let's return to the above scenario of the hungry newborn. The newborn does not have expressive language skills but they are constantly learning from their environment. Thus the adult may say something like "Oh, you are crying to tell me that you are hungry. Thank you for letting me know! Let's get some milk for you." "Milk" means breast milk or formula. By repeating this strategy in a way that feels natural for the family unit, the child will be more likely to accurately represent their needs as they get older and the adult will be more likely to continue building in the type of verbal teaching and reinforcement that the child needs. For example, the toddler may have a tantrum when it is time to transition from indoor playtime to getting in the car to go to the grocery store or to pick up an older sibling from school. The parent may say something like "You are letting me know that you weren't ready to be all done playing. I know that is hard. I am going to give you a minute to calm down before I help you get into the car." The adult can then count to twenty or set a timer for one minute before following through. In this way, the child learns that their communication and advocacy is heard, even if they cannot keep playing, and it is still immensely beneficial for the child to hear the adult acknowledge their expression of emotion and be given social reinforcement for communicating in a way that is appropriate during the toddler years.
Problem Solving and Additional Support
In every parent's journey of childrearing, there will be instances that do not go as planned or where their child's well-being is affected in a way that requires the family to problem solve and engage in repair strategies. For example, the child may experience verbal bullying by a same-age or older peer at school. The parent may address the immediate needs of the situation by making a plan with the teaching team and taking other actions to ensure that the bullying stops, such as coaching their child in self-advocacy to teachers and parents. However, the parent will also want to attend to the overall well-being of the child in scenarios like this. For example, the child who experienced verbal bullying may benefit from facilitated play dates with a few peers from school so that the child builds fluency in a variety of play skills and has a variety of peers to gather with and play with during unstructured and more independent activities like recess. The child may benefit from increased attention to their needs at large for a while. For example, by spending extra time reading together at night for a couple of weeks after the incident, the parent will not be directly addressing the bullying but will be providing repair support for the child's overall well-being. The parent can also encourage the child to develop and demonstrate agency across a wide range of topics to further repair their well-being and increase their positive self image. For example, setting up a situation where the child has spaghetti in their bowl but a spoon beside the bowl, and coaching the child on asking for a fork and praising them for this self advocacy as well as providing for the need. This can also apply in more complex situations by discussing and facilitating choices like choosing the family dinners for a week or choosing what activity to play with siblings or choosing the order of morning and nighttime routine steps according to personal preference, such as brushing teeth before putting on pajamas or vice-versa.
In addition to the above types of examples, sometimes there may be mitigating circumstances in a child's development that require augmented parental support and/or an expanded team or network in order to tend to the child's well-being and ensure they are accessing their environment and community in the way that is most meaningful for them. This could happen when there is a traumatic event like a contentious parental separation or a car accident, even if the family members sustained no physical injuries or when there is an ongoing factor like a chronic illness or a developmental disability. In these types of situations, the parent should not hesitate to reach out to their pediatrician and other medical providers for support, training, and other resources. Parents should also rely on their network of family and friends to provide additional support for the mental, emotional, and social well-being of the parents and siblings. By ensuring that the well-being of the individual family members and family unit are tended to, the parents will be better able to tend to the ongoing needs of their child.
The final frontier of parenting with regard to the child's well-being is to teach them how to provide for their own holistic needs on an ongoing basis once they reach adulthood. Of course, there are many steps of independent functioning on the way to this goal with some of the most prevalent being extended play dates and overnights at a peer's house, leaving elementary school and embarking to junior high or middle school where there is much more agency in subjects taken, entering high school where the teen begins to plan and prepare for their career or other post-secondary activities, learning to drive and getting a job, and going to college, trade school, working full-time, traveling, or other young adult pathways to independence. But there are smaller ways in which the parent can encourage healthy development of self-management skills and teach their child to take an active role in facilitating their own well-being. Consider the following steps.
1. Gradually fade prompts and adult support, being prepared to build it back in whenever necessary. For example, the child who is not yet tying their shoes independently may be able to pull their shoes on before the adult ties them. Start dividing larger tasks up into smaller components like this early and often to teach your child how to practice meeting their needs from a young age. However, the child may transition in and out of independent functioning as they age and that is perfectly normal and okay. For example, when the child starts school, they may express need or want for the parent to complete their full shoe routine for a few days or weeks and this can be honored by the parent, looking for signs that the child is ready to build completion of independent steps back in and responding accordingly when that does happen.
2. Provide and honor choices. As discussed above, teach the child that they have choices in their daily life as well as in the larger trajectory of their development. This can happen in small and simple ways like picking out what shirt to wear or deciding when their body feels full and they have had enough food to eat at lunch.
3. Discuss and teach advocacy skills. As discussed above, practice advocacy and honor advocacy for basic needs as well as emotional and attention needs even before the child has developed their expressive language skills. This will help them be better prepared to get their needs met in the long run.
4. Model it. Set an example by tending to your own well-being by choosing a healthy food for breakfast or resting when you are sick. Your child will be watching what you do to meet various needs related to well-being and will emulate you later.
5. Talk about it. Narrate the choice that you and your child are making relative to well-being and discuss these things in gradually increasing complexity as your child gets older. By maintaining an ongoing conversation within the family unit regarding well-being, the child will be better prepared to communicate with you or another trusted adult when they have questions or encounter a situation that requires problem solving or additional support.