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What Is Autonomy-Supportive Parenting?
A Q&A with psychologist Emily Edlynn about her essential new book.
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Today I’m beyond excited to be running a Q&A with psychologist Emily Edlynn, the author of the essential new parenting book Autonomy-Supportive Parenting. I read a very early copy of Emily’s book, and in my endorsement — which you can find on the book’s back cover — I described it as “one of the best parenting books I’ve ever read.” That was not an exaggeration; this book truly resonated with me. It offers clear and helpful science-based strategies and is an essential antidote to our fear-based parenting culture.
Her book is also one of three books I’m giving away this month as part of my September book giveaway for paid subscribers. Enter by September 22nd to win! (Also, check out this piece I wrote for The New York Times yesterday about Devorah Heitner’s new book Growing Up in Public, which is out today and also in this month’s giveaway. Yay!)
In today’s Q&A, I asked Emily — who writes the wonderful Substack— to share why the world needs her book, what autonomy-supportive parenting is and how to practice it, and more. But I highly recommend you read the entire book, too.
Emily, what inspired you to write Autonomy-Supportive Parenting?
When I became a mother almost 14 years ago now, as a child psychologist with great training and experience in child development, family systems, and mental health, I really thought I would be prepared for motherhood. And surprise — I felt just as uncertain and unsure and worried as every other mother I've met. And when I looked to the guidance that was out there at the time, I was dismayed by how much of it misconstrued the science and led to parents feeling like they were failing their children — when that wasn't the case at all. So I really started to think about: How can I become a voice in the landscape of parenting guidance that offers more common sense, nuance, and good evidence for supporting parents?
Yes — there’s so much pressure on parents these days. And we often, understandably, respond to it by over-parenting. It can be hard to back off and let our kids do things for themselves and make mistakes. Why is it so hard for us to step back? And do you think it's gotten harder — that this generation of parents has more trouble with it than, say, our parents did?
I absolutely think it's harder. The cultural messages, for one, have really shifted from when we were kids.
There’s more fear in the media — Lenore Skenazy takes this on brilliantly in her book Free Range Kids. The whole focus on kidnappings, for example, and Halloween candy with poison, and these threats that seem to be — the way they're portrayed in the media — lurking everywhere. We're not actually facing a high chance of our child being kidnapped by a stranger, but I think that started this fear-based parenting.
Then you add in this cultural value that really shifted relating to how important it is to have very close and connected relationships with our kids. It ended up placing a lot of pressure on both mothers and fathers to be spending a lot more time with their kids, and to be sacrificing our own needs and time for the sake of our children. That is intensive parenting — that we are placing our children's needs front and center above everything else.
There are all these ways that this plays out in our modern-day landscape. When my oldest daughter first got a cell phone, I felt like I was a bad parent if I didn't heavily monitor what she was doing on her cell phone. That led to more problems, which I actually wrote about in my book — it led to a breakdown in trust and a lot of conflict between us that I realized was a worse outcome than these abstract threats I was fearing. I realized I had to flip it for myself to look at: What am I actually scared of with her and her phone? And where's the evidence that that's actually happening? When I stepped back, it really strengthened our connection and relationship.
This “stepping back,” as you refer to it, is a huge part of autonomy-supportive parenting. And actually, before we move on — can you define autonomy-supportive parenting?
There's a good 30-plus years of research behind autonomy-supportive parenting. So there's a lot to distill, which is what I spend the whole book doing.
The basic definition is that it is a parenting approach that is nurturing a child's most fundamental human needs, which are autonomy, competence, and relatedness. And what that means — because I know that sounds science-y — is raising a child who develops skills and self-awareness to really know who they are and have a sense of agency over how they live their life.
Autonomy-supportive parenting is a framework rather than a prescription. It's not as simple as “do this, don't do that.” There's a lot of nuance and flexibility, which is what I appreciate about it, because I think it's much more accessible to every family to figure out how will this work within their personalities and family culture.
What are some of the key benefits of autonomy-supportive parenting?
Kids who experience autonomy-supportive parenting report overall greater life satisfaction, stronger psychological health — fewer anxiety and depressive symptoms — and better performance and competence in school, as well as a more positive attitude about school. And higher self-esteem.
And it makes parents’ lives easier, too, because they’re not as heavily involved, right? What are some of the benefits for parents, compared to intensive parenting?
Studies have found that parents who are practicing autonomy-supportive parenting are describing less stress, greater needs fulfillment for themselves, and a stronger general sense of well-being.
What I go into a lot in the book that's a really important cornerstone of all of this research is that our needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness need to be met to better do this for our children. Which sounds like common sense, but we don't prioritize our needs as parents right now. If we do that — and feel like we're finding good balance in our lives, with our relationships, where we feel competent with our skills and our own sense of agency in our lives — then we are more equipped to provide the same environment for our children so they can do the same.
If you’re an anxious parent, does that make it harder to be autonomy-supportive?
The biggest factor undermining autonomy-supportive parenting is parenting anxiety. Anxiety feeds controlling behaviors, and you cannot be autonomy-supportive while you're being controlling. A lot of what drives controlling behavior comes from anxiety and genuinely wanting the best for our children but going at it in a very protective way.
I think the problem is that anxious parents are really focused on threats, and seeing threats, and preparing for threats and preventing threats. And so it's this very fear-based way of coming at parenting. And it becomes really ingrained neurologically, like a very automatic response.
What I suggest is, first, developing more awareness of that anxious response and being kind of in tune with, “Oh, I'm feeling really stressed, anxious and controlling right now.” Be motivated to be aware of that controlling impulse, and work against it. One specific way to flip it is to ask yourself, “Do I think my child is capable of this?” Instead of, “What might go wrong?” It's kind of looking at: Where's the opportunity here rather than the threat?
It sounds like controlling or anxious parenting doesn't always manifest as intervening and telling your kids what to do — it can also look like over-protecting, like being concerned about them all the time and their welfare. Ensuring that they never feel uncomfortable, that they always have everything they need and more.
Yes. Curating their environment. That is another really big thing that is so crucial — that in the anxious behaviors that ultimately are controlling, we are robbing our children of developing skills to manage frustration, stress, and adversity. And they need those skills to be capable, healthy adults. That's a long game that we lose sight of.
In my book, I hope I accomplish a very compassionate tone towards parents — this isn't like a blaming thing of “you're doing it wrong,” or “you shouldn't be controlling.” I identify with being controlling and I share my own experiences with struggling with it.
I think we're all living in a pressure cooker right now, that makes it very hard to be autonomy-supportive, which is why I'm passionate about this book. However, I want parents to know that we are human. And I still have very controlling moments, there's no way around that. I really see this not as an identity. It's a practice. And every day, we're going to slide around on how we do with that practice.
I want to spend a minute unpacking a particular word you use a lot in your book, and it’s a word I’ve seen so many times in the parenting literature and have always wanted a better explanation of. That word is “scaffolding” — you recommend that parents use “scaffolding” with their kids. What does it mean? And how do you do it?
I'm so glad you brought this up. It is such an important piece of child development, but it also is not a very accessible term. Scaffolding is the idea of knowing where your child's skill level is — and sometimes we make assumptions that may be wrong — and working with them to nudge their skills along to the next level.
How I picture it is like this: You're on a ladder with your child, like the ladder of skill development. And when you start, your child is on a rung below you and you're helping them, and then they kind of meet you where you are and then you nudge them along and teach them and then they go above you. They need more help at the beginning, and then they grow their independence and confidence.
The other tool that is really important is expecting independence. So we have to see opportunities that, say, our child would be capable of making their own lunch if we talked them through it and let them do it, rather than always making their lunch for them.
Right. Recognizing the opportunities is a big part of it, and then taking advantage of them, which, at first can be more work. But then it pays off.
And some kids are really just more naturally autonomous, so it's easier to do autonomy-supportive parenting with them. You're not actually doing as much because they're already kind of there.
I also want to make sure I acknowledge neurodivergence — kids with executive functioning weaknesses, especially kids with ADHD and autism. Autonomy-supportive parenting with them really needs to be very deliberate and intentional because — and there's research supporting this — these kids are more likely to engage in behaviors that elicit controlling responses from adults. And then that creates a loop of the adults being more controlling with these kids, and then them feeling more controlled and acting out more. I have a chapter on ADHD and autism — it needs an entire book, but I did my best with a chapter — and there’s modifications allowing for those executive functioning differences that are really important.
You said that autonomy-supportive parenting isn't prescriptive — it's more of a framework. But there were a few specific tools and approaches from your book that I’d love to highlight. One is the value in taking your child's perspective. I find this so useful in my own parenting, especially when I'm feeling upset about something that my kid has done. I stop and think: “Why did they do this? What could be going on?” Can you talk a bit about why this approach is so useful, and how it helps parents become autonomy-supportive?
Absolutely. It really is the foundation of doing autonomy-supportive parenting, because the whole point is that your child is developing a sense of self and groundedness and who they are as a person. So they need to feel like their parent sees them as their own person with thoughts, ideas, and experiences, separate from their parents. That's kind of the big picture.
In the day-to-day of parenting — when we're feeling reactive — it's a good time to ask ourselves to step back and just notice that there's a conflict. It's breaking down: What could be going on with my child? Especially when children do stuff that we can't understand. You can have your judgmental moment, that's very human and fine, but hopefully not totally in front of them. Instead, come at them with more curiosity: “I am so curious how you made that choice.”
So you're opening yourself up to wanting to understand how they were experiencing a situation that maybe they ended up handling in a way that they need to learn from. You're starting off with them not feeling judged and criticized, but feeling like you just genuinely are curious.
And the more you do it, the more the easier it becomes, because you truly do get to know your child better and how they tick. So it becomes more automatic. There are times you don't even have to ask — you just kind of get what's going on, like, “Oh, they're actually really nervous about going to school today, because they have a presentation. And that's why they're like completely falling apart about their outfit.”
I had one of those moments yesterday. My daughter was having her first ever voice lesson after camp, and I reminded her of it on the way to camp. And she immediately got angry about something else. And I was like, “Okay, this is her anxiety about the voice lesson coming out at me, I get it.” I knew it was coming. And then it was there and I knew exactly why. And so that helped me deal with it.
Exactly. It makes you more responsive and effective. Which also reduces your own stress as a parent. That's where the win-win is, you know?