Immediate Influence

Caring parents

Infancy and Toddlerhood

Babies are helpless at birth. They cannot survive or thrive without nurturing from other humans, and newborns can recognize their birth mother’s voice.1 Babies require several types of “brain” food to develop.2 3

First, babies do absolutely the best with mother’s own milk, particularly if the mother eats fish and not many foods containing so much other vegetable oils (except olive oil).4 5 Starting solid foods before four months increases the risk of obesity and other health risks.6 7

Second, babies need attention and playfulness, so that their brains learn cause and effect. A baby smiles and an adult smiles back; the baby learns, “I made that happen!”

Third, infants and toddlers need thousands of good words every day.8 It turns out that praise, labeling things (“that’s a cat…that’s water”), positive feedback (”baby did it…way to go”), and not using harsh words or actions with the baby have a lifetime of positive benefits.9 Babies and toddlers need sleep and lots of it for their brains to grow and for them to be healthy.

Fourth, babies and toddlers do NOT need some things from parent or other: TV in their bedrooms, which harms the child’s brain, behavior, and health.10 11 12 The baby does not need sugary drinks or fast food, which also adversely affect wellbeing.

Early Childhood

Positive reinforcement of prosocial behavior.

A family that richly reinforces prosocial behavior and uses gentle, consistent means of discipline helps young children develop the social skills and emotional regulation they need to get along with others. Children who get along with others learn more.

Abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and harsh and inconsistent discipline

Harsh and inconsistent discipline, even when it is not abusive, makes children more aggressive. Young children who are aggressive are at risk to fail in school and to be rejected by their peers. If their aggressive behavior persists, they risk multiple problems in adolescence, including delinquency, substance abuse, and risky sexual behavior.

Abuse and neglect threaten every aspect of young children’s development. Even milder forms of conflict undermine gentle discipline and patient teaching of all the things a young child needs to learn. It contributes to spousal and child abuse and can result in separation and divorce. Children exposed to high rates of conflict show more behavioral, and emotional maladjustment than children in families experiencing lower levels of conflict and they are two to four times more likely to have high levels of mental and physical health issues compared to national norms. Conflict, which interferes with their learning, also creates stress for children.

Cohesive families are ones where people like and support each other. Intact two-parent families have at least two adults around to teach them what they need to know. They are also likely to be better off financially. But single parent families with grandparents, other family members, or good friends involved can also make a difference in raising children. Families that enjoy each others’ company and interact a lot are not just having a good time; they are, in the process, teaching young children all kinds of things they need to know to get along in a social world.

At least 15 million U.S. children live with a parent who has major or severe depression. Children of depressed parents may have a "difficult" temperament, including more negativity, less happiness, and poorer social skills. They are more likely to become depressed themselves, and they are more easily stressed. Parents who are depressed tend to be more hostile, and less responsive and involved with their children. As a result, many young children of depressed parents don’t get the language and cognitive stimulation they need to develop good language and communication skills. Moreover, parental depression affects children’s access to healthcare. Having at least one depressed parent is associated with greater rate of emergency department and sick visits across all child age groups. The good news is that depression can be treated.

Divorce and separation can reduce parental monitoring and interaction with children, increase children’s television viewing, disrupt daily routines, and harm children’s development. Fortunately, there are ways to prevent divorce and enhance family cohesion.


Parents are the strongest influence in the lives of children and their biggest role models. As such, the positive ways in which parents interact with their children can have a huge impact on children’s overall development. When parents feel confident and competent in their parenting, they are more likely to make better decisions about how to relate to their child. This is an important skill both when a child is behaving well and when a child may be misbehaving. How parents feel, both physically and psychologically, has an impact on their behavior. For example, when parents are not feeling their best, such as being depressed, angry, sad, tired, or stressed, they are more likely to interact with their child in a hostile or negative way, which may include using harsher discipline practices.13 This type of parenting behavior often results in children’s problem behavior. However, when parents’ stress or sadness diminishes, their interactions with their children become more positive and children’s behavior can improve. In these situations, parents are more likely to have engaging interactions with their child that supports compliant behavior, and when noncompliance occurs, parents are more likely to use discipline strategies that are not harsh, but are effective in setting appropriate limits.

Additionally, a healthy and secure attachment between a parent and child can result in multiple positive outcomes. Parents who frequently and consistently show warmth, affection, and positive attention to their child often have kids who feel good about themselves, have good social skills, get along well with their peers, and do well in school.14 15 16 17 When parents support their child’s academic achievement through involvement in their child’s education, such as attending school meetings or helping with homework, then their child is more likely to do better in school, feel more confident in his or her academic abilities, and feel more connected to school.18 In many families, parents who actively monitor and stay involved in their children’s live have kids who are less likely to get into trouble such as using drugs or skipping school.19

Early Adolescence

Young people between the ages of 11 and 14 still need lots of support and guidance from their parents. This is when puberty occurs and when school work becomes more challenging. It also involves changes in school and in friends. Many early adolescents may start to look more mature, but they still need lots of help from their parents.

Parents who are involved with their children, listen to them about what is happening in their day, and console them when bad things happen can help their children enormously.

Parents also need to set limits. Early adolescence is the time when many young people start to test limits and demand more freedom. It is a time when parents need to guide their kids to make good choices and avoid situations and friends that might encourage them to try risky behaviors. Many parents cannot be home when kids come home from school, but they can find out what their children are doing after school and make sure they are not involved in risky behaviors.


As young people reach adolescence (14 through 18), they expect and need more freedom. But they still need your love, support, and guidance. Research shows that adolescent brains have still not matured to the point that adolescents can restrain their most risky impulses (Ernst, 2008). When adolescents get together, they often tend to encourage each other's risk taking. For that reason, most states now prohibit new teen drivers to have other teens in the car without an adult present; it saves lives.

Parents need to continue to know what their teens are doing and who they are spending time with. And they need to set limits on activities that could be dangerous.

How to do that? Gently, firmly, and with understanding and acceptance of the frustrations your teen might feel (Dishion & Stormshak, 2007).

The need to be sure that adolescents stay out of trouble points to the fact that we need to involve them in lots of useful activities in their schools, the neighborhood, and the community.


Related Interventions





  1. Mills, M., & Melhuish, E. (1974).Recognition of mother's voice in early infancy. Nature, 252(5479), 123-124.  

  2. Hibbeln, J., Davis, J.M., Steer, C., Emmett, P., Rogers, I., Williams, C. et al. (2007). Maternal seafood consumption in pregnancy and neurodevelopmental outcomes in childhood (ALSPAC study): an observational cohort study. The Lancet, 369(9561), 578-85.  

  3. Siega-Riz, A.M., Hartzema, A.G., Turnbull, C., Thorp, J., McDonald, T., Cogswell, M.E. (2006). The effects of prophylactic iron given in prenatal supplements on iron status and birth outcomes: a randomized controlled trial. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 194(2), 512-519.  

  4. Julvez, J., Fortuny, J., Mendez, M., Torrent, M., Ribas-Fito, N., & Sunyer. J. (2009). Maternal use of folic acid supplements during pregnancy and four-year-old neurodevelopment in a population-based birth cohort. Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology, 23(3), 199-206.  

  5. Williams, C., Birch, E.E., Emmett, P.M., Northstone, K., Avon Longitudinal Study of Pregnancy and Childhood Study Team. (2001). Stereoacuity at age 3.5 years in children born full-term is associated with prenatal and postnatal dietary factors: a report from a population-based cohort study. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 73(2), 316-322.  

  6. Nwaru, B.I., Erkkola, M., Ahonen, S., Kaila, M., Haapala, A.M., Kronberg-Kippila, C. et al. (2010). Age at the introduction of solid foods during the first year and allergic sensitization at age 5 years. Pediatrics, 125(1), 50-59.  

  7. Brophy, S., Cooksey, R., Gravenor, M.B., Mistry, R., Thomas, N., Lyons, R.A. et al. (2009). Risk factors for childhood obesity at age 5: analysis of the millennium cohort study. BMC Public Health, 9, 467.  

  8. Risley, T.R., Hart, B., Watt, N.F., Ayoub, C., Bradley, R.H., Puma, J.E. et al. (2006). Promoting early language development. In The crisis in youth mental health: Critical issues and effective programs, Vol. 4: Early intervention programs and policies (pp. 83-88). Westport, CT: Praeger/Greenwood.  

  9. Hart ,B., & Risley, T.R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.  

  10. Mendelsohn, A.L., Berkule, S.B., Tomopoulos, S., Tamis-LeMonda, C.S., Huberman, H.S., Alvir, J. et al. (2008). Infant television and video exposure associated with limited parent-child verbal interactions in low socioeconomic status households. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 162(5), 411-417.  

  11. Vandewater, E.A., Rideout, V.J., Wartella, E.A., Huang, X., Lee, J.H., Shim, M.-s. (2007). Digital childhood: electronic media and technology use among infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Pediatrics, 119(5), e1006-15.  

  12. Thompson, D.A., & Christakis, D.A. (2005). The association between television viewing and irregular sleep schedules among children less than 3 years of age. Pediatrics, 116(4), 851-856.  

  13. Shay N, Knutson J. (2008). Maternal depression and trait anger as risk factors for escalated physical discipline. Child Maltreatment, 13, 39.  

  14. Brody GH, Flor DL. (1998). Maternal resources, parenting practices, and child competence in rural, single-parent African American families. Child Development, 69, 803-816.  

  15. Domitrovich CE, Bierman KL. (2001). Parenting practices and child social adjustment: Multiple pathways of influence. Merrill Palmer Quarterly, 47, 235-263.  

  16. Patterson GR, Reid JB, Dishion TJ. (1992). Antisocial boys. Eugene, OR: Castalia.  

  17. Sanders MR, Turner KMT, Markie-Dadds C. (2002). The development and dissemination of the Triple P—Positive Parenting Program: A multilevel, evidence-based system of parenting and family support. Prevention Science, 3(3), 173-189.  

  18. Jeynes W. (2005). A meta-analysis of the relation of parental involvement to urban elementary school student academic achievement. Urban Education, 40, 237-269.  

  19. Amato PR, Fowler F. (2002). Parenting practices, child adjustment, and family diversity. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 64, 703-716