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date: 01 December 2022

Life Span: Parentingfree

Life Span: Parentingfree

  • Daphne S. CainDaphne S. CainUniversity of Mississippi
  •  and Terri Combs-OrmeTerri Combs-OrmeThe Urban Child Institute Endowed Professor, College of Social Work, University of Tennessee


Parenting is a key part of social-work practice and research, particularly in the child welfare arena. Despite significant research and theory in other disciplines about the importance of the parent–child relationship to the quality of parenting, the focus of social work appears to lie in narrow goals such as the prevention of abuse and child placement and to employ interventions that lack significant evidence of effectiveness. This entry summarizes social-work practice and research in the area of parenting and reviews the state of the art overall in research and knowledge about parenting.


  • Children and Adolescents
  • Couples and Families

Updated in this version

Expanded information related to the critical role of parenting programs; engaging parents in school; multigenerational caregiving; and older children returning to live at parents’ home.

Parental influences are significant and long-lasting. Parenting is not only critical to the lives of children and parents but also the major way that societies and cultures pass on their traditions and values and guarantee that future generations are competent to carry on those traditions and values. It is critical to society as a whole.

Ogbu (1981) calls attention to cultural differences in parenting by defining child-rearing as “the process by which parents . . . transmit and . . . children acquire the prior existing competencies required by their social, economic, political, and other future adult cultural tasks” (p. 418). Combs-Orme, Wilson, Cain, Page, and Kirby (2003) emphasized context-based parenting: parenting that, given a specific child’s age, developmental needs, special circumstances, culture, and immediate environment, is optimal for promoting healthy growth and development.

Demographics of Parenting

Nearly three fourths of adult females and two thirds of adult males report having biological children (Child Trends, 2002), whereas 45% of female and 38% of male adults currently live with their biological or adopted children. A biological relationship is not necessary for parenting, and the changing demographics of family in this country have led to increasing diversity in the ties between children and parents. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 6% of children (4.5 million) are being reared by grandparents, an increase of 30% during the 1990s. In addition, 1 million children in the United States live with adoptive parents, and 2–4% of American families include adopted children (U.S. Census, 2011).

Most parenting research has been conducted with mothers, although there has been increased attention to fathers in recent years overall (Marsiglio, Amato, Day, & Lamb, 2000) and in social work (Greif & Greif, 1997). Research shows that fathers are important to their children’s development and that they make unique contributions to children’s lives (Marsiglio et al.).

Parenting: State of the Knowledge

Social work grows out of the social sciences and draws much of its foundation knowledge from psychology and other related disciplines. It is thus important to place social work’s involvement in parenting within that broader scope of knowledge.

There is no single “theory of parenting,” although in the social-work literature social systems theory, Erikson’s stage of generativity, Bronfenbrenner’s work on human development, Vygotsky’s theories, and Adlerian theory are invoked (Heath, 2006). Attachment theory (Bowlby, 1973) is commonly used to understand the importance of parenting and is cited in relationship to parents and children in the child welfare system (for example, Howe, Dooley, & Hinings, 2000; Page, 1999).

Attachment Theory

Understanding of the importance and desirable aspects of parenting grows from knowledge of what children need to grow and thrive. Attachment theory (Bowlby, 1973) explains that infants’ attachment behaviors (such as crying) promote survival by bringing caregivers into close proximity during times of danger or need. Over time, as caregivers respond to infants’ needs, attachment grows from these transactions (Davies, 1999), and infants develop models of themselves, others, and the world that serve as blueprints for future relationships. Infants whose needs are met consistently develop “internal working models” of themselves as worthy, others as reliably available, and the world as safe. Infants whose needs are not met consistently, or who are abused or neglected, develop anxious attachment styles built on mental representations that help is not available, the world is not safe, and they are not worthy of love.

Attachment to a consistent caregiver provides an infant with feelings of security, and he or she thus feels safe to explore the environment. In addition, the attachment relationship provides a venue for communicating and expressing feelings. Through the expression of distress and the calming attention of the caregiver, the infant learns to manage her own emotions effectively (Davies, 1999). Data show that secure attachments are associated with children’s greater self-efficacy, social competence, empathy, and lower levels of anxiety and anger (Weinfield, Sroufe, Egeland, & Carlson, 1999). As Davies summarizes, “the growing evidence of empirical studies points to quality of attachment as a fundamental mediator of development” (p. 27).

Parenting Styles

Over time, attention to specific parenting behaviors has given way to a broader focus on parenting styles or patterns, which consist of combinations of parenting dimensions that are similar in meaning and tend to covary. Current research on parenting, particularly from an attachment theory perspective, often reference sensitivity and responsivity.

Sensitivity and Responsivity

To meet children’s needs, parents first must correctly perceive and interpret those needs, either by situational context (for example, the stress of a clinic visit) or by understanding signals (for example, signs of fatigue). Accurate perceptions of children’s needs are fundamental to parents’ capacities for sensitive and responsive caregiving, and these perceptions are the most consistent predictor of secure attachment (Belsky, 1999). Research consistently shows that sensitive, responsive parenting is associated with secure attachment and positive child outcomes (Belsky, 1984). Ammaniti and Trentini (2009) have suggested that maternal neurobiological and psychological transformations from pregnancy through the first year of a child’s life influence attachment. Further, DiPietro (2000) and Gervai (2009) have suggested that the relationships among nurturing parenting, secure attachment, and positive child outcomes are mediated through neurophysiologic and genetic influences and processes. Early brain development proceeds in response to experience, and parenting is the most important aspect of young children’s environments. Warm nurturance appears to provide a buffer against stress when the hypothalmic–pitiuitary–adrenal system is developing, keeping the system in homeostasis and promoting effective self-regulation. Children who are mistreated or neglected have chronically high levels of stress hormones that, through adaptation, may lead to chronic dysregulation and socioemotional problems that inhibit school achievement, social relationships, and physical health.

Authoritative, Authoritarian, and Permissive Parenting

Baumrind (1967) combined dimensions of parental warmth and demandingness to categorize parents as authoritative (high expectations for behavior and maturity, high levels of warmth and responsiveness), authoritarian (high expectations, low warmth), or permissive (low expectations, high warmth). Maccoby and Martin (1983) later added uninvolved or neglecting (low demands, low warmth). Although some cultures (Garcia & Gracia, 2009; Valentino, Nuttall, Comas, Borkowski, & Akai, 2012) and contexts (such as dangerous neighborhoods) may require different parenting styles for optimal outcomes (Chao, 2001), parenting (either mothering or fathering) marked by warmth, high expectations, and encouragement of autonomy is associated with the most successful outcomes for children (Baumrind, Larzelere, & Owens, 2010; Blondal & Adalbjarnardottir, 2009; Collins, 2006; Hoeve, Dubas, Gerris, van der Laan, & Smeenk, 2011; Luyckx et al., 2011; McKinney & Renk, 2008; Rinaldi & Howe, 2012).

“Determinants of Parenting” Model

Perhaps the most influential model for understanding the contributors to parenting is Belsky’s (1984) “determinants of parenting” model, based on Bronfenbrenner’s (1986) theory of social ecology. The model explains that parenting is influenced by characteristics of the parent, the child, and the social context in which the parent–child relationship is embedded (Smith, 2010).

Parent Contributions

Developmental History

Parenting behaviors and styles are transmitted across generations (Belsky, Jaffee, Sligo, Woodward, & Silva, 2005; Bouchard, 2012). Child abuse and harsh discipline, for example, are frequently linked to parents’ childhood experiences, and childhood abuse or harsh parenting is considered a risk factor for similar parenting (Dixon, Browne, & Hamilton-Giachritsis, 2005). Less research has examined continuity of positive parenting, but recent evidence suggests that it, too, is transmitted across generations (Chen & Kaplan, 2001). However, some parents who were reared poorly are able to develop resilience that allows them to parent competently (Travis & Combs-Orme, 2007).


Parent maturity, positive coping, and psychological adjustment are especially important predictors of parenting effectiveness (Belsky, 1984; Belsky & Barends, 2002). Parents who are more intelligent and more knowledgeable about parenting and children’s needs have more positive interactions with their children (O’Callaghan, Borkowski, Whitman, Maxwell, & Keogh, 1999). Kochanska, Aksan, Penney, and Boldt (2007) also found that parent personality and aspects of socialization buffer against the negative effects of demographic risk on parenting behavior.

Mental Health

Mental health influences parenting skills and behaviors. Mowbray, Oyserman, Bybee, and MacFarlane (2002) summarized research showing mothers with serious mental illnesses to be less emotionally available, involved with their children, positive, encouraging, and sensitive to their children’s needs. They caution, however, that much of that research is based solely on comparisons of depressed and nondepressed mothers. Their study of a large urban sample with a variety of diagnoses demonstrated that effects on parenting may vary for different diagnostic groups and that severity of symptoms and level of community functioning are more strongly related to parenting than diagnosis.

Demographic Factors

Demographic factors such as parental age, income, and marital status are associated with parenting because they are indicators of the resources available for parenting (Hubbs-Tait et al., 2006), and the accumulation of stress related to impoverishment is likely to interfere with parents’ emotional availability to their children. Older maternal age (up to the early thirties) is related to more optimal parenting, presumably because of greater experience, maturity, and knowledge (Bornstein, Putnick, Suwalsky, & Gini, 2006).

Research on race and culture has generally held white, middle-class parenting as the norm and ignored effects of racism, oppression, and socioeconomic discrimination on parenting and child outcomes (Cain & Combs-Orme, 2005; Cochran, 1997). Current research recognizes the influences of cultural heritage and the environment on parenting and acknowledges the strengths of the African American family and families of other cultures (Cochran; Hossain et al., 1999). Carter-Black’s (2001) qualitative study of two middle-class African American families emphasized the dominance of racial heritage over social class issues on parenting.

Parenting Attitudes

Parenting attitudes can be thought of as preconceptions of desirable parenting behavior or generalized models of how parenting should be done (Page, Combs-Orme, & Cain, 2007). In the absence of overt maltreatment, and even with adequate physical care, negative parenting attitudes may provide early indications of relationship problems that may lead to abuse, neglect, poor attachment, and poor child development (Crouch & Behl, 2001). With notable exceptions, little attention has been paid to links between parenting attitudes and behavior (Holden & Buck, 2002). Research does not support Heath’s (2006) statement that “attitudes predict behavior” (p. 757). However, parenting attitudes are believed to make important contributions to actual behavior (Holden & Buck).

Child Contributions

Studies demonstrate a reciprocal relationship between parenting quality and child personality and behavior (Crowley & Kazdin, 1998; Evans, Nelson, Porter, Nelson, & Hart, 2012). Child abuse research shows that child behaviors, particularly externalizing problems, are independently related to child abuse potential (Ammerman & Patz, 1996) and severity (Sprang, Clark, & Bass, 2005). Child temperament, in particular, has been shown to be related to parenting behavior (Calkins & Dedmon, 2004).

Environmental Contributions

As Belsky (1984) originally posited, the quality of parents’ interactions with the wider social environment is an important contributor to quality of parental care. The accumulation of risk factors associated with life in impoverished social environments, including poor family functioning, stressful life events, maternal psychological distress, and low income, in particular, presents greater risks to children’s development than do individual indicators (Sameroff & Fiese, 2000). Poverty, and the environmental unpredictability frequently associated with it, has profound effects on the personal and social resources available to parents to meet their children’s needs, which influence child outcomes (Belsky, Schlomer, & Ellis, 2012; Cain & Combs-Orme, 2005; Combs-Orme & Cain, 2006). Whether tangible (child care, financial assistance) or nontangible (advice, information, sympathy) and whether from informal (family, friends) or from formal (health-care professionals, teachers) sources, social support is associated with more optimal parenting, possibly through moderation or “buffering” of the effects of stress and adversity (Cochran & Niego, 2002).

Parenting in Social-Work Practice and Research

Perhaps because of social work’s deep roots in the child welfare system (CWS), most attention to parenting is based on preventing abuse and child placement and restoring a minimum level of parenting. The literature suggests that social workers rarely focus on the parent–child relationship within a theoretically informed assessment and understanding of attachment issues (Turney & Tanner, 2001), and it is remarkable how little attention is paid to the influence of poverty and deprivation on quality of parenting.

Across the settings described below, parenting interventions appear either to focus on correcting specific excesses or deficits in behavior or to be delivered in “psychoeducational” groups, which include both content and social support elements. Sessions include videotape instruction, direct observation of parent behavior, role-play, and feedback. Increasingly, “manualized” commercial programs are employed, particularly in public child welfare agencies. Parent-focused interventions with expectant and new parents have been shown to improve such things as parenting quality, parenting stress, child abuse and neglect, health-promoting parental behavior, parental psychological health, couple adjustment, and child development (Pinquart & Teubert, 2010). (Documentation of social workers’ interventions with clients to improve parenting in psychotherapeutic or other one-on-one settings is sparse, although such work undoubtedly occurs).

Child Welfare Settings

Child welfare agencies are the center of social work’s involvement in parenting, and many parents in the CWS participate in voluntary or mandated parenting services (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2005). In this setting, parents have usually been reported for child maltreatment, and agencies seek to “help caregivers provide a minimum sufficient level of care” (Barth et al., 2005, p. 355).

This narrow focus results from agency missions in the United States of avoiding child placement and preventing recurrence of abuse or neglect, of course. Nevertheless, although neglect is the most common type of maltreatment, discipline is usually the targeted parenting behavior in such programs (Barth et al., 2005). Turney and Tanner’s (2001) interpretation of neglect as a breakdown in the parent–child relationship (using attachment theory) would suggest that one reason that neglectful parenting is so difficult to treat is a failure to address this relationship dimension.

Following decades of failure of homemaker and intensive family preservation services to document the parenting services they provide or to demonstrate substantial effects, Barth et al. (2005) recently called for the extension of evidence-based parent training programs to parents in the CWS. Ironically, they found that only one third of parents in the CWS were identified as having poor parenting skills and that there is a lack of knowledge about the kinds of parenting problems these parents experience. Although a majority of parents in the CWS suffer the effects of acute poverty, poverty is not identified as a parenting problem in Barth et al.’s summary of the Department of Health and Human Services report on child maltreatment.

Barth et al. (2005) reviewed several training programs designed for parents of children with behavior problems that have some empirical documentation of effectiveness, considering the purposes and characteristics of the programs to determine their usefulness for training parents in the CWS. Some of those programs have been evaluated with maltreating parents, but not specifically with parents in the CWS. They also examined the parent training programs that are currently widely used in child welfare agencies, finding little evidence for the effectiveness of those programs. Their summary emphasizes the critical need for individual assessments of parenting so that intervention can target specific deficits in parenting skills. No mention of parent–child relationship or the challenges of parenting in poverty is included.

Non–Child Welfare Settings

Social workers frequently provide classes and groups for mentally ill (Ackerson, 2003), drug-addicted (Plasse, 2000), intellectually disabled (Coren, Hutchfield, Thomae, & Gustafsson, 2010), and other parents with problems. In these settings, parents are assumed to lack appropriate parenting skills, and the focus is on pathology, often with the goal of assessing the necessity of terminating parental rights (Ackerson). Ackerson notes that few “generic” community parenting programs are equipped to deal with parents who have serious mental illnesses, and few programs for the mentally ill target parenting. He asserts that programs for mentally ill parents should involve thorough assessments of specific functional impairments, competencies, and parenting knowledge, as well as observation of parent–child interaction. He does not discuss the parent–child relationship.

Social workers also frequently work with parents of children with mental-health problems, such as conduct disorder or other behavior problems. These children are challenging to care for, and social-work interventions are focused on teaching parents the skills they need to meet their children’s special needs (See Barth et al., 2005, for a discussion of these interventions). For example, Harrison, Boyle, and Farley (1999) provided 12-week group-based courses for parents of children referred by mental-health and juvenile court agencies.

Minority Parents

Few parenting services have been available to meet the specific needs of African Americans, Latinos, other minorities, or other cultural or immigrant groups (Cardona et al., 2012; Harachi, Catalano, & Hawkins, 1997; Yu & Singh, 2012), whose parenting occurs in different cultural environments and in the context of discrimination and limited opportunity. Recently, interventions have been provided specifically for African American parents, including groups that focus on the unique circumstances of African American parents, including racial socialization and identity and the development of bicultural skills (Miller, 1997) and a strengths-based, Africentric perspective grounded in an ecological framework (Harvey & Hill, 2004). Farber and Maharaj (2005) provided a manualized, group-based psychoeducational program for parents of high-risk, developmentally delayed African American children. Although evaluations of these parenting interventions indicated positive outcomes, none included comparison groups and require replication.


Since the mid-1980s, there has been an increased interest in fathers (Greif & Greif, 1997; Marsiglio et al., 2000), beyond social work’s almost exclusive emphasis on absent fathers and child support issues. The literature demonstrates social-work interest in low-income fathers (for example, Shears, Summers, Boller, & Barclay-McLaughlin, 2006), incarcerated fathers (LaRosa & Rank, 2001), fathers in the CWS (Tyrer, Chase, Warwick, & Aggleton, 2005), teen fathers (Weber, 2012), and fathers caring for children with special needs (Jones & Neil-Urban, 2003). There is continuing interest in absent or noncustodial fathers and child support policy (Carlson, 2006; Mandell & Sharlin, 2006) and “fathering’s” impact on children’s self-esteem (Bastaits, Ponnet, & Mortelmans, 2012). Curran (2003) examined fathering programs in the context of welfare reform and found little evidence of effectiveness in increasing child support on quality of fathering.

Published research indicates that social work has gone beyond describing absent fathers to addressing issues of fathers’ perceptions of their roles and their performance in those roles (Kost, 2001) and involvement with their children (Carlson, 2006). Lane and Clay (2000) addressed the service needs of young fathers.

Despite interest in fathers in social work, parenting by fathers—or fathering—is not generally well conceptualized or placed within a framework or theory about children’s needs, although other disciplines are pursuing that topic (for example, Brotherson, Dollahite, and Hawkins’s (2005) conception of generative fathering and Bradford and Hawkins’s (2006) concept of competent fathering). One exception in social work is Jones (2005), who provides a discussion of the role of the father in psychoanalytic theory, touching on fathers’ contemporary roles.

Adolescent Parents

Adolescent parents continue to be of interest to social workers. Many interventions for this group (for example, Sangalang & Rounds, 2005) not only emphasize the completion of education and economic independence, as well as contraceptive use to prevent further pregnancies, but also may provide information about child development and children’s needs. There is evidence that adolescent parents lack maturity, knowledge, and skills for parenting and that their psychosocial, developmental, educational, medical, and environmental circumstances further complicate their ability to provide competent care for their children that is optimal for the children’s healthy development; however, more rigorous evaluations are needed to guide programming and policy decisions (Beers & Hollo, 2009; Bornstein, Cote, Haynes, Hahn, & Park, 2010; Corcoran, 1998; Flaherty & Sadler, 2011; Kaplan et al., 2001; Lachance, Burrus, & Scott, 2012). Grandparents are increasingly involved in raising grandchildren born to young single mothers. The family system and intergenerational dynamics within the multigenerational caregiving structure are critical to the health and well-being of both mothers and their children (Arnold, Lewis, Maximovich, Ickovics, & Kershaw, 2011) and can both support and hinder the adolescent parents’ individual and parental development (Beers & Hollo). Research on coparenting among adolescent mothers and the biological fathers of their children is scarce but it suggests that most fathers desire involvement with their children and that coparenting conflict negatively influences child adjustment, especially among boys (Beers & Hollo; Lewin, Mitchell, Beers, Feinberg, & Minkovitz, 2012).

Engaging Parents in Schools

Research strongly suggests a positive association between parental or family involvement in schools and better outcomes for students, including higher levels of student achievement (Galindo & Sheldon, 2012); literacy skills (Durand, 2011); and lower rates of growth in family conflict, antisocial behavior, involvement with deviant peers, and alcohol use (Van Ryzin, Stormshak, & Dishion, 2012). However, it is difficult to achieve a high level of parental or family involvement in schools, especially among financially fragile families who may be overwhelmed and consumed with the persistent and chronic difficulties of securing housing, transportation, health care, food, and employment. Further, immigrant families who speak a language other than English may find it particularly difficult to engage the school system. It is important for schools, educators, and school social workers to utilize resources to involve underengaged families. Research suggests that parents are more likely to be involved in their children’s education when schools, teachers, and school social workers make concerted efforts to actively engage them through a high level of easily accessible information and communication (Galindo & Sheldon, 2012; Wright, Stead, Riddell, & Weedon, 2012). This includes school outreach efforts through parent–teacher associations or parent–teacher organizations; written reports such as report cards; teacher–parent conferences; home visits to conduct one-on-one parent education; school performances that parents are invited to attend; classroom programs such as school plays; family book or math nights; and fairs, social events, and school fund-raisers (Galindo & Sheldon). The use of innovative homework assignments that engage parents, children, and schools, as well as school newsletters, can be utilized to further connect parents to schools (Kipping, Jago, & Lawlor, 2011). Persistent struggles with engaging immigrant families in the school system have encouraged researchers to seek alternate settings such as school-linked community-based organizations that are less formal than the school setting and support activities and programs to engage parents and children in the school community (Lawson & Alameda-Lawson, 2012).

Multigenerational Pulls on Parents Who Are also Providing Caregiving—The Sandwich Generation

Relationships between adult children and aging parents are partly defined by cultural norms (Silverstein, Gans, Lowenstein, Giarrusso, & Bengtson, 2010). In America, individuals are living longer (American Public Health Association, 2012) and having children later in life (Livingston & Cohn, 2010). These demographic changes have created a modified extended family configuration—the sandwich generation—aptly named for adult children of the elderly who are “sandwiched” between the caregiving and support needs of their aging parents and children (Miller, 1981). Approximately 9% of women aged 45–56 are simultaneously providing support for, but not necessarily co-residing with, a child and an aging parent (Pierret, 2006). Caregiving and support can take the form of co-residence, college support, personal care, household chores and errands, child care, and financial assistance (Pierret). The typical American sandwich generation caregiver is female, in her mid-forties, married, economically advantaged, and providing care for her mother and children (Bogolea, 2013; Pierret). Conflicting data exist regarding the employment status of the typical caregiver, potentially because of the economic downturn of the first decade of the 21st century (Bogolea; Pierret). A defining characteristic of the sandwich generation is that they are giving resources and services that far outweigh the resources they receive (D. A. Miller). American families provide 80–90% of all in-home long-term care to aging family members, including assistance with activities of daily living, medical services coordination, medical supervision, and medication management (Bogolea). Family caregiving, although essential to the American national health-care system, often goes unrecognized. These caregivers are overutilized and undervalued, a situation that can lead to caregiver isolation and burnout, family financial strain, and familial tension and conflict (Bogolea; Ramnarace, 2010). Individuals caught in the sandwich generation find conflict in providing services, money, and emotional support to children and aging parents simultaneously (D. A. Miller; Quan, 2013). According to D. A. Miller,

Many of this group have arrived at a time of relative equilibrium in both their economic situation and their marital and personal relationships. They are ready for relaxation and self-indulgence, only to find that their grown children are not quite independent and their parents have moved from autonomy to a degree of dependence. (p. 419)

Care providers find it difficult to maintain a sense of personal identity and to enjoy their lives (Quan, 2013), and they are strained by the stress of role reversal with their parents (Miller, 1981). Caregivers are frequently confronted with a lack of community resources, service availability, and care networks (Bogolea; D. A. Miller), especially in rural communities (Bogolea). Caregivers can benefit from psychoeducation on topics such as “successful aging,” normal aging processes, and related geriatric information (D. A. Miller).

Older Children Returning to Live at Home—The Boomerang Generation

The “empty nest” tradition that is common among middle-class families in industrialized nations is undergoing changes related to the recent economic downturn associated with the U.S. housing bubble burst between 1996 and 2005 and the recession beginning in 2007 (Putland, 2009). The boomerang generation is defined by young adults who choose to cohabitate with their parents after briefly living on their own, such as when in college—thus they “boomerang” back to their parent’s home. A U.S. Census Bureau report found that the percentage of men aged 25–34 who live with their parents grew from 14 to 19% between 2005 and 2011 (Gulino, 2011). During that same time, the percentage of women in the same age range living with parents grew from 8 to 10% (Gulino; U.S. Census Bureau, 2011). Causes for adult children returning home to cohabitate with parents are related to the economic downturn and include the weak labor market, an uncertain economy, declining incomes, high unemployment, the challenging housing market, increased credit standards, higher downpayments on homes, higher rents, increased student loan debt, and the fact that college degrees no longer ensure job stability or movement into a middle-class lifestyle (Burrell, 2013a; Gulino). There is scare empirical literature on the boomerang generation, and popular commentary is mixed. Some justify the phenomenon as a way to relieve the financial burden of young people caught in the economic recession (Palmer, 2007). These advocates propose that delayed home-leaving may force parents and adult children to communicate and negotiate in more mature ways, leading to healthier adult child and parent relationships, and that cohabitation may benefit aging parents by providing them with care and financial resources (Palmer). Others suggest that delayed home-leaving may have a negative impact on the financial and social independence of children (Shaputis, 2004). And, although empirical investigation is greatly needed to understand this new trend, commentators have suggested that the “failure-to-launch” children can provoke anxiety for parents who negatively internalize their children’s inability to maintain independent living (Burrell, 2013a). Finally, commentators advise families to preplan the adult child’s return home with clear expectations regarding both parent and adult child roles and shared labor (grocery shopping, laundry service); goals for financial independence and a set time limit on cohabitation; rent; and house guests and suggest writing a contract with the child (Burrell 2013a, 2013b).

Conclusion and Issues for the Future

Social workers have a pivotal role in working with parents in diverse settings, and they provide the majority of services to parents in the child welfare system. The profession must address a number of challenges to demonstrate its effectiveness in enhancing improvement of parenting and thus the lives of the children touched in this way.

First, social-work interventions in parenting are not making use of a vast, rich literature in other disciplines. Research in child development and psychology can provide a theoretical foundation and understanding of the parenting relationship on child health and development, the ultimate lens through which parenting is viewed (Combs-Orme et al., 2003; Davies, 1999; Heath, 2006; Woodcock, 2003). That research has moved beyond specific behaviors and parenting skills to affirm the fundamental importance of the parent–child relationship and to measure broader parenting styles. As described earlier, parenting interventions in American social work are not embedded in this knowledge and appear to focus narrowly on such goals as preventing placement. Woodcock’s discussion of the British system indicates that the child welfare community there is struggling with two different goals: preventing maltreatment and supporting families.

Second, despite social work’s long history and commitment to understanding the impact of poverty, the profession pays insufficient attention to the effect of environmental deprivation on parents and their parenting. Belsky’s (1984) model of the determinants of parenting provides a framework for considering the impact of poverty and incorporating that understanding into research and practice with parents, particularly those in the child welfare system.

Finally, although social workers are delivering parenting interventions and often evaluating their efforts, Barth et al. (2005) emphasize the poor state of our knowledge. The more general move toward empirically based practice surely demands rigorous examination of this most critical part of social work’s mission.


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Further Reading

  • Bunting, L., & McAuley, C. (2004). Research review: Teenage pregnancy and parenthood: The role of fathers. Child and Family Social Work, 9, 295–303.
  • Waller, M. A., Brown, B., & Whittle, B. (1999). Mentoring as a bridge to positive outcomes for teen mothers and their children. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 16(6), 467–480.