What Is High Nurture/High Structure Parenting?

Dr. Karyn Purvis taught that high nurture and high structureĀ must be balanced when parenting children. I was recently asked to explain what that means.

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I recently shared a quote by Dr. Karyn Purvis on a local foster parent group about the need for a balance of nurture and structure as we parent children from “hard places.” One of the dads replied, “Interesting. Care to give examples to explain this to me?”

I’ve been in the therapeutic parenting world many years now and his words made me pause. How would I describe high nurture, high structure parenting? What does it look like?

I could probably write a book on this topic alone, or a least a few chapters, but I’ll limit myself to a blog post.

For me, high structure means providing children with a home that is predictable and safe. More importantly, I need to be a mom who is predictable and provides safety.

Children with trauma histories have commonly livedĀ in very chaotic circumstances. They’ve cried and nobody has come. They’ve been hungry and not fed. They’ve been frightened and not comforted or kept safe.

They may not live in those circumstances any longer, but they still live in a constant state of fear and distrust.

When I provide safe, predictable routines, such as dependable meal times or a regular bedtime routine for little ones, I’m providing structure and demonstrating that I’m trustworthy. Children know that each night there will be a bath, followed by pajamas, brushing teeth, reading a book, prayers and songs.

For teensĀ our routine involves dinner, cleaning up together, homework, and the house quieting down at 9:30. On weekends we have a simple Saturday chore chart that must be completed in the morning. Sundays begin with bagels for breakfast followed by church and the entire family gathering for dinner in the afternoon.

High structure means providing boundaries so our children know what we expect. They can’t succeed if they don’t know what is expected.

High structureĀ also means consequences must be consistent. Children from hard places may be accustomed to discipline ranging from being ignored to abused all within a short time span from the same parent. We want to be loving, calm, and consistent.

High nurture is connecting with the hearts of our children. Eye contact, drawing them close, gentle touch, rocking little ones, wearing them in a front or backpack, and reading books are a few ways to connect with young children.

For older children and teens, nurture will look somewhat different. Listening to our older children, making eye contact, touch that is comfortable and appropriate for that child, making a favorite food, sitting side-by-side watching a show, or a note left on the bathroom mirror are a few ways we can show nurture and care for them.

High nurture might also mean offering choices rather than laying down the law. For example, with a young child we might say, “Would you like to hold my hand and walk in the store, or ride in the cart?”

It seems that most of us are naturally inclined toward either high structure or high nurture.

We may have a tendency to be a tenderhearted, very nurturing parent, but less consistent with expectations and discipline. Each day is unpredictable, leading our children to feel anxious, not knowing what to expect.

Alternately we may have a tendency to be structured with a chart for everything imaginable, but we have a harder time connecting with our kids’ hearts. We may be very authoritarian or tend to be dismissive, telling them, “it can’t be that bad, ” or “bummer for you.”

This may lead to outwardly obedient children – or openly rebellious children, either way, it doesn’t lead to children whose hearts are connected to ours.

High structure aloneĀ and high nurture alone are ditches on opposite sides of the road. We want to find the balanced middle, parenting in a way that brings wholeness to our children.

How do you balance nurture and structure with your children?

I would love to hear from you here in the comments or on my One Thankful Mom Facebook page.

Thanks for reading – it feels good to write! What a crazy summer it’s been; I’ve missed you, friends.

Lisa

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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRIĀ® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.

14 Comments

  1. Sarah Tovah
    September 7, 2016

    Lisa–

    Compelling post, as always. You know by now that I plan to adopt one day, preferably a little girl with special needs (I’m thinking Down syndrome, but I’m open to anything else except FAS, which I know I cannot handle). How would you say this kind of parenting translates to disabled children?

    –Sarah

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      September 7, 2016

      Sarah, I think it translates well to children with all abilities because all children need to feel safe, secure, connected to our hearts, and loved. Some of the practical applications might be different depending on a child’s particular needs and abilities, but the basic concepts would be just right. So nice to hear from you.

      Reply
  2. Melissa Kugler
    September 7, 2016

    I would love to know the answer…..

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      September 7, 2016

      It’s one of those things we just have to keep working on, Melissa. I’m still learning with each of my children how to balance this.

      Reply
  3. Alyssa Van Den Elzen
    September 7, 2016

    I am naturally high nurture and have embraced the concepts of connected parenting, even though it is hard. Structure is harder for me- I hate the conflict from enforcing it. I haven’t been as structured with some things like screen time as much as I should have and am now paying for it! I feel like we’ve been in survival mode for so long….we are putting some things in place for the school year and I know it will pay off once we get going. It’s not that things are really chaotic I just have said yes too much. It’s a really hard balance- i want my son to like me and I want to make up for all the hard years.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      September 7, 2016

      We’re working on putting some new structure in place with the new school year as well. I tend to drift from it because it doesn’t come as naturally to me either, but it is so important for my kids. Thankfully, we can always have a do-over!

      Reply
  4. shannon
    September 7, 2016

    Our therapist told us the same thing about tending towards high structure v high nurture. It’s awesome that once we know our tendencies, we can be more strategic about making sure we consciously incorporate what we lack. He also said that children learning to negotiate relationships with parents with different nurture/structure emphases builds emotional intelligence and helps our kids in life. I think his point was that a high-structure parent who struggles with intimacy can improve but will still trend towards structure and vice-versa.

    It’s so true that parenting is just as much or more about shaping us than about shaping our children.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      September 7, 2016

      Great thoughts, Shannon. It’s good to know that our kids are building emotional intelligence as we try to balance our weaknesses and strengths and grow as parents.

      Reply
  5. Nicole
    September 7, 2016

    Hi Lisa,

    In our family, high structure and nurture now looks a lot like what you describe.

    I will say that we had a long way to go before we were there though. For us, it was helpful for me to learn about the intimacy barrier (concept I heard about from Dr. Bruce Perry). My kids were absolutely terrified of me and anything that appeared to be nurture scared the living daylights out of them (& their behavior proved it). Luckily we had a team of therapists that explained emotional regulation to us and observed how our sons couldnā€™t emotionally regulate in close proximity to us until we had built trust.

    So, in the early months (for one child) and the early years (for another) we had to rather wait for our sons to communicate they were comfortable with our proximity and nurture before it typical nurture WAS nurture for them. So, our routine became the way we initially built trust. After our children began trusting in our routine, they began to trust us, relax, rest, and we could watch the intimacy barrier slowly disappear. If I could go back, I would measure the distance my children were each comfortable with me each month during those early times so I could be encouraged as we actually physically became closer as trust was built.

    After a time, we could actually share reciprocal smiles and share laughter. Finally, we could hug and sit next to each other during a movie. Now our routine can occasionally be altered and trust is maintained.

    Sorry for such a long-winded answer, but I did feel compelled to share our experience as I doubt weā€™re alone (even though I think our type of experience is likely rare).

    Best to you! I look forward to reading other responses.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      September 7, 2016

      Nicole, thank you for sharing your experience and wisdom. This is so helpful because, you’re right, many children can’t tolerate much connection due to their fear responses. Children are very complex and while we start with a basic understanding we must be flexible to adapt it to their unique needs and situations. Sensory challenges also make it necessary to adjust our means of connection. One of my children still struggles with tolerating touch and sustaining eye contact. That doesn’t feel like connection to him, so I have to find other ways.

      Reply
  6. Julie Beem
    September 7, 2016

    Lisa – your blog is RIGHT ON! (as usual) and exactly how we teach high structure/high nurture. You’re right about the balance being hard to maintain and each of us having our own natural tendency. I find when our day has not gone well, that I can reflect back and see where I’ve gotten out of balance. I love your road analogy! We use the Border Collie as a visual reminder (animal analogy) – keeping the sheep safely herded, but also connected to them — not authoritarian! Thanks – hope it’s ok to share your blog with folks on ATN!

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      September 7, 2016

      Thank you so much, Julie, I take your words as a high compliment. Please feel free share to my post!

      Reply
  7. Michelle
    September 8, 2016

    Great post! I work with adoptive families and am an adoptive mom as well. This structure and nurture is so important! I would add on the strucure piece that there is no substitute for supervision-think of having the child about 3 feet from you most of the day. Especially if they are struggling or often dis regulated. I like how you wrote about nurture in terms of caring and connecting. Love is something that kids from hard places can better understand in context of caring, and our nurturing actions of drawing them close as well in the structure of predictability and safety.

    I wrote a fictional series about a family that adopts two boys from Fostercare. The story provide examples of both. You might enjoy the books.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      September 8, 2016

      Great suggestion regarding proximity, Michelle. When my children were younger, sometimes I would have a little one by my side, or even have them hook their finger through my belt loop to keep them close as I work in the kitchen. I’m teaching my teens to cook, and that gives us a nice combination of nurture and structure. Feel free to leave the information on your book series in the comments here.

      Reply

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