Balancing Challenge & Support

Urie Bronfenbrenner was one of the giants of 20th century developmental psychology. One of the founders of HeadStart, Urie had many favorite sayings about raising children. In additional to studying children for more than half a century, he also had five of his own.

Urie Bronfenbrenner
Urie Bronfenbrenner in the Cornell Nursery School

One person who is crazy about you

One thing that fascinated Urie was trying to understand – in all the multiplicity of ways that children are brought up all over the world – what helped kids to thrive.

His conclusion was, essentially, love. Kids needed at least one person who was wildly, irrationally, and unconditionally crazy about them.

Not because they were talented or successful. Not because of how well they did it school. Not even because they were charming or witty or easy.

Just because they were . . . . them.

That ‘unconditional positive regard’, as psychologists call it formally, provides a solid foundation for growth.

I think it’s particularly important for kids who live with chronic pain and illness because they often struggle with so many facets of their lives – doing well in school or achieving in sports or the arts or even getting out of bed or doing chores or the kinds of things that others take completely for granted.

Kids living with chronic illness need to feel loved when they hurt and they fail and they cry and they snap and get angry. Just because they’re our kids and we love them.

They need someone to be crazy about them.

Balancing Challenge & Support

Urie was born in Tsarist Russia, immigrating to upstate New York as a young child. Because he spoke Russian fluently, he followed Soviet developmental psychology closely.

He attributed a second basic principle of optimizing child development to Aleksei Leontiev. Children do best, he would say, when they experienced an environment that balanced ‘the maximum of challenge with the maximum of support’.

Children do best, he would say, when they experienced an environment that balanced ‘the maximum of challenge with the maximum of support’.

Urie Bronfenbrenner

What does this mean?

‘Challenge’ is being pushed to do your best. According to Vygotsky (another great Soviet psychologist), growth happens in the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’. That is, it happens in the area where you’re struggling to succeed – the range of activities just beyond what you can do on your own.

Think about it. If you’re doing something you already know how to do, you are consolidating your skills, but you’re not learning new ones.

We learn when we struggle to go beyond what we can do on our own. When we work with others and get support – we can move beyond our current skills and start to build new ones.

The Zone of Proximal Development is that zone of what we can do when we have support.

Providing “scaffolding” – sensitively providing enough support so the person can stretch themselves without quitting – is a real skill. And one of the hardest for parents to develop.

It’s hard to know whether you’re providing too much help (so they don’t learn) or too little (so they get frustrated and quit.

Truth is, no one can do that perfectly all the time. But the more time we spend balancing challenge and support sensitively, the better our kids will do.


Sensitive support respects the child’s autonomy and helps them grow – maybe even pushes them a little – while keeping them in that Zone of Proximal Development for a greater percentage of time.

Emotional & Instrumental Support

Emotional support helps others understand and process their emotions and let’s them know you believe they are real.

This involves mirroring emotions – expressing your understanding and sympathy so your child feels heard.

Nodding, reflecting back (I know you’re really frustrated) and other similar behaviors makes it clear that you get what they’re saying. And that’s important, because it means your child can focus on what they are feeling and how to deal with those feelings instead of dealing with both their feelings and with yours.

Co-rumination. Although it’s important to communicate your understanding of what someone is feeling, dwelling and ‘co-ruminating’ on negative emotions makes things worse. When we co-ruminate, we go over negative emotions and amplify them and their negative consequence over and over (like a cow chewing its cud).

Co-rumination is NOT helpful. What IS helpful is helping people find perspective, helping them think clearly about what the issues are, and to help them think concretely about ways to improve their situation.

Note I said ‘helping’ not ‘telling’. Support helps someone else stand. It doesn’t do it for them.

Helping people process and understand what they’re feeling can help them get perspective on it. Sometimes just talking can help us see things better.

How do you get kids to talk? Everyone – particularly teens – feel freer to open up more when we listen rather than talk. They need to feel SAFE and unjudged (remember that unconditional positive regard). Last week I wrote about listening, and it’s an important skill. It’s also important to quiet our own emotions – particularly our upset and distress – so that we can help them process their own.

Instumental support is actually providing help – doing things. Packing med boxes, driving kids to school, setting up medical appointments . . . . the instrumental needs of kids who are sick can sometimes seem endless.

It is really really easy to step in and do a lot for our kids when they’re sick. Sometimes more than they need. In other words, sometimes the support we provide can overwhelm the challenge.

It can be important to step back and think:

  • What can my child do for themselves?
  • They’ve got limited time and energy. What is MOST IMPORTANT for them to do for themselves?
  • What do they MOST WANT to do for themselves?

All of these things will vary day by day, week by week, and I swear sometimes, hour by hour.

But balancing those challenges and those supports can help kids to feel they’re making progress, to feel proud of what they’re doing, to keep them learning and growing, and also to feel your love.

It’s a continuing challenge.

Check out the 1step2life app!

Start where you are. Set your own goals. Take back your life. A tool for tracking goals, emotions, and success, not just logging pain. And the only app that has a mode specifically for parents, partners, and other carers that supports effective coaching and strong relationships.

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2 responses to “Balancing Challenge & Support”

  1. Challenge, Support, & Love - 1step2life Avatar

    […] written before about Urie Bronfenbrenner, the great American developmental psychologist. Children thrive – are happiest and become […]

  2. Supporting Parent of Kids In Pain - 1step2life Avatar

    […] I needed to balance challenge and support – demonstrating my unconditional absolute love, while showing I loved and believed in him by […]

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