If you’re like me, you want to get along with your children and you want results. You want your children to behave appropriately, get good grades and have good social skills. What’s the magic formula? Whether you’re struggling to establish a successful bedtime routine for your antsy toddler or negotiating an acceptable curfew for your adventurous teen, focusing on the big picture can help.
As social creatures, we all crave love, belonging and acceptance. Yet, we also have a need for independence and free will. The trick to good parenting is learning how to simultaneously offer love and respect while influencing children to behave well because they want to, not because we told them to.
Your children are not your children…they come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. Kahlil Gibran
I’m sure you guessed, there is no magic formula. Children don’t become responsible self-directed adults overnight. They learn by experiencing small, age-appropriate doses of responsibility over the long haul. So, for now, let’s take a look at what factors contribute most to preserving loving bonds with your children while accomplishing workable solutions together, one moment at a time.
Keep Your Cool: Relationships suffer when parents morph into scary “momsters” or “dadsters.” We literally lose our minds when we blow our top. Our higher brain goes offline leaving our children to fend for them selves until we recover our composure. Research shows that punitive, critical, and angry parenting actually makes children less empathic, more rebellious, and more prone to explosive emotions. No surprise then, that calm, loving parenting breeds more caring and cooperative children. After an angry eruption, be sure to reestablish a loving connection by apologizing and reassuring your child. If you need to vent some steam, go for a walk, get some fresh air, or talk with a supportive friend. Silliness is a great way to let off steam together.
Take the Long View: Our thoughts determine how likely we are to get angry or frustrated by our children’s behavior. In the book When Anger Hurts Your Kids: A Parent’s Guide researchers tell us that we’re more likely to get mad if we think our children are trying to manipulate, control, or ignore us. More likely, they are simply coping the best they can, considering their age and maturity level. Challenging behaviors often signify a child’s attempt to satisfy some underlying need (such as connection or autonomy) rather than willful maliciousness or deceit on the child’s part. To relieve tension try changing your thoughts such as, “This is just a stage,” or, “This too shall pass.” When my sons were young, I chose to think, “At least he won’t still be doing this when he’s thirty years old!”
Ask Don’t Tell: Muscling our children into doing our bidding usually backfires because force creates resistance. According to Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D. and Gabor Mate, M.D., authors of Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, coercive or manipulative strategies, like threats and bribery, activate children’s counterwill, their inherent need for autonomy and self-direction. Try taking more of an Aikido approach by working with, not against children’s power and will. “It is time to clean up now, what would you like to put away first?” Appreciative comments (that are specific and fact-based) validate the child and reinforce the behavior, “Thanks for tidying up! Now we’ll have more time to read a story.”
Take a Balanced Approach: Clear expectations accompanied by warmth, support and follow-through assist children to internalize appropriate behavior. Investigations linking parenting styles with teen drinking behavior determined that a strict, authoritarian style lacking warmth or a lax, permissive style without accountability were the least effective in assisting teens to self-regulate their drinking behavior. The most effective style for positively influencing behavior over the long-term seems to combine warmth, support and accountability before, during, and after children stray into undesirable terrain.
Don’t Ask Why: You’ve probably noticed that asking a child why they behaved inappropriately doesn’t usually produce useful information. Once the impulsive, emotional limbic brain takes over, access to the logical, linguistic parts of the brain is limited, especially during emotional upsets. A better approach would be to calm down and talk later. Instead of “Why did you hit your sister?” practice empathizing, “You must be really upset that she knocked over your blocks!” The long-term goal of parenting and healthy brain development is to increase connections between the limbic area and the pre-frontal cortex to improve impulse control and emotional regulation.
Seize the Moment: Most of us are more willing to put in effort and tend to have a better opinion of our selves when we feel valued and respected. My husband, sons and I consistently show appreciation for one another. By offering specific observations whenever you get the chance, the habit becomes contagious, “Thanks for sharing the last piece of cake with your sister,” or “I’m glad we get to spend the day together,” and, “I can see how much effort you put into your book report.” Simple messages of love and appreciation can add up to a lifetime of good relations and give you more credibility during challenging moments.