Parents in this day and age face ever-growing challenges and pressures as they try to meet the never-ending physical and emotional needs of their children and the expectations of our society. More than ever, parents are expected to find countless ways to enrich the lives of their children, with the presumption that doing so will lead to certain success, while failure to do so will take their children down an unfortunate path of missed opportunity and ruin. While I believe there is something important in providing optimal and nurturing environments for children, it seems to me that we might have taken things a bit too far. Our cultural expectations place enormous pressure on children and parents. If their child fails to thrive, parents may sometimes react with anxiety, guilt, or even defensiveness. Unfortunately, this leads to a situation where parents can sometimes feel ashamed in asking for help. Ironically, it is often the confident and self-assured parent who is able to seek help; they know that they cannot possibly know it all or satisfy the illusion of being a 'perfect parent. Getting support does not in any way mean that one is not a 'good parent.' In fact, having the courage to ask for help is one of the best things a parent can do for their family.
My goal when meeting with parents, is to collaboratively work together to resolve the issue or concern at hand. Challenges may be related to something specific like a behavioral problem, dealing with a family illness, divorce or family transition, or finding ways to resolve individual differences, which may involve a course of family or attachment therapy. Children and teens do not come with an instruction manual, and as we all know, kids can be as diverse as their parents. This means that one kind of approach will not fit every situation and I will work with a family to find solutions to encourage the change they are looking for. That said, I have outlined below some very general parenting strategies based on current research in the area of child, adolescent, and family development. The suggestions below are intended to be a starting point for parents looking to try a different approach. They are not intended to fit any and every situation and it may be helpful for parents to seek professional consultation to work out a tailored strategy to meet the needs of their family.
Do parents agree with regard to discipline, expectations, appropriate parent/child boundaries, family values, and so on? If not, how can parents get on the same page and represent a unified front so that the child or teen receives the same message from both? Children need consistency and stability to feel safe and to trust that their parents can handle challenges that may come along. A strong parental alliance is important in creating this sense of security.
Does each parent support the role of the other through verbal and non-verbal communication? For example, does one parent have a habit of "second-guessing" or undermining the efforts of the other parent? If so, how can the parents gently discuss and problem-solve the issue together? Being on "the same page" ensures that parents do not get "played off one another" or fall into the "good cop / bad cop" role. Having a strong parental alliance also means that parents support one another with regard to the many stresses and challenges that may come with being a parent. A unified parenting team means that parents are also able to share their parental roles. For example, do parents encourage each other to be involved in the various aspects of child-rearing (i.e. homework, discipline, playing, etc.)? If there are differences in parenting styles that impact on family life and overall relationship satisfaction, it is often something that can be safely discussed and talked about in couples therapy.
Spend quality time with your child to improve and maintain an emotional bond. This is sometimes referred to as an attachment relationship. Children who have good relationships with their parents are more likely to go to them when they are having difficulty. They see parents as a resource and a place for safety and understanding. These children are less likely to engage in maladaptive coping strategies that can result in problematic behaviour. If or when these children do engage in problematic behavior, they are more likely to experience guilt (feeling bad about something you did) rather than contributing to persistent feelings of shame (feeling bad about who you are as a person). Children who feel good about themselves are more likely to associate with children who also feel good about themselves (i.e. peers or friends who are likely to be positive influences).
Promote and encourage things that the child is interested in and/or good at. This improves and maintains self-esteem, self-expression, and competence. In every child is a need to feel valued, loved, and appreciated by their parents - by allowing children to express themselves and being curious about who they are as individuals, parents communicate the unconditional quality of their love and simultaneously validate their child's emerging sense of self.
Talking to your kids about their problems, worries, stresses, or anxieties is part of being a nurturing and supportive parent, but you should avoid talking to your child in detail about your problems or worries. Even though you think your child is mature enough to handle it, these sorts of adult disclosures can place a lot of stress on a child. Children in these situations may feel like they need to fix or help their parent with adult problems they may not be able to solve. As a result, they may feel like they are letting the parent down, which over time can lead to guilt, depression, and anxiety. Through a desire to protect and nurture their parent, children may develop an inability to express their own needs, wants, or worries. These worries may include concerns about the parent's ability to take care of them, which creates further anxiety about safety and stability in the family and home. Parents can avoid these situations by increasing their adult support networks during times of stress and by seeking professional help when they need it.
Research suggests that parenting approaches involving criticism or physical discipline contribute to conduct problems, depression, and low self-esteem in childhood and adolescence. Parents who use physical force to discipline their child may unknowingly teach their child that physical force is a useful strategy to resolving a problem or getting what they want. Parents typically learn how to discipline from their own parents - we do what we learned growing up and it can be a difficult habit to break. Due to their own experiences, it may be difficult for parents to understand the benefits of a different approach or to know how to administer it effectively. In general, natural consequences are very effective forms of discipline (i.e. take something away, time-out, loss of privilege, grounding, etc.). That said, it takes a lot of practice to utilize these strategies in some situations and new challenges emerge as children reach adolescence and are negotiating for greater independence. If parents are feeling stuck with regard to discipline or administering natural consequences, it may be helpful to collaboratively problem-solve with a child/adolescent psychologist to come up with solutions that work for your family.
Use a firm, yet neutral tone when dealing with behavioral problems. Parents will sometimes feel inclined to raise their voice with disobedient or argumentative children. The problem is that: 1) it again teaches the child that yelling/raising your voice is a useful strategy for getting what you want, 2) in the future, they will begin to push boundaries/limits until you begin to yell/raise your voice, requiring you to do so more often, and 3) by resorting to yelling/raising your voice, parents are communicating to the child that they fear losing parental power. Alternatively, a neutral but firm voice communicates that you are the parent and in control. No matter how much the child/adolescent may yell or fuss, you need not do the same because you are the parent in the relationship.
Sometimes I hear parents say things like: "I get angry when by kid pushes my buttons!" This kind of parent has somehow lost their confidence in their role and has somehow given their child/teen the power to control their anger. In contrast, a parent who embodies the above approach has the following attitude: "My children are incapable of pushing my buttons because I am the parent in this relationship. I decide when my buttons are pushed, not them." In essence, this kind of approach entails parenting with soft hands and a firm centre. The delivery comes from a place of confidence, caring, and concern, while the expectations at the core are clear and firm. Taking this approach, instead of reacting with anger, also ensures that your child is more likely to develop a healthy sense of guilt (feeling bad about their inappropriate behavior) rather than feeling shame (feeling bad about who they are as a person).
Teach your child turn-taking, waiting, asking, helping, and complimenting by modeling the behavior yourself and by "catching them being good." When the behavior happens, say "thanks bud," or "that was very nice of you," or for challenging behaviors, you might elaborate: "I know that used to be tough for you, but you're doing so much better; I am very proud of you." With adolescents, you may want to make the compliments a little less obvious.
Increase emotional awareness: Children and adolescents often find it difficult to express emotions in words. Help them by asking and talking about their feelings. Pretend you are a detective trying to figure out what is going on inside: "if that happened to me, I might feel a bit like ______ ; I wonder if that's kind of how you feel?" Only when children become aware of their own emotions are they able to begin having empathy for the feelings of other people.
If you are planning on using a new/different approach in parenting or way of communicating within the family, TELL your child that you will be doing things differently and that you may need their help to make sure that everyone gives the new approach a chance to work. If you do not tell your child that anything will be different from "business as usual," they will be inclined to react/act in response to what they expect you will do (based on previous experience), which may be very different from what you might do using a new/different approach.
Raising any child can be extremely challenging; by taking care of yourself, you take care of your child(ren) and your family. Take time for yourself and engage friends, family, or other supports as often as you can. If there are certain times of day that are challenging on a personal level (i.e. engaging hyperactive children after a day at work), try to problem solve ways that you can make it easier on yourself and your family (i.e. create a rule: after work, mom or dad get a quick hug, then take a 15 minute "breather" on his/her own before starting supper or helping with schoolwork). It may also be worth reaching out for professional help with regard to parenting concerns.
Greene offers a relatively new approach to helping parents work with exceptionally challenging children and teens. The 'Collaborative Problem-Solving' method has been tried and tested with some of the most tenacious patterns of inflexibility and behavioral difficulty. A highly recommended read for parents and a good adjunct to child or teen therapy.
The authors draw from both attachment theory and neuroscience to describe how these early parent-child relationships help shape who we are today. The reader will likely gain a greater insight, understanding, and appreciation for the emotional reflexes they may have learned during their own childhood. Through careful self-reflection and making peace with the past, one can avoid having to repeat maladaptive patterns of family interaction with one's own children. A highly recommended book.