At it’s best, parenting can be one of the most rewarding and fulfilling jobs in the world. When children get dressed happily in the morning, express gratitude for their dinner, or get on with their homework without a fuss, parents can feel on cloud nine. Too often though children’s demanding, fussy, and oppositional behaviour can lead to arguments, tears and shouting on both sides.
It goes without saying that a calm, consistent approach where clear expectations regarding behaviour are communicated, and where encouragement is provided, works best. However, this can often be easier said than done. Whilst this work is in progress, don’t forget these other valuable strategies for promoting positive behaviour in your child:
Connect with your Child
The word ‘connect’ has become a catch cry in recent years. More and more research evidence points to the importance of feeling connected with others and associated behavioural and emotional wellbeing (Eime,Young, Harvey, Charity, & Payne, 2013; Seppala, Rossomando, & Doty, 2013; Whitlock, Wyman, & Moore, 2014).
Life, for many families, consists of the daily juggle to get out the door on time, get kids to and from activities/sports, and navigate homework demands whilst simultaneously providing balanced, healthy meals. Under this pressure, it’s easy to fall into the habit of simply getting through the day. However, finding time to truly connect with your child can be wonderfully rewarding for you both and can help to strengthen the parent-child bond.
Driving your child to activities, helping them with homework, or standing on the sidelines at sport are all important elements of being a supportive, involved parent. However, remembering to go that little bit extra can do wonders for a parent-child relationship. Setting aside some one-to-one time to connect, away from other family members, can be enormously bonding.
- For preschool children, simply sitting down at their level and observing out loud what they are doing is a great way for you both to connect. It’s as simple as providing a running commentary about what they are doing. For example,“you are putting the blue block on top of the yellow one. Now you are making the tower taller by putting a green block on”. It may seem simplistic but most children will enjoy your presence, feel noticed and will respond positively to this interaction.
- For primary school aged children, connecting can be as simple as playing a game of UNO, kicking a ball, or making paper planes together. It could also include cooking together, going for a bike ride, or even going away overnight.
- As children become teenagers, they show increasingly greater interest in their peers and it’s easy for parents to feel that their opinions no longer matter. This change in parent-child relationship dynamics is not a negative sign, but a developmental progression and research show that adolescents continue to value their parents’ views over their peers, particularly when making serious decisions (Ackard, Neumark-Sztainer, Story & Perry, 2006; Brown & Bakken, 2011).
Here are some suggestions on connecting with your child:
- Step 1: Decide on something you might both enjoy. Where children are old enough, agreeing on a plan is a great start.
- Step 2: Put your phone/iPad/computer away. This demonstrates to your child that she/he is your number one priority. It also helps you to be mentally present.
- Step 3: Make sure you join in with whatever activity you both choose (i.e., if you choose swimming, you ideally need to be prepared to get in the pool).
- Step 4: Try to avoid too much ‘instruction-giving’ and do not use this one-to-one time as a chance to lecture about behaviour or past misdemeanours.
The only goal is to have fun together and to finish the activity on a positive note. It’s better to be brief but successful than go on for too long and end in an argument. Give it a try. You might be surprised by how much you learn about your child and how much fun you both have together!
Model How to Behave in Times of Stress
As a parent, you are your child’s first and most important teacher. Whilst you instil in them a rich factual knowledge of the world, it’s easy to forget how much they learn from watching you. Children are astute observers of behaviour and learn much about emotional expression and self-regulation by keenly observing your behaviour (Gerull & Rapee, 2002, Chambers, Craig & Bennett, 2002). We are often unaware of just how much they take in until we hear our children parrot something they have heard us say to them.
When we shout at children, lose our temper in frustration, or perhaps smack them, we are teaching them that this is the way to behave in times of frustration. Don’t be surprised if you then witness your child engage in similar behaviours. Similarly, if you have a tendency to become anxious or panicked in certain situations, don’t be too surprised if you start to see signs of anxiety in your child (Fisak & Grills-Taquechel, 2007).
By spending a few moments reflecting on your behaviour during times of intense stress (e.g. getting out the door in the mornings), you can take steps to try to regulate your own emotions. Often, the first step is to identify trigger points when you are likely to lose your cool. Don’t be afraid to change the family routine to find a better approach. You can include the children in finding alternative solutions. In doing so, you are demonstrating the skills of problem-solving for your child. Where frustration takes over, try to calm yourself by taking deep breaths or taking a few minutes away from your child to regain your self-control.
This is so much easier said than done, but where you are able to remain calm you are effectively modelling an adaptive way of coping in times of frustration. Don’t be afraid to seek support if you feel that your own anger, worries, or mood are negatively impacting on your parenting style.
As parents, we’ve heard the phrase ‘look after yourself’ on many occasions but the evidence is really there. Children of depressed and/or anxious parents or those living in an environment of constant conflict are more likely to experience emotional difficulties (Elgar, Mills, McGrath, Waschbusch & Brownridge, 2007; Kahn, Brandt & Whittaker, 2004). Find ways to gain social support from those around you or seek help from an experienced Psychologist at Quirky Kid or other qualified psychologists via www.psychology.org.au.
Be Emotionally Responsive
Emotional responsiveness is sometimes referred to as emotion coaching and involves empathically responding to another’s emotions. Put simply, it means giving a name to the emotion that you are seeing in your child. There is evidence to suggest that by labelling emotions, parents help to increase their child’s emotional language skills and, that by accepting and addressing negative feelings in children, parents can promote emotional regulation skills (Gottman, Katz & Hoover, 1997; Whittingham, 2015)
If your child is crying about homework, for example, you might say
“I can see that having to do this homework is upsetting/annoying you”, or “it’s really frustrating when you have to stop playing and and do homework, isn’t it?”.
It is as simple as putting yourself in your child’s shoes and seeing problems from their perspective. It is essential to avoid immediately suggesting solutions to the problem, and to avoid using phrases, such as,
“if you had done it when I told you to do it, you wouldn’t be feeling this way”.
Instead, continue to calmly report back to your child how you think they might be feeling.
As most parents will attest, getting annoyed with your child at such times or telling them to “just get on with it” simply fuels the fire, and everyone can end up angry and upset. By expressing empathy and putting yourself in your child’s shoes, you are helping your child to feel understood and you are promoting positive communication skills in your child. Often children express how they feel through their behavioural outbursts, but ideally, we want them to learn to express their feelings verbally. An emotionally responsive approach can often defuse the situation and help your child feel understood. Sometimes this simple technique is enough to calm the situation. It can also provide a springboard for helping your child to find a more appropriate solution to the problem.
Setting high standards for behaviour can be very beneficial for children. In doing so, however, it is vital to be accommodating of the fact that all children make mistakes and errors of judgement. Making mistakes is part of human nature, and it is one of the myriad of ways in which people learn. As parents, our instinct is to protect or prevent our children from making mistakes, or to be disappointed by some of our children’s mistakes when they occur.
There is concern among researchers that perfectionism in children is increasing (Marano, 2008). Perfectionism is characterised by a fear of making mistakes. Such fear can lead to rigidity of behaviour that stifles creativity and playfulness and can lead to excessive anxiety and avoidance. Marano (2008, p.82) surmises that part of the reason that perfectionism in children is becoming more of an issue is that some parents ‘seek much of their status from the performance of their kids and, as a result, are placing much more pressure on children to achieve than previously’.
As parents, it is important to embrace children’s mistakes, ask the child to reflect on where they went wrong, and then help the child to learn from that experience. Sometimes children are unaware that they have even done anything wrong. In such cases, it is often appropriate to explain the error and together think about how to behave differently next time. The point at which a firmer stance needs to be taken is where the child puts themselves or someone else in danger, or is engaging in a behaviour that may not have an immediate or logical consequence (e.g. bullying).
It helps if parents too can acknowledge their own mistakes (where appropriate) and take responsibility for them, model a calm approach, and verbalise how they will learn from that experience. For example,
“I got up too late this morning and I had to rush everyone out of the door. I apologise for getting angry, and tomorrow I will try not to make that mistake again by getting up earlier”.
Where children repeatedly make the same mistake, it’s important to consider why that is happening. From there, try to find ways to help them learn more appropriate behaviour effectively.
Engage in Positive Self-Talk
Self-talk is the internal voice in your head and, as parents, we have a constant and busy internal dialogue. Much of our self-talk is not done consciously, but from time to time we notice it when we are are trying to motivate ourselves, or perhaps when we are angry about something. Self-talk can be helpful or unhelpful, and it can have a significant impact on how people view themselves and how they cope in challenging situations. Children learn a lot of their self-talk from others around them. If children hear parents say negative things, such as “I’m hopeless at maths so I can’t help you with your homework’, they too can start to self-talk in similar ways. As parents, we need to model positive self-talk, for example,
“I had a really big project at work today. It was hard but I learned a lot from doing it” or “this lego model was hard, but we managed to do such a good job together. It reminds me that we are such good problem solvers!”.
If, as parents, we show our children that we believe in ourselves, then they too will start to behave in similar ways.
Ackard, D., Neumark-Szatainer., Story, M and Perry, C. (2006). Parent-child connectedness and behavioural and emotional health among adolescents. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 30(1), 59-66. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2005.09.013
Brown, B. B. and Bakken, J. P. (2011). Parenting and Peer Relationships: Reinvigorating Research on Family–Peer Linkages in Adolescence. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21:153–165. doi:10.1111/j.1532-7795.2010.00720.x
Chambers, C., Craig, K.D. and Bennett, S.M. (2002). The Impact of Maternal Behavior on Children’s Pain Experiences: An Experimental Analysis. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 27(3), 293–301. doi:10.1093/jpepsy/27.3.293
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Whitlock, J., Wyman, P. A. and Moore, S. R. (2014). Connectedness and Suicide Prevention in Adolescents: Pathways and Implications. Suicide Life Threat Behaviour, 44: 246–272. doi:10.1111/sltb.12071
Whittingham, K. (2015). Connect and shape: A parenting meta-strategy. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 4, 103-106. doi: 10.1016/j.jcbs.2015.03.002.