Most parents want their children to grow into healthy, responsible adults. They don’t want defiant teens or lazy young adults as the fruit of their parenting labors. The parental fear that our children might become defiant or lazy can lead to a strict, controlling style of parenting that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let me explain. Strict parents respond to their fears with rules and more rules. They focus so much on the rules that they neglect the relationship with their child. Their children come to believe that rules are more important to their parent than they are. They learn that performance, achievement, and living up to strict standards are necessary ingredients for acceptance. Strict parents punish their child any time they break a rule or falls short of a standard… And standards are generally high and rigid. Obedience is expected at all times…at all ages…without question or discussion. Discipline often includes harsh words, guilt inducing statements, and shame. They make comments like:
“I won’t let my kid walk all over me.”
“My children better behave.”
“I’m tough on them because I don’t want them to end up on drugs or in jail.”
“Kids need a parent, not a friend.”
“Quit crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.”
Unfortunately, strict parents come off as unresponsive, cold, and unsupportive. You can imagine that this type of strict parenting has a negative impact of children, a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to the very things the parent fears. (Learn more about parental assumptions and how they impact discipline in Parental Assumptions & the Cycle of Discipline.) In fact, research suggests that children raised with this type of parenting:
tend to exhibit more rebellion, anger, aggression, and delinquency,
lie more often,
are more likely to be unhappy and suffer from depression,
develop extrinsic motivation and show less initiative and perseverance as a result,
lack self-esteem and confidence in decision-making,
tend to have greater peer rejection and relationship problems, especially in romantic relationships,
All that being said, our children do need structure, limits, and rules, don’t they? Don’t parents need to enforce those rules and limits? Good questions… and the answer is “yes.” Not all strict parenting is dangerous. Some is beneficial. It all depends on at least two things.
What motivates the parent to be strict. Strict rules and limits become dangerous when parental fear motivates their creation and enforcement. They become even more dangerous when that fear leads to parental attempts to control. However, rules and limits motivated by a sincere desire to teach accountability and responsibility, to instill self-discipline and an awareness of others, and to encourage healthy self-reliance can lead to a positive outcome…especially when combined with #2 below.
The type of relationship the parent builds with their child. When a parent builds a responsive, nurturing relationship with their child, they know what structure and limits will most benefit their child at their current maturity level. Their child will also respond better to the limits when they feel their parent listens and is responsive to their needs. Building a warm, caring relationship contributes to a child who desires to please their parent by obeying rules and limits appropriate to their maturity level. All-in-all, the stronger the parent-child relationship, the less likely the rules feel strict. Instead, they become an expression of love and a much-desired safety net. (Learn more in What “Master” Parents Do.)
Perhaps we can sum this up with two familiar formulas:
Rules without Relationships contributes to Rebellion in the parent-child relationship.
A recent study from the University of California—Davis explored teens who bully and who they bully. The study followed 3,000 eighth, ninth, and tenth grade students over the course of a school year. They discovered that teens who bullied often bullied their friends not strangers or those of lower social status. In fact, they uncovered five interesting patterns.
Teens who were friends in the fall but not in the spring were three times more likely to bully or victimize each other in the spring.
Teens who remained friends for the entire year, however, were four times more likely to bully one another in the spring. Interestingly, teens bullied those who remained their friend more often than those who did not remain friends with them.
Teens who had overlapping friendships were “roughly three times” more likely to bully one another than those who did not have overlapping friendships.
Teens who share the same bullies or the same victims are more than twice as likelyto bully each other.
Finally, being bullied by a friend is painful. It is associated with a significant increase in symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The researchers believe that this information suggests that bullying behavior comes with social rewards. It leads to an increase in social status. In other words, teens were climbing the social ladder of adolescence by bullying their friends. Teens get caught up in popularity. They base their self-concept on the popularity of their social media posts and their popularity at school. They seem to equate popular with acceptance and will do almost anything to get accepted…even if it means bullying a friend to move up the ladder of acceptance in the popular crowd.
With this in mind, what can a parent do to help decrease bullying?
Develop a secure relationship with your child. Spend time with your child. Let them know that you love and accept them. Learn about their interests. Support and encourage their dreams. As you develop a strong relationship with your teen, they will feel less pull to “need” the status of popularity among their peers.
Involve your children and teens in groups that encourage teamwork. Rather than competing for popularity, teamwork encourages teens to cooperate and work together for a common goal, to encourage one another and support one another’s growth for the good of the team.
Involve your children and teens in groups that encourage community and service. This might include church groups, scouting groups, or service groups. These groups can teach your teen to work with others in serving and accomplishing goals rather than competing to be more popular than the other guy. Teens can also learn to accept and appreciate one another’s gifts in working toward a common goal while volunteering in the community.
On a slightly different note, keep your marriage strong. At least one study reveal that teens who see their parents as loving toward one another are less likely to engage in cyberbullying. Invest in your marriage.
By implementing these three tips, you lessen the chance of your child becoming a bully to “climb the social ladder” of peer relationships. They’ll be kinder. They’ll be happier. And so will you.
Two recent studies explored the relationship between adolescents, video games, and internet use. Unwrapping the first study reveals a surprise. A research team from UCL, Karolinska Institute, and the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute reviewed data from 11,341 adolescents born between 2000-2002. At the age of 11 years, these adolescents answered questions about their time spent on social media, time spent playing video games, and general internet use. They also answered questions about their mood, any loss of pleasure, and levels of concentration at the age 14 years. After ruling out other potential factors, the research team found that boys who played video games most days at age 11 had 24% fewer depressive symptoms at the age of 14 than did boys who played video games less than one time a mouth. Somewhat surprisingly, moderate video game playing at 11 years of age was associated with fewer depressive symptoms at 14 years of age.
A second study, published in Child Development, gathered data from a study involving 1,750 high school students over a three-year period, through the ages of 16, 17, and 18 years. This study explored risk factors contributing to problematic internet use (or internet addiction). The research suggested three harmful effects of problematic internet use and each of these effects had a reciprocal relationship with internet use. In other words, problematic internet use increased these negative outcomes and these negative outcomes increased problematic internet use. The negative outcomes included higher levels of depression, increased substance abuse, and lower levels of academic achievement. We all want to avoid those outcomes. So, what risk factors contributed to problematic internet use? And what can you do about it?
A lack of satisfying relationships or the perceived inadequacy of social networks contributed to problematic internet use. In other words, loneliness predicts problematic internet use. With that in mind, involve your children in community. Enroll them in scouting, sports, dance lessons, theatre, or other group activities. Involve them in a local church youth group. Give them the opportunities to develop relationships with peers and other trusted adults in the community.
Parenting practices, as perceived by the teen, contributed to the level of teen internet use. Parenting perceived as warm, empathetic, interested, and close led to healthy internet use. Parenting perceived as neglectful, being inconsistently available and consistently unresponsive, predicted problematic internet use. This draws attention to the need to build a positive connection with your children. Take time to develop a warm, loving relationship by spending time together and engaging in activities together. Talk, go on outings together, worship together, attend their concerts and sporting events, share meals together. Invest time and attention in developing a positive, loving relationship with your children. (By the way, did you know your parenting style could be killing you?)
Paternal neglect, neglect by a father, had a particularly strong relationship to problematic internet use. Dads, get involved with your children. If you need ideas for involvement in your children’s lives, check out the “cheat codes for Dads.”
A study published in a 2020 issue of Development and Psychology offers an important warning for parents (Does ‘Harsh Parenting’ Lead to Smaller Brains?). Researchers from the Université de Montréal in partnership with researchers from Stanford University monitored parenting practices and child anxiety levels every year while the children were between the ages of 2 years and 9 years. Then between the ages of 12 and 16 years, the researchers assessed the same children’s anxiety levels. They also performed MRI’s. What this data revealed serves as an important warning to all parents. Here it is: Repetitive exposure to harsh parenting practices during childhood led to smaller brain structures in adolescence. These practices also contributed to higher anxiety levels in adolescence. Consider these results carefully:
First, we need to consider what “harsh parenting practices” entail. For this study, harsh parenting practices included getting angry, hitting (spanking or smacking), shaking, and/or yelling. Harsh parenting practices fell short of legally abusive practices. In fact, many people find the parenting practices included in the definition of “harsh parenting practices” acceptable. Yet, according to this study, these harsh practices have a potentially negative impact on our children… which brings us to the next bullet point.
Harsh parenting practices have a negative impact when used repetitively, when they become your normal pattern of parenting. If you have a bad day and behave harshly on occasion, it will likely not have a large negative impact on your child. But a consistent, repetitive pattern of harsh parenting will have a negative impact. That being said, we do our best to avoid even rare occasions of harsh parenting because of the potential negative impact it can have over time.
The impact of harsh parenting practices actually changed the physical structure of the children’s brains in this study. Those who experienced a high degree of harsh parenting exhibited a smaller prefrontal cortex and a smaller amygdala. These two areas of the brain play a key role in regulating emotions. In other words, the physical changes to the brain in response to harsh parenting makes it more likely that your child will more be overwhelmed by his or her emotions, leading them to shut down, cry, or act impulsively behaviors in response to overwhelming emotions such as desire, fear, sadness, or loneliness.
The brain regions impacted by harsh parenting also play a role in the development of anxiety. Harsh parenting then, may contribute to anxiety.
Perhaps children need to come with a warning label: “Beware. Consistent use of harsh discipline measures is hazardous to your child’s brain development and mental health.”
Now that we know the warning, how can we effectively discipline our children? Here are a couple of quick principles to keep in mind.
Children learn best by example.Live the life you desire them to learn.
Children learn best within the context of a positive relationship. Invest time and energy in developing a positive relationship with your children. Learn about their interests. Spend time playing, eating, and talking together.
Children thrive in a predictable and structured (not rigid) environment. Develop daily routines and rituals to help structure the day. Good routines actually help to discipline proactively, before a problem even arises.
Children learn best when they know the rules and the rules are age-appropriate. Take time to establish concise, age-appropriate rules in your home. Communicate them clearly to your children.
These four principles lay the groundwork for a positive style of parenting within which your children will thrive, a parenting style based on an appropriate balance of intimate relationship and appropriate structure.
The pandemic lingers on. Even as vaccines become more readily available, cases rise and fall. Schools go in-person only to return to hybrid model before going back to in-person with every fluctuation in COVID cases. News of “variants,” “surges,” and “waves” keep us all vigilant. On top of it all, many of us are simply exhausted after having already spent a year struggling with pandemic related changes. Our children in particular struggle with this current environment of constant change and lack of predictability. They may respond by engaging in risky behaviors. Or they may, like adults, experience an increase in depression or anxiety. Fortunately, we are not powerless in this situation. We can help each one of our family members survive this time. We can encourage and even assist one another in developing healthy coping skills through these turbulent times. Here are five suggestions to begin.
Encouraging healthy coping during the current pandemic and its related stressors begins with conversation. Acknowledge your children’s current struggles. Talk about the struggles and frustrations. Speak about the boredom. Discuss the loneliness, the fears, and the losses related to the pandemic. Remember, everything is more manageable when we can talk about it with someone, and we can talk about anything within our families.
Create healthy schedules. The pandemic has robbed us of the typical structures that provide predictable schedules. School, work, churches, community groups—they have all changed, closed, or gone online. Without a predictable schedule we tend to feel insecure. This is especially true for our children. Creating a schedule in your home can provide the predictability and security under which our children thrive. Ironically, a routine and schedule can add meaning and purpose to our lives and our children’s lives as well. Be sure to include mealtimes, school time, play time, and even game time and free time in your schedule.
Build daily routines of connection into your family schedule. Online school is lonely. Online work provides less interaction. But humans are social creatures. We need social connection just like we need air to breath. Build daily opportunities for your children to connect with you throughout the day. This may involve mealtimes, play time, or free time. It may simply mean pulling up a chair to “check in” with your child or teen.
Our children also need to socialize with peers. Parents cannot provide all their children’s social needs. Children and teens need peer interaction. So, create opportunities for your children to socialize with other children. Plan a time for your child to get together with their one or two of their peers at a park. Allow your children invite a friend over to play in your yard. Let your children go for a walk or a bike ride together. Any of these activities provide a safe way for our children to socialize. You can also set up opportunities for your children to interact with one another through zoom, face time, or some other social app.
Although social media provides a way to build social connection, a parent also needs to monitor social media use to assure appropriate usage. Determine how you will monitor social media consumption in your house. Possible ideas include utilizing a common area to charge phones overnight, shared passwords to allow periodic review of incoming media, and tech-free times (such as dinner). Also, don’t let your children get caught up in FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) because everyone looks like they’re having so much fun without me on social media. Talk about the false images portrayed on social media as we all post our happy times and best face.
These five ideas can help you keep your family emotionally healthy during the pandemic. What other ideas do you have?
I have friends who love football, soccer, baseball, basketball…really any sport. They watch all the games. They know the players’ names, backgrounds, and achievements. They can recite various players’ position, height, and weight. They can rattle off statistics about a favored player’s style of play and perhaps even tell you the names of the player’s wife and children. They have an amazing grasp on the knowledge of the sport and the players they love.
Some of these men, though, have trouble telling me the name of even one of their children’s friends, even though they live with their child. They have difficulty recalling their anniversary date or their spouse’s birthday, even though they see their spouse every day. They have no mental model of their family members’ lives or world. In the words of John Gottman, they lack a love mapof their partner and children.
This raises questions in my mind…questions about priority and honor. We make time to learn about those things we love. We spend time being with and learning about the things we value. We talk about the things we love. We develop a complete and exhaustive “love map” of those things we enjoy and love. So, let me pose a couple of questions to consider:
Based on your knowledge base, what receives a higher priority: the sport you love or your spouse and children? Which do you know the most about?
Do you know more stats about your favorite athlete or your spouse? Your children?
Are you more familiar with the world of sports or the world of your spouse (life story, friends, hobbies, dreams, favorite clothing style, struggles)?
Are you more familiar with the world of sports or the world of your children (favorite school subjects, friends, frenemies, dreams, struggles, hobbies)?
Do you invest more time and effort to learn about your favorite sport or your spouse? Your favorite athlete or your children?
The point is, we need to become intimately familiar with the world our family members navigate on a daily basis. We need to develop a “love map” of our spouse and our children. It will show that you “buy in” to your marriage and your family. It will reveal how much you value your spouse and your children. It will strengthen your marital relationship by giving you a deeper understanding and appreciation of your spouse. It will nurture a healthier relationship with your children as well (which will also make discipline easier). So, get to know the family stats—the dreams, the life story, the thoughts, the fears, the joys, the list goes on…. You will have fun learning the information and you will nurture a stronger family at the same time.
Every father has a superpower. No, he cannot leap over tall buildings in a single bound, run faster than a speeding locomotive, or fly through the sky like a plane. Still, every father has this unique superpower. Actually, this superpower is more practical and more powerful than those displayed in the movies. A father’s superpower is much more important than those superpowers. A study published in 2020 revealed this superpower after analyzing data collected on 5,000 children…and now we need to encourage fathers to use it. What is this superpower?
The study revealed that a father’s involvement in his children’s lives between the ages of 5 to 15 years was a superpower. It’s true. This superpower saved his children from the villains of behavioral and emotional problems as they matured. The superpower of involvement included participating in activities like feeding his children, playing with his children, reading to his children, and helping his children with homework. Involvement also included providing noncash items like clothing, toys, food, and other necessities for his children. This superpower of involvement was more influential than mere monetary support. Monetary support is a fake superhero, an imposter trying to elicit the joys of the true superhero without the sacrifice and love, a greedy villain.
The true superpower of a father is involvement in his children’s lives. His involvement protects his children from the villains of depression, worrying, bullying, and other insidious crooks (aka, negative behaviors).
So, forget the cape (unless you really want to wear one), toss aside the mask (well, when COVID is over), and get involved in your children’s lives. Then, “Bam…,” “Boom…,” “Kablam…,” the villains are out and Dad is in the house! And, he’s enjoying a lifetime, loving relationship with his children.
When it comes to parenting, some of the most powerful interventions appear small and insignificant. For instance, the simple, small act of saying “thank you” to our children on a consistent basis has a powerful impact on their self-image and their behavior. Another small but powerful intervention involves the arrangement of three little letters combined into a single word.
Consider the power of three little letters arranged to spell the word “AND.” “AND” helps a child learn they can be angry AND remain polite. They can understand that they don’t enjoy doing chores AND they can still do them, even getting them done well. Or, more importantly, they can come to appreciate that you, their parent, discipline them AND you love them more than words can say. You can even be upset with them AND remain present, available, and consistent.
“AND” is good for our parenting philosophy as well. It informs us that we have a great child AND they misbehave at times, even making mistakes that require correction. We can feel bad disciplining our child AND know we discipline them because we love them and want the best for them. We can hurt for our child when they experience the consequences of poor choices AND let them experience those consequences and learn from them.
We find another powerful combination of three little letters in the word “YET.” “Yet” carries the power of hope and the potential for change. It communicates faith in our child’s ability to learn and grow. Think about it. I can’t ride a bike…YET. I can’t stand up in front of my classmates to give a speech…YET. I can’t cook…YET. I can’t drive a car…YET. “YET” transforms each of these temporary limitations into a hope, an anticipation of future success.
“YET” does the same for parents. I can’t get my children into a good bedtime routine…YET. I can’t stay calm when my children scream…YET. I can’t stand another week of on-line school…YET. Each “YET” reveals an expectation that I can learn and grow as a parent. Each “YET” communicates that I am not the parent I want to be…YET, but here is still hope. I can learn and grow. I can become a better parent…YET.
Three little letters combined into a single word with the power to transform, communicate acceptance, offer hope, and anticipate growth. Use them wisely.
Memories help shape our identity. They reveal our priorities and impact how we view the world around us. As parents, we want our children to have wonderful memories that support their happiness, resilience, and maturity. With that in mind, here are two principles you can implement to help your children recall their greatest memories.
We remember best those times and moments that gave us the greatest reward. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not talking about creating flashy and spectacular memories. I’m talking about creating the most rewarding memories. What do our children find most rewarding? Our time and attention. The greatest reward our children desire is to have enough of our time and attention to connect with us on a deep level. Their greatest memories will be of those times they spend with people, times in which they interacted and connected with others. Give your children your time and attention so they will have a multitude of wonderful memories in which they had your full attention for long enough to really connect…joyful times of connection.
We remember best those experiences that we recall and relive often. Each time we recall a memory, we strengthen the neural activity that keeps it strong. We solidify its formation in our brain. In other words, talking about the wonderful times we experience with our family strengthens our memories of these wonderful times. Tell the stories of the “amazing catch” or the “time it poured while we were camping.” Laugh again at that funny experience with the cat. Recall the awe of watching the sunset or the awful smell of the monkeys at the zoo. Talk about it. Reflect on the emotions experienced. Recall the sensations stimulated. Relive those moments of love, connection, and joy. The more you do, the stronger the memory will grow.
Sounds simple doesn’t it? Just spend time connecting with your children over fun, joyous experiences and then talk about those experiences. It really isn’t hard. But it will give your children the memories of a lifetime, memories on which to build a life of joy.
Fathers have a superpower, a superpower that contributes to their children’s emotional future. What is this superpower? Play! Yes, play. Researchers at Cambridge University and the Lego Foundation uncovered this superpower in a review they completed of 78 studies. Each study examined the impact of fathers playing with their children (zero to three-years-old). The results were published in the Developmental Review in September, 2020. Let me share two of the findings from this review.
Father-child play tended to be more physical than mother-child play. Fathers were hands on. They liked to pick up their infants and engage in rough and tumble play with their toddlers. They enjoyed playing chase and wrestling, swinging, and bouncing.
Father-child play improved emotional and behavioral outcomes. Specifically, more father-child play was associated with less hyperactivity and fewer behavioral problems in school. More play with fathers contributed to the children exhibiting a better ability to control their aggression. The children also exhibited fewer emotional or physical outbursts during disagreements at school.
It seems that physical play with dad helped children develop better emotional and behavioral self-regulation. The authors believe this improved self-regulation occurs in at least three ways.
During the rough and tumble play, fathers model self-regulation by controlling their own strength, actions, and words. Children also control their own strength, actions, and words to avoid “hurting” their dad. Of course, seeing self-regulation modeled and engaging in self-regulation themselves is a wonderful practice in self-control.
During rough and tumble play, a father or child may experience an accidental minor hurt (a foot gets stepped on, a ball bounces the wrong way and smacks someone in the face). When such an accident occurs, that play stops momentarily to make sure everyone is OK. Then the fun continues. Both have survived the minor accident. Both have learned to better control themselves to avoid similar hurts in the future.
During father-child rough and tumble play, children may also experience times in which they “get carried away” and Dad must slow the play down. Their children follow suit, learning to better regulate their behavior and emotions.
This all adds up to children who learn better emotional and behavioral regulation from their Dad’s superpower, play! Now get out their Dad and put that superpower to use. Play with your child today!