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.
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.
Who doesn’t want happy children? We all do…well, at least I know I do. But we often forget to teach them the skills and mindsets that contribute to happiness. No worries. It’s not too late. Now is the best time to start teaching them happiness. And here are 7 lessons to get started.
Teach your children gratitude. Happy people, just like the rest of us, have plenty of things to complain about but they have learned to focus on those things they are grateful for. They have learned to “give thanks in all things.” Teach your children to practice gratitude.
Teach your children to find their “flow.” Flow is an experience in which a person is fully immersed and involved in an activity they enjoy. Flow leaves us feeling energized and fulfilled. It is intrinsically rewarding and motivating. Help your child find those activities that give them a sense of flow. Such activities may include sports, dance, music, reading, yoga, hiking, or many others [For more read What is Flow in Psychology: Definition and 10+ Activities.].
Teach your child to celebrate the achievements of other people. Teach them there are plenty of opportunities for success and achievement to go around. Celebrate the successes of others. It is a great pathway to happiness.
Teach your child to take healthy risks. Teach them to enjoy an adventure, to leave their comfort zone to try something new or to go someplace new. People who try new things, meet new people, and go to new places tend to experience happiness as well.
Teach your children to persist. One way to do this is by acknowledging their efforts instead of their achievements. Acknowledging effort encourages persistence, even in the face of obstacles. Persistence contributes to happiness.
Teach your children to share. Studies have shown that toddlers who choose to share exhibit greater happiness. When you nurture your growing child’s willingness to share, you also nurture their happiness for a lifetime.
Teach your child that you love them. Remember, children have two currencies for love: time and attention. So spend time with your children. Engage them daily, even multiple times a day. Follow their lead in an activity. Recognize and acknowledge their contributions to the home, their efforts in school and their involvement in the community. Learn about their interests.
These seven things may not sound like much on the surface, but they will bring your child greater happiness…and that makes most parents happy as well.
Effective parents do this all the time. Although this skill undergirds almost everything else an effective parent does, we rarely talk about it. When do effective parents do this? Before they discipline, before they step in to help, before they assign a chore, before answering a question (like “Where do babies come from?”), and before granting a privilege represent just few of the time a parent will do this. What is “this” that effective parents do this often? They observe their children deeply and sensitively.
Sensitive observation involves listening as well as watching. It begins at birth (if not in utero) and continues for a lifetime. Sensitive observation carries many benefits. Observation helps them build a stronger relationship with their child. It also gives a parent wisdom and power as they discipline and teach their child. How does it do this?
Sensitive observation teaches a parent about their child. They learn to recognize the signals of boredom, tiredness, and hunger. With this knowledge a parent can intervene in the wisest manner possible when inappropriate behavior arises. They can respond differently when inappropriate behavior is a response to hunger or tiredness than when it is a ploy for power or a testing of limits.
Sensitive observation also helps a parent differentiate between a child’s needs or problem behaviors and their own parental fears and projections. It helps a parent recognize their own escalating fears as opposed to the objective difficulty of a situation. A parent who engages in sensitive observation of their children does not have to take on their children’s failures or mistakes. They can allow their children to learn from those moments instead. They do not feel the need to rescue their children for poor time management or simple neglect. Instead, they can allow their children to experience the consequences and grow. On the other hand, a parent who engages in sensitive observation does not have to gloat in their children’s success. They can allow their children to enjoy their own success and the effort they invested to achieve that success.
Sensitive observation allows a parent to trust their child’s developing cognitive and motor skills. It allows a parent to recognize their child’s competence and ability. This will also provide a parent with wisdom regarding when and what household activities to invite a child to participate in. It will allow a parent to step back and allow their children to take appropriate risks within the scope of their children’s abilities.
Sensitive observation allows a parent to accept and acknowledge their child’s emotions…all of them. With sensitive observation a parent can exhibit empathy while remaining confident in their own ability to hear, support and problem-solve with their child rather than shame, guilt, or distract. They will be able to accept their children’s emotions and hold them safely while helping their children learn to express and manage them effectively.
Sensitive observation is a powerful parenting tool we all need to use. So put on the glasses, open the ears, and observe your children. You might even discover how amazing your children actually are.
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?
Are you a martyr parent? Martyr parents love their children. They want their children to succeed. But they also harbor fears. They fear their child will feel bad when they don’t succeed. They fear their child will misbehave when frustrated by a task or limit. They fear their child’s self-esteem will falter if they don’t succeed easily and quickly. They fear feeling their own pain when they witness their child’s discomfort. (Why do I have to do everything?)
All these fears make them anxious every time their child struggles, becomes frustrated, or gets upset with a limit. As a result, martyr parents do whatever they can to alleviate their child’s frustration, stress, and anger.
Rather than let their child struggle with a homework assignment or coach them in asking their teacher for help, they do the homework for them. Rather than helping their child realize they can’t do every activity they would like, the martyr parent sacrifices their time and sanity to rush them from activity to activity. Martyr parents argue with teachers to reduce the homework that stresses their child. They give up their finances to get them everything they desire rather than risk their child’s tantrum over a strong limit or a firm “no.” (Learn to give A More Powerful No for Effective Parenting.)
In the process their child never develops the coping skills needed to deal with life. They don’t learn that their choices have consequences. They don’t learn how to prioritize and decide which activities they will pursue and which they will sacrifice due to time and financial constraints. They don’t learn problem-solving skills.
Instead, they witness their parents advocating for lower expectations around homework and chores. They witness parents saving them from stressful decisions or work struggles. They listen to their parents complain about time and finances as they rush from one activity to another. The implicit message they hear is, “You can’t do this on your own. You’re not capable. You’re incompetent. But everyone will sacrifice everything to make life easier for you.” Worse, they begin to believe that message and so avoid the difficult task. They let their parent do the work. Their growth is limited and their self-confidence struggles. (Sometimes it’s best for Good Parents to Do Nothing.)
What can a parent do to break out of the role of a martyr parent?
Realize that doing everything for your child is hurting them and you. They will become more competent and confident as you step back and quit doing everything for them…and Give Your Child the Gift of Confidence instead.
Think of one area in which you are willing to step back and let your child engage in the struggle or face the consequences. Schoolwork is often a great place to start.
Take on the role of coach and teacher rather than fixer. Coach your child in understanding their options and let them problem-solve. Teach them the limits and the reason for the limits. Then teach them that choices have consequences by holding them accountable to the limits. Let them face the consequences of poor grades due to incomplete homework or loss of activity due to not doing a chore. Teach them that choices have consequences.
Decide how much time, energy, and finances you can invest in your children’s activities. Set a reasonable limit on activities based on those resources. That may mean limiting your child to one or two extracurricular activities at any one time. Then coach your child in thinking through their schedule and helping them prioritize what they like the most. Let them decide what they will continue or stop based on the limited resources available. (Managing Your Child’s Schedule…or Seeking Balance in the Devil’s Playground.)
Let your children stumble. You may see this as letting them fail. It’s ok. They don’t have to succeed at everything. They can mess up. They can have a bad day. They can be ordinary in some activity or skill…AND still be healthy, happy people. In fact, teach your children that failure is information, an opportunity to learn what does not work. Teach them to use the information gained through failure to “do better next time.” Teach your child to love mistakes.
These 5 steps will free you from the stress of being a martyr parent and allow your child to grow more competent, confident, and self-assured.
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.
We all know it’s true…so why do we do it? We know we can’t by our children’s happiness with material goods & gifts, but we try. Our children look upset and we buy them something to “lift their spirits.” We feel guilty because they seem so angry and disappointed after we discipline them, so we assuage our guilt and their anger with a gift. We hope it will make them happy. But a recent study demonstrates that giving gifts does not increase our children’s happiness. Well, sort of….
Specifically, this study demonstrated that children over 12-years-old derive more happiness from experiences than from material things. In other words, our children over 12-years-old are going to experience more happiness if we do something fun with them than if we give them a gift.
Children between the ages of 3- and 12-years-old, on the other hand, did derive more happiness from material things than experiences. But there is a caveat. This age group still loves experiences (just consider the joy of Chuckie Cheese, amusement parks, and trampoline parks). Developmentally, however, they need a physical reminder to jump start their remembrance of the experience and so experience the happiness it gave them. In other words, experiences provide an enduring happiness for children between 3- and 12-years-old as well…IF they have a picture or a small token to remind them of the experience. For children over 12-years-old, these reminders are not necessary. They simply find more joy in the experience than in the possession (see The ESSENCE of Adolescence & Love Your Teen’s Risky Behavior for More).
All this being said, our children will find greater happiness when they enjoy experiences with us. While you enjoy the experience, take a picture or two. Buy a souvenir. Talk about the experience and replay the happiness often (Learn How to Give Your Children the Memories of a Lifetime). Do this and children of all ages (0 to 99-years-old) will experience greater happiness.
I know. It sounds obvious. But children thrive when their parents have a loving relationship. It makes sense. For the couple, research shows sharing life with a long-term loving partner has many benefits, like a longer lifespan, less incidences of heart disease, greater financial well-being, and greater life satisfaction. All of this benefits the children living with happily married parents as well. Even more, children living with happily married parents experience benefits beyond parents that live longer, healthier, and wealthier!
In fact, kids thrive when their parents are in love. A study completed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2009 suggests that the quality of the parents’ marriage contributed as much to their children’s future mental and physical health as the children’s relationship with the either individual parent. Other studies have shown that children who live with parents who love each other stay in school longer and exhibit fewer challenging behaviors. Living with happily married parents simply creates an environment more conducive to happiness than parents who argue, fight, and threaten. Happily married parents provide children with a sense of security. In other words, your healthy marriage is important to your children’s physical and mental health.
So, how do you keep your marriage strong and loving? One way to keep your marriage strong is to spend time together. Time spent together and attention are the currencies of strong relationships, even in marriage. Here are some hints to spend time together.
Go for a walk together.
Schedule a time to talk everyday over coffee.
Try a new activity together.
Put a movie on, snuggle up on the couch, and watch it together. You can even use the movie as a starting point to talk about your Love Story.
Find a babysitter and have a date night. If you can’t afford a babysitter maybe you can make a deal with a family friend. You can watch their children one night and they can watch your children another day.
Have a picnic in the back yard. Stay out late enough to enjoy the stars.
Go to the park.
Spending time with your spouse is a gift you give to your spouse, your children, and yourself. It strengthens your marriage and creates a happier home in which your children can thrive. What are your favorite ways to spend time with your spouse?