Being a calm, laid back parent is something that most parents aspire to. We all realise that we are the architects of our children’s personalities, the single biggest influence on them. And it is not just the things that we plan to teach them that they learn from but from every single thing that we say and do.
Children are like little sponges, soaking up what goes on in their environment in order to work out their rules for living; beliefs about themselves (either ‘I am good enough’ or ‘I am not’), beliefs about others (both how to treat others and expectations about how they will be treated by others) and beliefs about the world (whether it is a safe place or not).
These rules will determine their psychological well-being both now and for the rest of their lives; the likelihood that they will experience mental health problems like anxiety and depression is set in these early years. So if you shout, they will learn to shout, if you push and grab, they will push and grab, if you smack, they will smack.
This is an enormous pressure, especially because as usual the theory is one thing, the practice, another ball game entirely. So the Clinical Psychologists and Counselling Psychologists at The British CBT & Counselling Service have put together some tips to help parents keep their cool and so teach their children to do the same.
1. Understand what is going on
A good plan and the good execution of that plan starts with a comprehensive understanding of what is going on. Start with yourself. What does your child’s behaviour provoke in you, what meaning are you attaching to it? Do you feel that your child’s behaviour means that they don’t respect you, don’t love you, don’t care about you. Is their behaviour triggering memories of when you were a child? When you have identified what you are bringing to the table put this to one side, this is not about you, work through your stuff at another time, with your friends, partner, a therapist, but not with your child.
Once you have cleared away your stuff (and any accompanying feelings of anxiety, anger or depression) it will be easier to think about your child and what is going on for them, meeting their needs is the goal of parenting so try to stay focused on this. What is your child trying to communicate with their behaviour, what needs are they trying to get met? Are they anxious about something, angry, sad? If they are old enough sit down with them quietly and try and work it out together, giving them the message that they are important but also teaching them that the best way to sort out a problem is to think it through with someone that you love and trust.
Our best and most successful relationships are with those whom we can empathise, so improve your relationship with your child by putting yourself in their shoes.
2. Work out alternatives in advance
Few people think well on their feet, even fewer when they are faced with a screaming toddler, defiant pre-schooler or surly adolescent. Strong emotions always make it harder to see all the options so prepare some in advance.
As a general rule the best approach to parenting is to ignore the bad (as much as it is safe to) and celebrate the good. So if your child is ‘melting down’ tell them that you will speak to them once they are feeling calmer and depending on their age and ability to calm themselves, either help them to do this or give them some space to do it independently.
Try not to add fuel to the fire with your own anger, anxiety or self- doubt, step back, use the time to try and work out what is going on for both you and your child. Then based on this understanding, make a plan of action.
Time out works for some people, but if involves more than a minimal amount of interaction with you child (e.g. having to pick them up or shout at them to get them to the ‘naughty step’) it is better, if it is safe to do so, to leave the room yourself, remember, any attention is reinforcing their behaviour, good and bad.
Reward charts are a good alternative. They give children a reason to engage in a particular behaviour and offer a simple and straightforward way of encouraging the ‘good’. Put them in a prominent place and make a big deal when a star or prize is earned. Rewards for younger children should be given immediately so the association between the desired behaviour and the prize is strong and they should be reasonably easy to earn to keep the child’s interest.
3. Review and tweak your plan
No plan or way of dealing with behaviour should be written in stone. Being a parent is the steepest learning curve most of us will ever experience and it is a lifelong lesson, so constantly review and tweak the way that you do things.
Each stage presents a new challenge and as you graduate from one to another your expectations change. It doesn’t get easier as your children get older the challenges are simply different. This should allow you be tolerant of both yourself and your children and keep you thinking about what you are doing. There is no such thing as the perfect parent so try to be a thoughtful parent.
When you get it wrong, which you will despite all your best intentions, say you are sorry. This will stop your children taking responsibility for your mistakes (a tendency in children) and teach them that it is normal to make mistakes. It will also help you to manage any self-criticism, anxiety and guilt over the fact that your aren’t a perfect parent. ‘To err is human’ and an acceptance of this is pivotal in the development of self-esteem, the cornerstone of good mental health.
The secret to good mental health is a parent(s) who understands what we need and is able to then meet that need consistently. So think about why and what you say and do, empathise with your child, lead by example and learn from your mistakes.
The Clinical Psychologists and Counselling Psychologist at The British CBT & Counselling Service are available for further help and advice on parenting.