Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Five things every parent should say to their kids as often as possible

In a recent post I shared five things that every parent should avoid saying to their kids. It left me feeing pretty lousy. It’s one thing to focus on the negative, and we need to go there from time to time. But if we’re going to eliminate the negative it’s nice to know what to replace it with.

So, here are five things we might focus on saying to our children as often as possible.

Thank you

Gratitude is a powerful motivator. It makes our kids feel appreciated. And saying thank you also models manners and gratitude for them to follow. Saying thanks and explaining why you’re saying it can have a powerful impact on a relationship between parent and child.

I’m sorry. I’m still learning, just like you

Parents who act like they’re the finished product who are simply there to impart wisdom to their children leave their children feeling judged and imperfect. But when we acknowledge our mistakes and describe how we are learning to be better people because of those mistakes, our children learn that it’s ok to admit fault and try again. This is a powerful and important lesson for our kids.

I watched how much effort you put in – you seemed to give it all you had

Because parents want their children to succeed, it can be easy to always ask for more, demanding ever increasing levels of performance. The pursuit of perfection will always lead to disappointment. However, when we let our kids know we saw how hard they tried, and let them know we are satisfied while ever they do their best, they’ll be inspired to try – and they won’t feel bad if they fail. Instead, they’ll be open to learning how to do better.

I love you

Every child should hear this every day. But they shouldn’t just hear it. They need to see and experience evidence of it in all of their interactions with us.

As we say more of these beautiful and important things, and fewer of those harmful things, our kids are more likely to grow up feeling secure, confident, happy, and loved.

What do you think?

If we want to have responsible children, they need to be given responsibility. One of the most powerful ways to help them become responsible is to stop telling them what to do, and instead, to ask them what they think they should do. Then we can encourage them (or gently guide them). By asking them what they think, our children also develop a trust in their own opinions, ideas, and instincts.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Are you a snow plow parent?

Jen (not her real name) was mortified. Her eight year-old daughter, Maddy (also not her real name) had burst through the front door bawling her eyes out after her first day of school. After sobbing on her mum’s shoulder for several minutes, Maddy had finally been able to explain that third grade class allocations had left her in a room without her three best friends. She only had one friend in the new class.

Jen was livid. (I laughed when she told me, until I realised she was serious.) She stormed down the street to her daughter’s school, entered the administration building and demanded her daughter be placed in the same class as her best friends.

A taxonomy of parenting types

In recent years we have experienced an explosion in clever names for various parenting-types. Helicopter parents ‘hover’ over their children, paying close attention to anything and everything that comes into their environment, keeping them safe at all costs. Tiger mums over-parent in a different way, pushing their children to be ‘all that they can be’, driving them harder and harder towards mastery in spite of protestations and developmental norms.

Snow plow parents are another type of (arguably) over-invested parent who believe it is their role to smooth the path for their kids, pushing all of the obstacles out of the way so that they don’t have to endure hardships, bumps, and other difficulties along their ‘path’ of life. It’s another form of ‘taking control’, with an emphasis on making sure we do whatever it takes to be certain our kids have successes without needing to fail.

Is there a problem with that?

All of these parents want the best for their kids, like all parents. The difficulty lies in the way they try to bring ‘the best’ about. In all three cases, the parent appears unwilling to allow the child to experience setback and failure. In fact, the parents seems unwilling to allow the child to do anything at all that they might not do perfectly.

“Can’t make your bed properly? That’s ok… I’ll do it so it’s perfect.

“Struggling with your homework project? Here, let me handle that. I’ll ‘help’.

“Your friends don’t think the phone you’ve got is cool enough? Alright, I’ll get you a touchphone.”

I’m not advocating that we should make our kids suffer. I’m not suggesting we should leave them hanging by a thread and let them figure it all out on their own… but would that be such a bad thing if they were left dangling (figuratively speaking) and had to work out how to hang on or where to land?

Snow plow parenting promotes helplessness in kids

The quicker we push obstacles out of the way, the more our children rely on us to continue to do precisely that. They stop thinking for themselves. They don’t see themselves as people with the capacity to ‘act’. Instead, they feel that life will ‘act on them’, or that we will ‘act for them.’ Neither response to challenge is helpful. Neither response leads to development.

Teaching competence to our children

What are the times you have felt most competent or felt you had achieved something worthwhile? Was it when you were better than everyone? When you were in your element and were surrounded by supportive people? When everything worked out just right and you aced it?

Or did you feel most competent – like you had achieved something great – that time where you felt entirely isolated, where you felt like you barely had a clue how to do it, but you stuck at it. You were tenacious. You dug deep and found some determination to not let that thing beat you, even though you were doing it on your own?

While both feel good, I bet I know which one felt better. It was the one where you didn’t know if you’d get through it… the one where you encountered challenge upon challenge, and setback after setback. You probably failed, made mistakes, had to start over, and maybe even had a little cry in your pillow.

But at the end, after you pushed through it, the feeling of having achieved something hard was yours to savour. It made you stronger, more independent, and left you feeling more capable.

That is what makes for successful kids. Not parents who get all the hard stuff out of the way for them.

What to do about it?

Kids having a hard time with their musical instrument of choice? Son not wanting to keep playing that sport he begged to play? Or not in the right class with their friends at school? Or failing a subject? Or fighting with a best friend?

While we don’t want to torture our children and go all ‘tiger mum’ on them, this is where we have the opportunity to teach them about challenges and failures while they are young.

What can we do about it?

  1. Teach them that anything worthwhile takes effort
  2. Teach them that everyone fails and that’s ok. What matters is what you do next.
  3. Be patient, compassionate, supportive – and firm.
  4. Promote the idea that learning and mastery matter more than results
  5. After they’ve genuinely ‘seen it through’, let them decide.

Is there ever a time that we should remove obstacles from our kids’ path? When have you wanted to, but held back?

Friday, 22 February 2013

How to 'acknowledge' your kids rather than praising them - and why

Each Friday I'll be sharing a new video with you about parenting. Today is my first go at it... hopefully you'll enjoy it. Any questions? Ask them in the comments below and I'll do my best to answer them promptly.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Taking Marriage for Granted?

Last Thursday was Valentine’s Day. It’s a day where, traditionally, couples celebrate their love and devotion to one another by doing something romantic – writing special love notes, buying gifts, eating out.

Valentine’s Day is something that I have typically scoffed at. I don’t need a day to re-pledge my love to my wife. I believe that I do that every single day. I do it with every hug, kiss, or touch. I do it with every “I love you” and every “thank you.” , and I especially don’t need that day to be packaged and wrapped deeply in commercialism.

A Fresh Perspective

This year, I’ve had a change of heart.

It was only a small thing, but it dawned on me that, in spite of our regular dates, Valentine’s Day is an opportunity to show that I am not taking my wife for granted. It’s something I never thought I would do. But I think that on some level, and in spite of our deep love and affection for one another, I have come to simply accept and expect that Kylie will be there each morning, and that she will do her ‘jobs’ as I do mine, and that things won’t change.

The realisation of just how easy it becomes to take our spouses for granted hit me when I asked my friends what they were doing for Valentine’s Day. I could categorise the responses into three separate types of response – the annoyed, the apathetic, and the busy:
“I don’t need a commercialised day of public devotion where I’m supposed to spend money or time on my spouse. How pathetic.”

“Pfft. Nothing. He knows I love him. I cook his meals and clean for him. If he wants to do something for Valentine’s Day it’s up to him.”

“We have a meeting, plus I’m organising that thing for Friday, etc etc”
In fact, as I asked around, I didn’t speak to anyone at all who had plans for Valentine’s Day… until I bumped into some newlywed friends of mine who had arranged for a picnic. Something there perhaps? Young love doesn’t take itself for granted?

Celebrating Love

If we don’t celebrate our relationships, invest in them, and make them a priority, they fall apart. They simply have to. For anything to flourish and thrive – or even to simply keep working – we have to service it, maintain it, give it attention. And in no place is this more evident than in our family relationships.

I’ll admit it. Where once Kylie and I used to stand on the balcony and wave to one another as we drove out of the driveway (after kissing like we might never see one another again), nowadays we often fail to even kiss. In fact, oftentimes we are so distracted that we barely look up from the computer or whatever task it is that occupies our attention.

This Valentine’s Day just gone has been a reminder to me that we need to celebrate our love. And we show that best through time and attention.

A prominent psychologist had been married to her husband about a year. Her birthday was approaching and she told him:
“I’m not mercenary, but I like a good present.”
His response was something along the lines of “Isn’t it the thought that counts.” To which she replied
That’s what people say when they don’t want to put thought into it.”
While some might argue that we don’t need Valentine’s Day, with it’s crass commercialism and shallow pronunciations of ‘love’, we do need to celebrate our love. February 14 is a great time to start, but we can and should be finding little things to do every day – literally every day – that demonstrate those same feelings.

How did we celebrate? 

A tasty long lunch, a romantic dinner for seven (Kylie and I plus our five kids) in our dining room with the kids, and a promise to kiss and wave goodbye on the balcony whenever one of us leaves.

Kylie and I have been married 15 years next month. We love each other deeply. In spite of our time together, our children, and our commitment and love for one another it’s easy to become complacent in our relationship. But happy families are incompatible with taking one another for granted.

Watching others and changing the way we do things made this Valentine’s Day a great reminder that love needs continued momentum to grow stronger.

What do you think of Valentine’s Day? Did you celebrate, or do you see it as just another one of those triumphs of commercialism over common sense?

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

How do I deal with an angry child?

This email came through to me last week:
“Hi Dr Justin

“Would love some tips on helping my 6 yr old unpack his anger.

“We try and encourage him to use his words as much as possible, with a pretty good hit rate. We try to model the same (as much as we can remember to! At the moment we get a lot of stamping off, shouting & screaming (just leave me alone), hitting back (esp if his 4 yr old sister is winding him up!) etc.

“Our current approach is "It's ok to be angry, it's not ok to (hit, scream at mummy etc).  If you are feeling angry, take yourself to your room or the bathroom to calm down. Come back when you feel ready.' When he's ready we try and have a chat about what made him so cross & give him some options to try next time if he feels himself getting wound up.

“Any suggestions welcome because it seems to be happening regularly at the moment & I'm finding it a bit exasperating!
My response:

There are few things more exasperating than dealing with an out-of-control, angry child. Staying cool amid temper tantrums, screaming and shouting, foot-stomping, door-slamming uninhibited aggression directed at you is no easy task!

Remain calm – emotions are contagious

I generally agree with what you’re doing to work with your son as he deals with his anger. It’s great that you refrain from being angry. When we get angry at our children’s anger, we simply model anger as an acceptable response to things we don’t like. Remaining calm and in control of our own emotions is an important first step to getting this right.

You may have noticed that when your children are angry, the natural response is to be angry as well. Emotions are contagious. We mirror what we experience from others. Unfortunately our natural responses are often unhelpful. And anger falls into that category… plus, it is addictive. The power that comes from our anger appears to solve our problems (at least in the short term), so we rely on it more. Being calm is the first critical step to helping our children control their anger.

Ask questions to teach

When your son is verbally and physically aggressive, I’d recommend some intervention. It may not always be possible in the heat of the moment. As you would have experienced, children don’t typically respond well to guidance when they are angry. It is often best to wait until things are calm and then have a reasoned discussion about the issue. I always recommend that we ask questions more than we give answers/lectures. By so doing, we can work out what our child understands and then just fill in the gaps. We also encourage them to do the thinking, which encourages internalisation of rules much more effectively than when they do the listening.

Parents are not for hitting

Some limits need to be set immediately. If your son is hitting, he needs to understand what hands are for, and what they are not for. Clearly let him know
“Mummy is not for hitting.”
Other phrases, such as “Hands are for helping and being kind” can be useful to point out what is expected rather than simply emphasising what is disallowed.

Emotions are ok, behaviour is not

You seem to have a fairly good handle on this principle. I might suggest taking it a little further. Once your son is calm, talk about anger. Talk about how it’s normal to feel anger, but it’s not ok to act out in anger. Then, ask him to develop strategies and solutions for working through that anger. See if you can both identify ways that anger can be reduced, and problems can be worked on in appropriate ways.

Remember that anger costs

There are few if any times that anger might be beneficial in any way in our relationships with our children, our spouse, our parents, our colleagues... in fact, when we consider how anger plays out, it seems to be the perfect description of 'wholly unhelpful' in any context.

Responding to our children’s anger can be one of our greatest parenting challenges. It is tempting to show them who’s boss, to put them in their place, to chastise them for their ingratitude and lack of emotional regulation, and to generally dress them down and tell them to shape up.

However our patient responses, examples of kindness, and continued gentle guidance will do far more to help our children learn to regulate their anger than our angry responses. Being calm, working through emotions via careful, sensitive questions and discussion, and clear, firm limit-setting are the best antidotes to anger.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Bringing Back the ZING: Recreating Marital Satisfaction

This summary of a research project undertaken by marriage research scholars indicates that 21 minutes per year in one simple writing activity can bring back the lost ZING you might have had in your marriage, but now can't find.

Click here for the link to the research.

Here's the summary (and thanks to Wayne Jencke for the link):

21 minutes to marital satisfaction

Study shows how minimal intervention can preserve marital quality over time

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Marital satisfaction -- so critical to health and happiness – generally declines over time. A brief writing intervention that helps spouses adopt a more objective outlook on marital conflict could be the answer.

New Northwestern University research shows that this writing intervention, implemented through just three, seven-minute writing exercises administered online, prevents couples from losing that loving feeling.

"I don't want it to sound like magic, but you can get pretty impressive results with minimal intervention," said Eli Finkel, lead author of the study and professor of psychology at Northwestern.

The study involved 120 couples, half assigned the reappraisal intervention and the other not. Every four months for two years all spouses reported their relationship satisfaction, love, intimacy, trust, passion and commitment. They also provided a fact-based summary of the most significant disagreement they had experienced with their spouse in the preceding four months.

The reappraisal writing task asked participants to think about their most recent disagreement with their partner from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for all involved.

Replicating prior research, both groups exhibited declines in marital quality over Year 1. But for the spouses who experienced the reappraisal intervention -- who completed the writing exercise three times during Year 2 -- the decline in marital satisfaction was entirely eliminated. Although couples in the two conditions fought just as frequently about equally severe topics, the intervention couples were less distressed by these fights, which helped them sustain marital satisfaction.

"Not only did this effect emerge for marital satisfaction, it also emerged for other relationship processes -- like passion and sexual desire -- that are especially vulnerable to the ravages of time," Finkel said. "And this isn't a dating sample. These effects emerged whether people were married for one month, 50 years or anywhere in between."

This finding may be especially important given that low marital quality can have serious health implications, according to Finkel.

Finkel cites data that among coronary artery bypass patients, those who experienced high marital satisfaction shortly after the surgery were three times more likely to be alive 15 years later than those who experienced low marital satisfaction.

"Marriage tends to be healthy for people, but the quality of the marriage is much more important than its mere existence," Finkel said. "Having a high-quality marriage is one of the strongest predictors of happiness and health. From that perspective, participating in a seven-minute writing exercise three times a year has to be one of the best investments married people can make."

"A Brief Intervention to Promote Conflict Reappraisal Preserves Marital Quality Over Time" will be published in Psychological Science later this year. In addition to Finkel, co-authors include Erica B. Slotter of Villanova University; Laura B. Luchies of Redeemer University College; and Gregory M. Walton and James J. Gross of Stanford University.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Emotion Coaching Can Tame Your Child’s Negative Emotions


What do you do when your child has an outburst? Whether it’s anger and aggression, frustration, or even disgust? Sometimes, rather than having an outburst it may be sadness and despondency. Other times it could be anxiety and nerves.

John Gottman, author of Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child states that parents typically go for one of four reactions to their children’s (and even other adults’) negative emotions.

1. Disapproval

Our most common response to negative emotion is disapproval. This occurs when we become annoyed with our child and make aggressive statements like,

“Cut it out. Stop behaving like that. Grow up and act your age.”

Disapproval is associated with parents judging their children negatively for feeling a certain way. There is a feeling in such parents that negative emotions need to be controlled and put away – they don’t serve a productive purpose. In fact, negative emotions are a nuisance – an inconvenience, disrupting our otherwise well-ordered life.

Outcomes: Kids whose parents disapprove of their negative emotions learn that their feelings are wrong. They feel that something must be wrong with them if they feel they way they do. Over time, such children struggle to regulate their emotions, ironically, because they’re consistently being told to do so and they’re not doing a good enough job.

2. Dismissal

The next most common response to negative emotion is dismissal. While not quite as negative as disapproval, dismissal is exemplified by statements such as

“You’ll be right. Would you just get over it? It’s not that big a deal.”
Perhaps more insidious, parents often tell their children to ‘look on the bright side of life, see the silver lining, and focus on the positive.’ While well-intentioned, this response is just as dismissing as the shrug of the shoulders and the ‘get over it’ attitude mentioned first. While it is couched in having a positive attitude, the child’s emotions are still being dismissed.

Outcomes: Children whose parents dismiss their emotions feel invalidated. They may wonder why their emotions are always wrong, and have similar difficulties as those whose parents are disapproving.

3. Laissez-Faire

Some parents tend to swing to the other side of the spectrum, and rather than responding to their child’s emotions, they essentially roll with it in a laissez-faire kind of way. That is, they accept that their child is having an emotion. They sit with them and say,

“Oh, it feels awful doesn’t it.”

And they simply wait til the emotion has moved on.

Outcomes: Research indicates that such a response has a negative impact on kids’ ability to regulate their emotions. They can also have difficulties socially because of this emotion-regulation challenge.

4. Emotion Coaching

Emotion Coaching parents respond to their children’s negative emotions in a patient, teaching way. Importantly, they are ok with their child feeling negative, and see their child’s frustrations, sadness, or anger as an opportunity for becoming closer. When a child is upset, parents like this respond by
  • being aware of what our child is feeling – even when it’s subtle,
  • recognising an opportunity to connect and teach
  • offering empathy and compassion – while not necessarily condoning behaviour or attitudes that are out of line,
  • labeling emotions,
  • working with their children on setting limits around emotions (and around the issues that may have caused the emotions.
Outcomes: Children who have emotion-coaching parents recognise their emotions and become comfortable with them. As such, they regulate them better than other children. This allows them to think more clearly when stressed, develop strategies and solutions to difficulties, and work more effectively with other people. They do better in school, relationships, and wellbeing.

Which parent are you?

Most of us are a bit of all of these parents, depending on the day and time, our availability, and just how needy the kids are at that particular moment. However, we typically fall into one category in a pervasive way. And it is the pervasiveness that matters.

Our children’s negativity does not have to threaten us. And it doesn’t need ‘fixing.’ By taking a coaching mindset to our children’s challenges, we move from being the know-it-all sage who undermines their thinking and learning, to being a kind guide who models empathy, understanding, and emotional attunement. And this approach does all of the fixing by helping our children discover answers within themselves.

For more on how we can work with our children’s negative emotions, you can buy my book, “What Your Child Needs From You: Creating a Connected Family”, by clicking here.