By Joseph Sacks, LCSW
I have developed these Parenting tips based on my experience in psychotherapy and teaching, extensive research, the advice of mentors, and my experience raising my own four boys.
These suggestions represent a parenting ideal which no one can achieve perfectly, therefore I advise parents to have patience with themselves and try to implement new ideas gradually.
1. When a child is engaged in a pleasurable activity it is much harder for him or her to stop the fun than it would be for adults. Children tend to hyper-focus on their current activity. Therefore when the inevitable time comes to ask your child to stop his or her activity we must do it with wisdom and sensitivity. Begin by showing empathy for his feelings such as, “I see you’re really having a good time with that. I’m so glad you’re enjoying yourself. You really like that game.” This empathy gives the child pleasure that you understand what he is feeling, and that pleasure will make him or her more willing to comply. Then inform the child ahead of time that he’s soon going to need to stop, as no one, adults or children, likes to have something good taken away from them abruptly. “O.K. you have twenty more minutes to play,” and then “ten more minutes, five more minutes,” to give the child time to mentally prepare for the change and to finish what he had been doing. Then gently but firmly inform the child that it is time to stop or leave, but don’t expect immediate compliance. It may take him or her five minutes to stop his activity and we should just patiently repeat, “O.K. it’s time for us to go now. Come on, let’s go” and reflect back what the child is doing, “Oh you’re blowing up one more balloon, but even so, it’s time for us to go now” or “You really want to keep playing, but now it’s time to go.” It’s worth waiting patiently to get the child to comply on his own and avoid forcing him, dragging him or shouting. In my office I very often have children who don’t want to leave the playroom and though I am on a tight schedule, I patiently wait for 5 minutes repeating that it’s time to go and reflecting back what the child is doing. This gets the child to leave of his own accord 95 percent of the time.
2. All parents of young children should keep a supply of what I call “Emergency toys” hidden in the closet. It is well worth the time and money spent in toy stores or online. It requires a bit of wisdom and patience to select age-appropriate toys that will capture your child’s heart. Don’t tell the child about them, keep them hidden on a high shelf. When the child is unhappy, stressed, bored or beginning to cause trouble, giving him or her a small toy can often defuse the whole problem and prevent many further misbehaviors. It is also a powerful tool to create an emotional bond with the child. He or she associates the pleasure of the toy with the parent and comes to feel much more emotionally connected. Remember children are quite dependent and helpless, they lack the skills to solve their own problems and being bored, irritable or upset is a big problem! Mom or Dad truly comes to the rescue with a well-placed emergency toy. Don’t fear you are spoiling them or rewarding bad behavior. It is precisely unhappiness that causes children to act spoiled, therefore rescuing him or her from unhappiness will help prevent him from being spoiled.
3. Homework can be overwhelming for children! There was a time when too much homework was unusual. School was for schoolwork, and home was for other activities. Even when I was a child we got only moderate homework and nothing on vacations. Nowadays kids get hours of homework and loads of vacation homework. They work in school all day and should be able to relax a bit at home. Instead, a lengthy and frustrating homework battle ensues. So, we as parents need to make this burden more bearable. We need to show we are willing to suffer with them by sitting down and wherever possible doing the homework together. Don’t fear they will learn to be too dependent on you, as too much homework is actually harmful. One tip I recommend is giving small treats to accompany the child during homework when she gets bogged down. It creates a positive association between the pleasure of the treat and the homework. The child thinks, “Potato chips, happy, homework, happy.” The treat should be given during the homework, not afterwards. This is similar to taking extra care with the food of our guests, which creates a positive association between the pleasure of the food and the social contact.
4. Never underestimate the power of words. The way we speak to our children is so important! Always speak in a kind, warm, gentle tone. Be positive and encouraging. Avoid shouting, harshness and criticism. When children do misbehave we should express our feelings and values empathetically, but without attacking or criticizing. “It makes me angry when you do that.” “In our house we speak with respect!”
5. When faced with unwanted behavior, instead of responding with, “Don’t…” and “Stop…” Try distractions such as “Why don’t you guys have a catch” or “Come play a game” or “Let’s read a story” or “Snack time” or “Look at this new toy”. Distraction is the golden tool of parenting. Don’t fear that you may be rewarding bad behavior. Consider it a reward for the many good things I’m sure your child has done before. Remember that providing pleasure and happiness for children results in improved behavior!
6. Most parents reprimand their children for rowdy behavior in the house because they fear things will get broken. This creates conflict and harms the parent-child relationship. Therefore it is worthwhile to remove, if possible, breakable items from the house and from areas where they habitually play. This allows the children to play more freely. The children will be much happier and will behave better. You can set up one area in the house for more free, unrestricted play. This will be great for the emotional health of the children!
7. If given an opportunity to earn a reward, ensure that the child is successful in earning it and is not disappointed. For example if you say “Finish your homework and you can watch T.V.”, make sure you help him finish it on time so he gets the T.V. Keep all promises as best as you can. The child then learns he can trust you.
8. Never assume malicious intent on the part of children. Never think, “He’s a bad child,” or “She’s purposely trying to rebel against me.” Misbehavior is usually motivated by environmental stressors, frustration, or unhappiness and is not the child’s fault. They are only reacting to their challenging situation.
9. Make requests of children gently and politely to encourage cooperation. Children respond to politeness as well as adults do. You’d be surprised how effective it is to say in a sweet gentle voice, “Could you please go and wash your hands?” Let’s say your boss came into your office and said, “Do this paperwork, now!” Would this make you inclined to comply?
10. Argue with the other parent behind closed doors. Unfortunately, arguments between parents can be harmful to children’s emotional health.
11. Be gentle, gentle, gentle. A heavy-handed approach is not effective for with children.
12. Instead of getting into conflict with children over jumping on the couch or bed, try to allow it a little bit as may be consonant with your own emotions and standards. Things can always be replaced, and in fact furniture sometimes must be replaced. Of course, no one wants to live in a madhouse, or in a home where possessions are continually at risk. Yet you may possibly have at least one bed they can jump on. Jumping is an irresistible and immensely healthy activity. If you sometimes allow it your children will be much happier and behave much better generally! (With small children you might want to spend 10 minutes standing next to the bed to catch them if they fall.)
13. Let the child make as many decisions as possible. He may not be the boss but you might allow him to sometimes feel like the boss.
14. As I’ve said elsewhere, reduce the overall quantity of commands. Save commands for major items. By issuing fewer commands one increases the rate of compliance with those few, carefully chosen ones. This cannot be over emphasized! Children resent being told what to do all day and sooner or later they begin to refuse. Let’s say the most commands a particular child can safely handle is ten per day. You want to save those for important things like not running into the street and maybe doing homework and brushing teeth. Don’t waste commands on every minor misbehavior. For a discussion in detail of this topic, click here.
15. Avoid being the “Judge” of sibling conflicts except when it is crystal clear who is right. Otherwise it upsets the “balance of power” and it is usually too complicated to judge fairly. Instead, encourage them to resolve disputes on their own. Let’s say on Monday A hits B. On Tuesday B Hits A, on Wednesday A hits B again. On Thursday B hits A and on Friday A hits B again. On Saturday you see B hitting A aggressively and you intervene and punish B. Is this fair? I recently asked a father of 14 children, including 11 boys, “When you see two children fighting, how do you know which one is guilty?” He answered “They’re always both guilty!” Therefore we should allow them to resolve all minor squabbles on their own and not interfere so much. Say patiently, “You guys need to work this out on your own.” It teaches maturity and good problem-solving skills. Let them decide who gets the toy, for example. Intervene only in major fights. In addition you may ask each party to explain her grievance and restate it to the other party. This fosters communication and resolution. You may even write it down and read it back to them. This will help immensely. See my post: How to resolve sibling rivalry, part 1, here.
16. Children usually misbehave out of unhappiness and frustration. By increasing the child’s overall happiness and enjoyment of life we can prevent many misbehaviors.
17. Avoid time-outs and punishments. They rarely have their intended beneficial effect because the child has usually forgotten the last punishment when the next opportunity to misbehave comes around. Instead, anticipate misbehaviors that may be brewing and distract the child appropriately. Work on the relationship with the child. Download my free report “To punish or not to punish,” at the bottom of this page.
18. Generally reduce reprimands. Often when reprimands are employed the gain in correction of misbehavior is erased by the loss to the child’s self-esteem, as he feels criticized. Reprimand your child only for major items or for danger. For a detailed discussion of the pitfalls of reprimands, click here.
19. As far as meals are concerned, try to cook what the child likes. Would you force yourself to eat something you didn’t like or want? Let’s try to give children the same consideration. Let the child choose his dinner as far as may be convenient. Keep easy-to-prepare or frozen meals on hand. Don’t fear you are spoiling her. Making her happy in this manner will result in greatly improved behavior.
20. When a young child hits a parent, the parent should not overreact in punishing the child. Insist firmly, “No hitting,” block his blows and try to distract him. This is not usually a sign of disrespect or a harbinger of future violence. He is either being playful, doesn’t realize what he’s doing, or is overwhelmed by frustration. Fathers should remember how much they used to play fight as boys and allow such a relationship with their son.
21. Don’t fear that happiness, pleasure and rewards will spoil your child. See my post: How not to spoil your child, here.
22. Never, never put a child down verbally for any reason.
23. Try to overlook minor misbehaviors.
24. Except in cases of danger or safety, try to avoid criticism.
25. Try to be a constant source of pleasure to your child.
26. Avoid spanking and other physical force as much as possible, as it usually encourages children to act out aggressively. For a discussion of the topic, see my post, To spank or not to spank, here.
Implementing these parenting tips will do wonders for your child’s emotional health and for your relationship with him or her!
Feel free to peruse the rest of this interesting blog, the specialties on my website, or download one of my free reports.
If you found these Parenting tips useful and would like guidance or treatment from a child psychotherapist in lower Manhattan,
you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a free 15 minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!