By Joseph Sacks, LCSW
Let's say you had a family doctor who were to prescribe for a person to eat less and get more exercise. Wouldn't that be great advice for 99 percent of Americans? He can give you that advice without ever examining you because he knows that we are in the middle of an epidemic of over-eating and under-exercise, and 99 out of 100 it will be great advice for you. Parenting is the same way.
Without ever having interviewed them I can prescribe Parenting advice to 99 percent of parents...
to criticize less, boss around less, be less controlling, reprimand less, punish less and to be more gentle, more flexible, more patient, more tolerant and more humble before children. This is because we are in the middle of an epidemic of loving, well-intentioned, dedicated parents who are unfortunately making the inadvertent mistakes of being a little too strict and harsh with their children, and who are missing the crucial element of raising their children's happiness level and fulfilling their emotional needs. As soon as the parent calls me and tells me they are having problems with their children I know the above is the case 99 percent of the time before ever hearing any of the details.
Emotional disorders are very common and very curable!
25 percent of Americans, including children, suffer from a diagnosable mental illness. Many more have a sub-clinical emotional disturbance. Contrary to popular belief, emotional illness is not caused by genetics or biology, it is caused by being born with a sensitive temperament combined by being raised by loving, well-meaning parents who unfortunately made the above common errors. What I'm telling you is actually fantastic news! If I would tell you mental illness is genetic then there would be nothing you could do to prevent it and little you can do to cure it. But since I'm telling you that is mostly caused by the childhood environment, you can do much to change that environment and prevent it. And even if it's too late to prevent it, there's much you can do to change the environment and cure it. It is astounding how much power we as parents possess to influence our children's well-being and lifelong mental health. For a detailed discussion, see my post: Emotional disorders in children: Nature or Nurture, here.
I recommend browsing through my blog where you'll find all these principles explained clearly in detail.
However briefly here the Parenting advice I would give to most parents is to:
1. Reduce criticism. Even so-called constructive criticism on a regular basis can be devastating to a child's self-esteem and generates anxiety disorders. Instead, overlook most misbehaviors and very gently, subtly call attention to mistakes. For a detailed discussion of the pitfalls of criticism, click here.
2. Be much less controlling and bossy. Too much control deprives children of that great, golden goal, self-determination. Reduce commands and requests by ten percent and try to say yes ten percent more often. For a detailed discussion of the pitfalls of too may commands, click here.
3. Reprimand and rebuke much less and only very gently. Reprimands are usually perceived as harsh by children and generate a terrible shame response. Again try to tolerate minor misbehaviors. The benefits of reprimands are not worth the risks. For a detailed discussion of the pitfalls of scolding and reprimands, click here.
4. See my report, “To punish or not to punish,” at the bottom of this page, where I demonstrate that punishment rarely has any beneficial effects and causes all kinds of problems, and therefore should never be used.
5. Be much more soft, sweet, gentle, delicate and kind with children. Contrary to popular belief, children are not at all resilient. They are extremely fragile and sensitive, especially to parental attitudes. A child is like a small, fragile plant that needs to be very painstakingly nurtured, and any harshness has great repercussions for the future. The idea of “Tough love” is a great tragic error that has been committed throughout history with terrible consequences.
6. Be more flexible, tolerant, and patient with children. They are in the process of becoming human beings and therefore must make constant mistakes in order to learn. It is our duty to overlook and tolerate most mistakes and only to ever so gently correct them. Many parents catastrophize and fear that their children's mistakes are leading them down the wrong path towards failure or delinquency, but in 90 percent of the cases such fear is totally unwarranted. Most childhood mistakes are totally normal and acceptable and will correct themselves over time without any parental intervention.
7. Be more humble before children. We as parents need to make ourselves small so they can grow big. Overlook minor challenges to authority and disrespectful back talk, as they are often a sign your child is developing healthy assertiveness. Don’t fear it’s a sign of impending disaster. Responding harshly to disrespect, however, will lead to big problems. Express your feelings, “It makes me angry when you speak to me that way, in our house we speak with respect.” The child may not be the boss but we need to make him feel like he's the boss. That's the beauty of Play Therapy, the child gets to completely control the session and the adult in the room follows him or her, making him feel important. This is immensely healthy.
8. Raise your child's happiness level. Happiness, enjoyment and pleasure for children is not a frivolous desire, nor a privilege, nor a right, it is a deep and fundamental need. Children need several hours of intense happiness every single day in order to grow up healthy, normal and well-adjusted. It is our job as parents to provide them with that happiness just as we provide them with food, clothing, shelter, healthcare and education. Lack of childhood happiness is neglect and generates as many if not more problems than being malnourished. Therefore we as parents need to awake with the mantra of “How can I raise my child’s contentment level today?”
Remember that most misbehavior is caused by unhappiness. The child feels bored, frustrated or powerless and misbehaves in a desperate attempt to relieve his unhappy state. Raising his contentment level in advance totally defuses most misbehaviors and prevents the generation of mental illness.
9. Attend to your child's emotional needs. The emotional value of parent-child interactions is the most often overlooked and crucial aspect of child-rearing. You must think very carefully, “How is what I am saying or doing making my child feel right now?” In addition, we must educate our children to have conscious awareness of the emotional events in their lives. This must be accomplished in the interpersonal venue by permitting, talking about openly and reflecting our children's feelings. For more information on validating your child's feelings, click here.
Never despair of improving your relationship with your child and improving his or her emotional health! With proper Parenting advice, almost any problem can be mostly resolved.
Please be advised that the above represents a parenting ideal, and no one should expect to fulfill it perfectly. So have patience with yourself and try to implement new ideas gradually.
Feel free to peruse the rest of my informative blog, the specialties on this website, or download one of my interesting free reports. If you are facing challenges with your child and would like guidance or treatment from a child therapist in lower Manhattan, you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a free 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!