There's a lot of noise on what to do and not do with how to parent or influence your child's behavior. While there's definitely helpful tools and advice for healthy parenting, there are some very basic principles to establish first. Before you dig into any details on reinforcements, discipline, gentle parenting, setting boundaries, etc, there are some basics that can be extremely helpful in creating a safe and healing environment for your whole family. These basics are simple and doable and may surprise you with how much they affect behavior.
There are 5 simple tools that are the foundation of creating a safe base in your household. (A safe base is a psychological term that refers to the foundation of safety established in childhood and development. Safety and shelter is one of the basic needs that is established and protected in early development. If this is lacking or violated, behavioral issues may erupt or, PTSD, anxiety, and other disorders may develop depending on the severity.)
Let's look into the 5 basic tools:
1. Show interest in your child and in their interests
As basic as it may sound, taking time and emotional effort to show your child that you care about them does wonders for their psyche. It's important to acknowledge as a parent that there will naturally be stages of life that are more difficult for you to connect with your kids. For some, it's during the infant stage (very common for dads when mom is exclusively breastfeeding); for others, it's the toddler or "terrible two's stage"; others is the teen stage, etc. Whatever your situation is, put in the effort regardless of how easy it is. Your child (even when they don't show it) desperately needs to know that you care about them unconditionally. And this need is lifelong. When your child knows (through both your words and actions) that you have their back, they will be more likely to trust you when you need to discipline them or show that tough love. (Doesn't mean they won't resist at all, but you'll have a strong anchor that roots your relationship in the hard days). Furthermore, taking time to take joy in what brings them joy also helps fill their cup. Do this, even if it's not something you typically relate to or enjoyed growing up.
There are a few sub points to taking an interest in your kids as a parent that will help inform this principle.
A. Spend quality time together
Showing your child you care goes beyond telling them you care. You need to show it with how you spend your time. Spending quality time with them and with your family is essential for this trust and relationship to be developed. This includes eating at least one primary meal together as families, planning evening or weekend activities together (game nights, sporting events, hikes, vacations, park days, going out to dinner, etc.). It doesn't need to be fancy or expensive, just something that involves engaging and interacting with each other. 9 times out of 10 when parents express they are struggling with their child/teen's behavior, there is a complete lack of time spent together as a family. You can expect that if your family lives separate and compartmentalized lives from each other, fighting, defiance, disrespect, or isolation habits will occur. Your child will also naturally become more anxious, depressed, disconnected, and will search for belonging in unhealthy ways.
B. Emotional availability
Are you emotionally available as a parent? Do you demonstrate through verbal and body language that you are approachable and interested? When you have downtime are you constantly scrolling on your phone, working extended hours on your laptop, or engrossed with the TV? When your child attempts to engage with you or play with you, do you respond with actual interest? Or do you react and act annoyed, bothered, inconvenienced? Or are you half heartedly responding while your mind is present elsewhere?
There is grace for this as parents, because it's impossible to be fully present at all times. And there are times that you will need to tell your kid that you need 5 minutes or that you aren't available right now. But do your best to make it clear. Either be fully available and present, or let them know how much longer you need and when you will be available. Half present, half not is invalidating for them, and they'll eventually pick up the message that "my parent can't be bothered" or maybe even "my parent doesn't care". Kids are smart and in tune with your engagement or lack of with them. Then when the hard days come, their behavior may reflect that core negative belief they have established with you (and that belief is based on your verbals and nonverbals).
C. The 15 minute rule
The 15 minute rule is very helpful for the parent who truly has a full schedule and full plate. (Which is all of us, right?)
The 15 minute rule is: give them 15 minutes of undivided attention before and after major transitions.
This means that if you are coming home from work (or finishing your telework job), when your family greets you, take 15 full minutes to interact with your kids and learn about their day. Don't rush to make dinner, clean, shower, watch TV, or whatever your next desired task may be. Give them 15 minutes, show interest, and once that time has lapsed, the chances are they will already be ready to move on to their next task (It may even be less than 15 minutes before this happens!) Kids are interesting - once they see that you're there and present, they then feel safe to explore and do things on their own. Knowing they have a safe base allows them to take risks individually.
The 15 minute rule can also apply to before bedtime, after they get home from school, after waking up in the morning, or any situation where you are reuniting with your child.
2. Prioritize your marriage or partnership
Many marriage and parenting experts advise that you have to first prioritize quality time with your romantic partner/spouse after having kids. This is for many reasons. First, it is extremely comforting for a child (of any age) to see that their parents/guardians love each other. The state of the parent's relationship is one of the top 3 indicators of a child's behavior. If there is discord, neglect, or outright abuse in your romantic relationship, your child will pick up on it at a very young age and will carry that in their psyche, and then it will reflect on their behavior. (Remember, if a child's safe base needs to be established in order to have healthy behavior). Second, when a parent(s) prioritizes their kid above their spouse, it very easily leads to the other parent feeling neglected or replaced and then resentment follows. Or, it can lead to a platonic/robotic relationship with the parents who are just serving as parents and have lost the liveliness of the romance while enduring the parenting journey. In worst case scenarios, it can even lead to one of the parents using the kids as a weapon against the other parent. All of these scenarios take away from that safe base.
For those that are single parents by necessity or tragedy, please know that you can still create a safe base for your child. It will take effort and lots of self care, but you can still model and establish security and safety for your little one.
3. Be aware of normal developmental responses
When you run into challenging behaviors, before you react or get into catastrophic "wow my child is a total monster" thoughts, first do some research on what is developmentally normal.
The brain takes approximately 25-28 years to develop fully, and the last part of the brain to develop is the frontal lobe, which is responsible for developing empathy, making decisions, regulating impulses, and focus skills. So, with that development comes growing pains and learning life lessons the hard way.
For example, it's 100% normal for your 12-36 month old to have frequent meltdowns and tantrums. Their frontal lobe is developing to the point where they gain more awareness, but not yet how to regulate what they're aware of, so then lots of frustrations erupt. Totally normal.
It's also normal for toddlers to practice and learn how to have a will and an opinion, so at that stage you'll hear lots more of the word "no". This is healthy and normal. Learning how to express your will and your opinion is an important skill, so expect to hear it, and give you child options that they CAN say no to, so you can validate that skill.
As they grow into pre-teens and teens, they will developmentally grow to become more independent and hormones begin to surge. It's normal to see mood shifts and for them to desire to do things more on their own.
There are many more examples of developmental changes that may lead to difficult transitions. Learn about them based on your child's age and it can help you to accept what is expected and to have compassion and grace with their development. Bottom line: don't put expectations on your kids that they aren't developmentally able to handle.
4. Don't personalize behavior, defiance, or emotions
This is a big one for parents. It's so easy to become triggered by your child's reactions or defiance. Maybe you see yourself or your spouse’s character show in how they're responding and you are NOT a fan.
You're allowed to not like the behavior, but don't personalize it. It's not about you, it's about them. They're struggling, they're learning, they're processing, and you're the safest person for them to express their frustrations to. But keep reminding yourself: "this is not about me." Or another mantra you can repeat: "This is not to upset me." When your kids wake up WAY too early, or really don't want to do their chores, or really don’t want to tell you about their day, or repeatedly spill their food and drink all over the kitchen table…..it's not to upset you.
Parents too often become so overwhelmed or upset when their kids are upset and further escalate the problem. But parents, you are allowed to be calm and ok when your kids are not. When you personalize it, you escalate and react. Your big reactions and frustrations will make you more prone to helicopter or control your child, and chances are, your child will respond with worsened defiance.
One of the safest things you can do for your family is to be neutral, calm, and supportive when someone else is totally melting down. When it's not about you, it's so much easier to gain perspective and regulate your own emotions. And when you're regulated, you are modeling healthy reactions in stress and conflict for your child.
This will definitely pay off when it's time to discipline or address your child's behavior. (Especially when it comes to you picking battles with your kids)
5. Have a life outside of your job and as a parent.
As important as it is to spend quality time with your kids and show you care, it is equally important for you to have a life outside of your kids (and work/school). This is your self care, or how you fill your cup. When you avoid your own interests or hobbies, you become more of an empty shell with little to offer in your relationships. And as a result, you will become more drained, reactionary, resentful, and cold in your interactions. It's also extremely healthy for your children to see that you have other obligations in addition to them. When parents make everything about their kids, the children either respond with an attitude of entitlement, or emotionally shut down from having a parent who speaks and does everything for them. Neither situation is fair to the child. Finally, it's healthy for you to model having a full life to your children. They will imitate your patterns and also learn to fill their life with abundance.
Are you seeing the pattern yet? A lot of the basic tools with parenting come down to how you behave first. Your mindset, your relationships, how you spend your time, how you react, all have profound impacts on your children.
And as we close, remember that while it's important to take your own responsibilities in this seriously, compassion towards yourself is essential. You are also learning and growing. And there is no such thing as a perfect parent. You'll have strong and weak days. You have times where you know exactly how to respond and other days where you are overwhelmingly clouded by emotions. All you can do is put in the effort and do your best with these tools. Your kids will notice.