The power of positive parentingResilience and grit are the new character buzzwords that portend to predict future success among children and adolescents. But knowing the resulting characteristics we want to cultivate in children is simply stating the "what." It's also critical to show parents the "how." The more important question to ask is how to parent so that children can optimize their ability to develop these critical character traits. What are the early foundational parenting practices that allow our children to become resilient and have grit?
Parenting is hard. Mental health research has verified the implicit knowledge that parenting shapes life trajectory but as adults we have always understood this knowledge anecdotally based on our own childhood experiences. Parenting is also powerful. And yet we are neither formally educated nor trained on how to use this power as we wield it on our children while hoping for the best outcome, often shaped by our reaction to our own childhood.
As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I witness the result of untrained parenting practices that contribute to the increasingly ailing mental health of children. I witness hearts break and defensive anger among parents of all socioeconomic backgrounds when I share the tenets of positive parenting. Positive parenting, the result of more than thirty years of scientific knowledge, outlines practices that decrease parental stress and cultivate the development of independent and self-regulated children.
Why haven't more parents embraced the practice of positive parenting? The answer is complicated, but one culprit is the siloed nature of our health care industry where providers rarely talk to each other. While developing a behavioral treatment for children with disruptive behaviors, the techniques of positive parenting took shape. Mental health providers understood that specific parent-child interactions decreased tantrums, nurtured emotion regulation and reduced parental stress.
Even if your child does not exhibit tantrums that produce holes in your wall or bruises on your legs, the techniques of positive parenting will decrease parental stress, unwanted behaviors and promote self-regulation in children. Positive parenting can help prevent the progression of tantrums into disruptive behaviors, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, substance use disorder, major depression, generalized anxiety disorder and the list goes on, up to criminality, disability and suicide.
The need to support better parenting is well understood by pediatricians and primary care physicians. However, the lack of training in mental health makes defining better parenting practices difficult for non-mental health practitioners. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Resilience Project promotes the importance of parenting by advocating that parents love their children and play with them more. While the intention is good, this message can actually worsen stress on parents who are already struggling to spend quality time with their children while working, much less carve out time for self care. The AAP knows that emotion regulation and support for parents are crucial outcomes in the Resilience Project, but again, they are not trained on “how” to get there. If the field of mental health and pediatrics were better aligned, the message coming from organizations like AAP would be more actionable.
The tool of positive parenting: Attention
There are 3 techniques to positive parenting that are evidenced based and are the foundational tenants of all parent-based therapies for children. These 3 parenting techniques employ the tool of parental attention to grow desired behavior and diminish unwanted behaviors. Therefore before discussing these techniques, understanding parental use of attention is paramount.
If we reflect on how we currently use attention during parenting, it is often reactionary and rarely deliberate. Though thinking or intending that we are giving our children our attention, it is often fragmented by the distractions of our digital life and complex multi-tasking roles. Taking away our attention may be a new and powerful concept for many parents. Children live for your attention and are highly motivated to get it back if it is taken away. Try this: The next time your child throws a tantrum, take your attention away as long as the child is safe, by checking your phone or reading the paper. You may be surprised by your child’s ability to self-soothe.
The idea of deliberately manipulating our attention is a foreign practice for most parents. But learning to give and take away our attention is less stressful than giving praise, validation or reassurances repetitively with fragmented attention; it is also less stressful than unintentionally giving our full attention to the emotional battles that your child often wins and therefore has been trained to pursue.
3 techniques of positive parenting employing the tool of attention
1. Child-centered time: This is the time to deliberately and consistently give all of your attention without distractions. 10 minutes daily is better than 30 minutes irregularly. Here are the rules:
- Set parameters: Explain to your child that this time is dedicated to them only for a specific time (10-20 minutes). Track this together on a clock/watch/time tracking device.
- Active participation: You are your child’s peer. Active participation means describing your child’s behaviors with interest (e.g. “I see you are arranging your blocks in a very straight line.”) or mirroring what your child is saying or doing (e.g. child: “Turtles can swim!” parent: “Yes! Turtles can swim.”). There can be no interruptions from your phone, computer or other family members. All distractions must be put on hold until this time has been completed.
- Child takes the lead: Let your child select an activity. Allowing them to lead means that you will not correct, criticize, make suggestions, or ask any questions.
- 3 - 5 minute warning before ending: Tell your child when it is nearing the end of play to promote flexibility and avoid surprises during transition.
2. Labeled praise: This is a technique where you are deliberately giving your attention to your child throughout the day in brief moments to describe behaviors that demonstrate the desired traits. You should look for opportunities to catch your child being good. Make a wish list of desired traits that you want to promote in your child and look for opportunities to catch him or her in the act of demonstrating these traits. When you see actions on your wish list, acknowledge them by positively describing the desired behavior that represents the desired trait.Some examples of desired traits are flexibility, self soothing, or empathy. Consider these scenarios:
- You are driving your child to a play date. Something came up and you had to make an extra trip for a sibling. Your child does not throw a tantrum. Rather than missing that your child did not throw a tantrum which is easy to overlook, state: “Wow, I love how you did not get upset when we had to make an extra trip for your brother!” In this scenario, can you see the demonstration of flexibility by going along with the plan change; self soothing by suppressing the minor irritation; and empathy shown by the implicit agreement to support brother.
- After your child has stopped tantrumming and is calmly reading on his own, state: “What a big boy you were by calming yourself like that! I love how you play so calmly.” Silence during tantrums and ample praise afterwards when your child has calmed is a powerful way to communicate your support when your child has completed the uncomfortable and unwilling task of self soothing.
3. Ignore unwanted behavior: While it can be painful for some parents, actively taking away attention from child sends a signal that the child will not receive the reward of your attention when he is misbehaving. When you observe minor unwanted behavior such as whining, tantrums, arguing, and bargaining the best practice is to take away your attention by not engaging. Tactics such as checking your phone, reading a book or just walking away send signals that you are disinterested in the undesired behavior.
Believe it or not, the action of taking your attention away is more powerful than explaining to your child why this behavior is not desired. Explaining to your child why he is misbehaving in the moment rather than immediately taking your attention away sends the wrong message to your child – your misbehavior still captivates my attention. When your child is misbehaving, he or she responds to your behaviors not your words. Describing behavior and helping your child reset is easiest when he or she is calm. Remember that you want to reinforce when your child is calm and this is the time when he or she receives your attention.
Practice makes perfect
Changing behavior takes time and patience. Practicing child-centered time where you are fully engaged is how you chart a path for behavioral change. It's challenging because during this time, we have to check our parental impulses to direct, teach and correct our child. But think of this time as the time that strengthens the bond with your child; and the strength of this parent-child bond empowers your child to develop both self confidence and endurance for the harder task of regulating their emotions through self soothing.
After we have mastered nurturing confidence in children through child-centered time, we can start the practice of helping them learn self-regulation by self soothing during active ignoring. A child’s natural impulse is not to self soothe but rather to have you, the parent, take away their discomfort. However, a child’s ability to regulate their emotions is impaired if the parent does not allow the child to embrace the opportunities to self soothe during safe and nurturing periods of early childhood.
This is the first in a series of articles we will publish to help parents understand and implement the techniques of positive parenting to nuture confidence and self regulation in children, so stay tuned. Please feel free to share with us questions or stories of your experience with employing the techniques of positive parenting.