Parenting a child is by far the hardest and most unpredictable venture in life. Why? Because there is no manual on “how to be the best parent.” We just take what we’ve learned from our parents (how they raised us), gather some questionable “how-to” books, and fly by the seat of our pants. While we may make our way through the journey of parenting with our head above water, most of us often ask, “Am I doing this right?”
For the purpose of this article, let’s think of parenting like cooking or baking. Most complex recipes have a fairly large ingredient list. Raising a child can be compared to this wherein there are many elements to parenting and many ways to approach parenting; however, without these two elements you are likely to run into issues/problems with your kiddo as a child, teen, or potentially an adult. At best, they may just mouth-off/be defiant, be cold/distant/ignore you, or pretend like everything is “fine” when in reality they’re suffering inside. And at worst, their negative behaviors may become ingrained and lead to behavioral and mental disorders that can have a negative and long-lasting impact on them over their lifetime.
THE MAGIC UNVEILED
So, what are these two magical ingredients? Love and Structure. These two seemingly opposing elements originate from the structural family therapy model that deems that a healthy and effective hierarchy in a family household (a boundary that distinguishes the parents from children) includes both a “hard” side and a “soft” side; the hard—rules, consequences, structure and boundaries, and the soft—nurturing and soothing pain and helping them feel loved and needed.
ONE VS. THE OTHER
So often, parents view these two ingredients as “either/or.” However, one aspect without the other will likely lead to only short-term positive outcomes and allow for more long-term, detrimental consequences. If you provide only the “hard” and enforce rules and punishments without offering emotional comfort and compassionate love, your young one may obey yet develop self-esteem or anger problems and receive the message “I am bad,” vs. “My behavior is bad.” On the flip side, if you provide the emotional comfort and love absent of structure, discipline and boundaries, your child may not learn to appreciate authority/rules and be more likely to develop behavioral and academic problems. However, with both of these essential elements, your child will be more likely to grow up happy and successful (with a more positive view of themselves), be respectful, considerate and kind towards others, and make healthy decisions and evaluate safety risks on their own.
BOTH SIDES OF THE COIN: A “HOW-TO”
Trying to provide both the “soft” and the “hard” side to your youngster at the same time may seem like a confusing and daunting task. Here are some general guidelines and examples to help you get a clearer picture of what implementing both sides look like:
Establish, inform, and physically write down/make visible the rules/expectations he/she is expected to follow (I suggest hanging it on the fridge- very visible!)
- Examples: what are his/her chores, curfew time, general expectations/house rules (respecting adults/others, no talking back, etc.), H.W. expectations, school/grade
Establish, inform, write down and make visible (for kids to see) the consequences that will follow if he/she does not comply with the abovementioned rules/expectations
- Make sure consequences include: what it is, how long it will be enforced for, and who will enforce it
- Writing it down and having it visible always confirms that you informed your youngster of these rules & prevents you from repeating yourself, “harping,” or getting into an argument!
Establish, inform, and write down/make visible the rewards he/she will receive if they DO complete/follow the rules/expectations
- Along with consequences for their bad behavior, children/teens also need rewards for their good behavior. This teaches them that if they do listen and follow rules, they will receive positive outcomes- it reinforces their good behavior and gives them incentive to behave positively.
4. CLEAR UNDERSTANDING
Make sure your young one clearly knows/understands the rules/expectations, consequences, and rewards
- Making a formal “contract” and having them sign it ensures that they have read it, understand it, and are aware of what might happen if they disobey as well as what they will receive if they do obey.
- This leaves the responsibility up to them and prevents any “excuses” (i.e., I didn’t know, you never told me, etc.).
5. INFORMING/ENFORCING CONSEQUENCES
If (or unfortunately when) your child/teen breaks a rule, GENTLY and CALMLY remind them of the consequence and your obligation to enforce them.
- IMPORTANT: Make sure to inform them in a way that is emotionally comforting and continue to treat them in a warm, loving manner —
- (“Unfortunately, you broke one of our rules so you aren’t going to be able to go play with your friends. I’m not mad at you and still love you, it’s just you broke a rule so I have to hold my end of the deal up”).
- DO NOT inform your child/teen of the consequences in a harsh or angry way, and DO NOT treat them differently (be distant or cold towards them) after they have broken a rule. (If you do this, they will receive the message “I am bad” over “My behavior is bad.”)
6. OFFER QUALITY TIME
Offer an alternative quality-time activity for you both to do together
- You want your child to know that you still love them and want to spend time with them, despite them breaking a rule. Again, you want them to receive the message “Your BEHAVIOR is bad, NOT YOU.”
7. GIVING REWARDS
If (and yes, when) your child/teen follows a rule and behaves, reward them with their award and praise them for their good behavior!
- Remind them how great this feels to have the reward instead of the consequence and encourage them to keep up the good work!
- IMPORTANT: DO NOT treat them more positively/act nicer to them than how you treat them when they break a rule. Remember, you want them to learn that their BEHAVIOR is good and being rewarded, not them as a person—you love them just as much either way!
Just like making a recipe entails uniqueness and individuality, there are many ways to go about raising your child in a healthy way. If you are having trouble with your child/teen and are interested in seeking therapy please contact Clarity Clinic to learn about our therapists who specialize in working with children, adolescents and their parents (families).
Associate Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Sells, P. (1998). Treating the tough adolescent. New York, NY: Guildford Press.
Wetchler, J. L. (2003). Structural family therapy. In L. L. Hecker & J. L. Wetchler (Eds.), An introduction to marriage and family therapy (pp. 63-94). New York, NY: Haworth Press.
Plotnik, R. & Kouvoumdiian, H. (2010). Introduction to psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing