So many parents start the day with good intentions to create playful moments and have sincere conversations with their kids. All too often, though, an inevitable stream of “Stop that! No!” and “Because I said so!” squash any chance of that. Is it possible to turn it around?
According to Anat Geva, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with the HealthONE Behavioral Health and Wellness Center, positive parenting is one of several popular concepts that has stemmed from the mindfulness movement. “[This approach] fosters a child’s sense of self-worth and empowers them to explore, utilizing the parental relationship to lean on,” Geva says.
Read on to see how behavioral and developmental health experts suggest you can take the lead in parenting more positively, yielding closer parent/child relationships and more well-adjusted kids.
Respect and Autonomy
If possible, lay a foundation of mutual respect early. Kacie Morrish, Thornton mom and founder of The Village Parent parent coaching, often advises parents of toddlers. She employs the RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers) method in her work, which teaches that children should be seen as individuals, not just tiny people that are inferior.
“It’s about having an awareness of the child’s perspective on life,” Morrish says. “I think a lot of parents go through child rearing and they’re seeing it all from their own perspective and what they want—being in control of their child as opposed to this mindset of facilitating and guiding their child’s journey in life.”
In practice, RIE looks like allowing children to participate in self-care activities, such as dressing and bathing themselves, and making snacks and lunches. Encouraging self-directed play is also a key component. With safety parameters in place, let the child explore and experiment on their own, without reaching in to rescue or show them how to perform.
“We can tend to forget that kids need to learn to solve their own problems, because as their prefrontal cortex is growing, they need those opportunities,” Morrish says. When they do well, try helping them cultivate intrinsic motivation by using observational comments such as: “You did it, you must be so proud of yourself,” or “How do you feel about that?”
Parents can then start asking more of their kids as they grow, adds Geva. “Parents who are more successful in eliciting their child’s cooperation are those who have invested in and built a foundation of trust and respect,” she says.
In Geva’s work with middle and high school students in the Aurora Public Schools system, she sees parents who are at their wits’ end when it comes to their kids’ behavior. “The parents tried talking at them, tried putting boundaries and consequences—and everything in moderation works, but if there’s no foundation of that respect, and acceptance, that’s the problem. When children feel the adults on their “side”, they may not like the restrictions the adults impose, but they know that it is for their benefit, and the likelihood of the desired behavior generally increases,” Geva says.
Kids who feel respected as individuals, “have more confidence going out into the world exploring who they could be, and then they also feel safer coming back. So ironically, by providing that acceptance, we’re actually increasing our influence on them,” Geva says.
Empathy and Coregulation
When there’s conflict between you and your child, “act like a parent but think like a child,” suggests Dr. Candice W. Jones, mother of two, pediatrician, and author of High Five Discipline: Positive Parenting for Happy, Healthy, Well-Behaved Kids published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. “We need to learn to co-regulate, not co-escalate.” Some skills to employ: take a deep breath, count to 10, walk away and respond later. Saying, “I don’t know what to do about this,” or “I’m angry right now, let me take a moment to calm down and think,” models emotional intelligence and self-control.
Guide kids’ awareness by allowing their emotions (positive, negative, or complicated) to happen, and help label their feelings. First, ask questions and wait for a response; extending curiosity rather than judgement helps them feel safe.
“Then, give the child space to get through the emotion, to the other side of it,” advises Morrish. If they need a tactile way to process, try making a feelings collage with image clippings, or hold a hand over your chest to notice your heart rates, stretch and release muscle tension.
Healthy boundaries and discipline
Respecting a child and understanding them as a separate entity rather than an extension of oneself, Geva says, doesn’t mean taking a permissive approach. There’s a difference between “anything goes,” and “we need to think through what the best fit is for this situation.”
Create boundaries and expectations that honor the child’s autonomy and developmental stage while keeping their safety and well-being in mind. When introducing a boundary or a teaching moment, steer away from lecturing; this elicits a “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction, according to Morrish. Try using statements that elicit a response, and follow with a question: “I’ve noticed … have you noticed that too?” then, “I wonder how we could work through that. What do you need?”
Patience and consistency
When it comes to becoming a more positive parent, experiment with different things, says Morrish. “There’s not necessarily a right or wrong, there’s just effective and ineffective, and sometimes it’s a unique combination for our kids.”
Morrish tells her clients to start with their family values and goals, these will drive what tools they’ll need. For example, if a parent’s goal is for their kids to “come to them with anything,” they might focus on asking questions without judgement.
Reach out for help; there is no reason to go down this road alone. Talk with your pediatrician, who might offer an impartial perspective about certain behaviors, suggests Jones. She also offers a family discipline plan worksheet at the end of her book. The guide breaks down common developmental challenges at various ages, the “High-Five” discipline essentials, and a checklist of skills to apply when issues arise.
The payoff for all this? Kids develop self-esteem, have reduced stress in the home, share control and responsibility, and have bonded relationships, according to Morrish.
“You’re teaching the kid that they matter, that they’re an individual person whose opinions and experiences are important,” Geva adds. “You’re also teaching them how to accept other people for their differences and how to tolerate frustrations. These are good approaches for humans.”
Positive Instagram follows
Diffuse a temper outburst! Kacie Morrish offers these steps: