By Gavi Hoffnung, PhD
Being a parent is incredibly rewarding, but also tremendously demanding. Our office receives hundreds of phone calls each year from parents seeking guidance in how to better manage their children’s behaviors. Above all, they are striving to become “effective” parents: They want to be more successful in shaping their children’s perspectives and behaviors. Here are some of the ideas and approaches that we use to help them get back on their feet.
A clinical approach to parenting suggests that there are two main operations at play when parents interact with children: One is behavioral-management, and the other is the parent-child relationship. Behavioral management involves, well, management of children’s behavior. When in this “mode” we ask questions like How can I get my child’s behavior to be in line with family? How can I get my kid to school on time? What can I do to make sure that homework gets done, and that bedtime is adhered to? These are fundamentally important questions since parents who struggle with behavioral management often feel a lack of control. By contrast, the parent-child relationship involves creating a secure attachment with children, and a sense of closeness and bonding. When in this “mode” parents do what they can to draw close and stay close to their children, and create a sense of love and connection. This too is fundamentally important, both for parents and kids.
Effective parents are masters of both the parent-child relationship and behavioral management. Many parents are good at one, or the other, and some parents struggle with both. But what separates effective parents from the rest of the pack is that they know when, where, and how to shift into behavioral management mode, and relationship mode.
Most ineffective parents mistakenly feel that behavioral management is synonymous with shaping children’s perspectives and behaviors. After all, if we can get our children to listen and comply with the rules, we have a sense that we are educating them and in control. For this reason, in many cases with ineffective parents, behavioral management takes up the majority of parent-child interactions and gets the most attention. Think: Endless negotiations (even arguments) about bedtime, nagging about putting toys away, etc. But often, children who struggle to comply are missing out even more on their parent-child relationship. In many cases, children are clear about what they need to do – they just don’t care to listen to their parents because their relationship isn’t close enough.
For this reason, when we consult with parents about their children, the first step almost always involves guiding them through a protracted period of building a stronger parent-child relationship. We help parents to establish bonds by paying more attention to children, listening to their interests and needs while refraining from shaping their behavior, and just enjoying time together. Only after several weeks of re-building a firm and secure attachment do we consider shifting focus to behavioral management. This is because the relationship and connection parents have with children is a very powerful potential motivator to helping children stay within the lines.
So, it turns out that the first step in being effective as a parent is to show lots of love, attention, and affection. Once those are firmly in place, we can effect change through establishing limits and regaining a sense of control. The result of this is not only an easier time for parents but the greatest and most rewarding outcome of all: Raising kids who thrive.