“Effective” Parenting: More than Behavioral Control

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.

Holiday Self-Care

By Laura Vraney, PsyD

While the Spring holiday season ushers in nicer weather and rays of optimism, there is no question that it also brings about anxiety. At times, we may become so distracted by the to-do list, both leading up to and during the holiday time that we forget to appreciate and enjoy the festivities. Additionally, other stressors often surface preventing us from enjoying the holidays; for instance, many celebrate the holiday with family members who are hypercritical; others are reminded of loved ones who have passed away, and some are navigating transitions that do not allow for certain family members to be present. Well, you are in luck! Whether the holidays are usually a joyous time or a stressful one (or both!), here are three self-care strategies you can utilize to ensure a more cheerful and relaxing holiday.

  1. First and foremost, acknowledge and validate your feelings with minimal self-judgment. You may have anxiety or stress or sadness or anger or other feelings. If you pretend to be “fine,” especially to yourself, then either you will repress your feelings only to “explode” at a later time OR your feelings may manifest in disguised ways, for instance, a loss of appetite or passive-aggressive behavior. Neither of those routes is productive. While it may feel selfish, you need to be kind to yourself. Rule of thumb – support your own emotions just how you would support a friend or loved one when they are feeling anxiety and/or stress.
  2. In order to feel a greater sense of control, here are some basic behavioral strategies you can implement. Write a list of everything that needs to get done in the days to come – spend as much time as you need getting everything organized. Prioritize in a daily planner your responsibilities based on the day, required preparation time, and deadlines. If you are someone who struggles with other aspects of the holidays (e.g., family gatherings), know your warning signs when feeling overwhelmed. These may include a shift in your mood, increased heart rate, or loss of appetite. Whether the former and/or later, give yourself permission to take 10-15 minutes alone to refresh. Find things that are self-soothing, such as journaling, listening to music, or stepping outside for a short walk. Also, please make sure you are eating well-balanced meals and getting adequate sleep both during the holidays and in general. We are more vulnerable to stress and anxiety when we are “emotionally eating,” skipping meals, and/or sleep deprived.
  3. Let us not forget why holidays are so special! Research has found that taking the time for gratitude can facilitate neurobiological changes that protect us from stress, anxiety, and depression. Especially when one is preoccupied with planning or overwhelmed by other holiday activities, it is not abnormal to be disconnected from the meaning of the holidays. So, give yourself the freedom and space to appreciate the good in your life over the holidays. A way to do this is by slowing yourself down to acknowledge three wonderful things in your life and contemplating them for a full 60-seconds each. Whether in a state of distress or not, there is no better time to appreciate and adopt an attitude of gratitude!

Think Before you Post: Managing Anxiety in the Era of Social Media

By Rebecca Holczer, MA

As a member of many Facebook groups (perhaps too many?) I see almost every day how group conversations over social media can easily get out of hand. All group discussions start with an original post, however, it seems more common than not for discussions to go in all sorts of directions that are rarely relevant to the initial post. There are many reasons for this phenomenon, but the most compelling is that social media posting tends to be so fast and impulsive, that it is often more emotional than rational. In other words: Social media communications tend to be less about what we truly want to say, and more about what we want to convey in the moment. The problem with this (aside from miscommunications) is that the more people just give into our emotions, the more they tend to be prone to anxiety. Here are six tips we can use to manage anxiety when participating in group discussions in the era of social media:

  • Consider not responding at all: Yes, this is an option as well that we sometimes forget is available! But it’s often the best one. Of course, it’s fine to contribute to a group discussion if you want to share or to make an original post and initiate a discussion. But you don’t need to contribute or respond to everything.
  • Mindfully pay attention to your feelings: Before you post, think about how you are feeling and try to name that emotion. Some posts will make you feel angry, some may elicit feelings of sadness, and others will bring on anxiety. Being aware of your emotions and mindfully paying attention to them is a key strategy to making sure your feelings don’t get out of hand or take over. Consider it a challenge: Can you notice and name your gut reaction without giving in right away.
  • Adopt perspective-taking: Try to put yourself in the shoes of others who are posting messages for a few moments. Think about what their intentions were when they wrote their comments. Are you sure you’re understanding what they are trying to convey? Also, is their message written clearly (often it is not!) and do you need to clarify what they meant before responding?
  • Re-read before you reply: Relatedly, if you would like to make respond to a comment, take the time to read the comment you are responding to a second time. Group discussions can proceed at a rapid pace, and often people make errors when reading through comments. Don’t you just hate it when you post a response to a participant, only to realize seconds later that you misread their comments?
  • Role play in your mind: Before firing off a post, take 20 seconds to imagine how an in-person conversation might go with others in the group. What would you say if you were facing the group members in person? Research suggests that people feel much more free to express themselves in extreme ways when they are removed from a situation, or anonymous. But if you would not say something to someone’s face, do you really want to post it on the Internet?
  • Consider a direct message: When joining into an online conversation, we sometimes neglect the possibility of writing individual direct messages, instead of contributing to a group chat. Even if you ultimately do wish to post en masse, this alternative can be a good starting point to clarify ideas (yours and others) and help create more intentional and meaningful exchanges with others.

Social media has the potential to achieve what previous generations were unable to accomplish—we can now connect to others around the world with the mere touch of our fingertips. For that very reason, let’s make sure we actually connect with others without miscommunicating or getting stymied by our emotions in the process.