Becoming a parent is a wonderful thing, and it is common for some parents to shed tears of joy when they hold their newborn. But it is equally common for these tears to turn into ones of anger or frustration on occasion, as the child grows up.
According to Dr Annie Crookes, head of psychology at Heriot-Watt University Dubai Campus, the stress involved in raising children – particularly in cases where there are behavioural problems – can lead to parents feeling unable to cope, out of control or not equipped to manage parenthood.
“This then becomes a negative cycle as the stress is reflected back on to interactions with children and further exacerbates their bad behaviour,” she says. This is where positive parenting, an application of positive psychology research, can help parents.
“Positive psychology can build self-awareness and a sense of competence in parents, making them feel more in control. With confidence and positivity coming from both ends, the parent-child relationship becomes strong enough to overcome any day-to-day challenges and stresses,” says Dr Crookes.
You can apply the principles of positive psychology to children of all age groups, although the specific actions or parenting tools will vary depending on the age. The core premise of positive parenting is based on treating your children as individuals, and giving them respect and space accordingly. By being respected as an individual, your child’s self-esteem, confidence and intellectual awareness will develop positively from the start.
In many cases, parents assume that their children are similar to them and make assumptions about their interests and ways of understanding the world based on
themselves – or prior experiences with older siblings. Instead, as a parent, you should start with a blank-slate approach, and try to build knowledge about who your children are from their actual behaviour.
Observe how your children interact with other children, how they share, what happens when they face challenges and how they solve problems or make decisions about what they want.
When you have a clearer picture of your child’s preferences and priorities, you can then use this information to develop activities and boundaries for your child within the family. It is also important to give your children some control over themselves and their space.
Dr Crookes says, “For example, in teenagers this means allowing them to earn money and buy what they want with it. In younger children this may involve simply asking their opinion on decisions you are ultimately making about the clothes you buy for them.” What follows are Dr Crookes’ top-ten tips on applying positive parenting techniques in your interactions with your child:
1 Involve children in decision making
This democratic style of parenting is preferable to simply dictating the rules, as children can feel listened to, respected and involved in the family, which builds their confidence. You can involve them in both big or small issues, depending on the situation and their age.
For instance, when it comes to their room, you could give them full control over how they want it decorated, or present them with a range of options and ask them to make the final decision from what you have shortlisted. If context permits, you could give your children something to be responsible for – a pet or a spot in the garden so that they can watch the outcome of their decisions grow.
2 Find a balance between safety and autonomy
Independence, self-control or autonomy are the core elements of positive psychology. In parenting, this can mean acknowledging that your child, even with the same genetic coding, may still have interests, abilities and ways of seeing the world that are different from yours. This can be very difficult as it is a biological drive for parents to protect children at all costs – and often this can mean wanting them not to make any mistakes.
But in reality, a little learning by trial and error is important. Children should be allowed to make their own choices and test their limitations in order to build self-efficiency. For example, don’t just make the toolbox or anything in the garage ‘out of bounds’.
If your child expresses an interest in building or helping to fix things, try to think
of how this could be done safely under supervision. Or if your teenager wants to try adrenaline sports, instead of going with your initial instinct to protect, explore the safety mechanisms that are in place and find out if there are options to do the activity within boundaries.
3 Encourage critical thinking
To help them become independent thinkers, encourage your children to comment on and analyse the experiences they are having openly and honestly. Instead of asking them “How was your day?” ask more mentally reflective questions like “What did you
think about [a particular situation]?” or “How did that make you feel?” or “Do you think that was the right thing to do?” [when watching a film or reading a story].
4 Reflect on positive experiences
At the dinner table, ask specific questions that focus on positives, such as “What did you do well today?” or “What made you happy today?” If your child wants to talk about a negative experience, bring his or her attention to what can be improved next time or provide perspective by saying things like, “At least ‘something worse’ didn’t happen.” Having regular conversations helps your child reflect on the feeling of success, and strengthens that positive memory. A mind that is full of happy and positive memories enhances well-being.
5 Discipline the behaviour, not the child
Children are certainly not always the angels we want them to be. However, when you need to correct inappropriate behaviour, try to do it in a way that avoids statements attacking the child as a person.
You could say, “When you do this, it is wrong because…” rather than “You are badly behaved today” or “You were wrong”. By distinguishing the child from the bad behaviour, you maintain the implicit understanding that you know he or she is good and wants to do well, but made a bad decision on this particular occasion.
6 Focus on potential, not faults
The focus of positive psychology is on human potential – on developing strengths rather than correcting faults. Often in parenting, we want to correct mistakes and teach the ‘right’ form of behaviour, and in the process end up overlooking the child’s strengths.
By shifting the focus to encouraging children to pursue their interests (however unrealistic they may seem) and overtly discussing what they as individuals are good at (even when they are not so good at other things) you build a sense of hope for the future.
Remember that optimism – a strength that helps us maintain well-being in the face of setbacks – can be taught. By remaining positive when the child fails at something, and telling them that next time they’ll do better with practice, you help build an underlying optimism that the future will always be brighter than the present may seem. This helps a child deal with minor failures in other areas, as their overall self-esteem is protected.
7 Encourage activity
Engaging in physical exercise as a family not only means you as parents are serving as good role models for your children, but the adrenaline from the activity itself releases naturally positive feelings. Balance these activities with mentally challenging games or creative pursuits, which will encourage independent thought.
8 Encourage empathy
This is a powerful human emotion, which brings not only social understanding but is also strongly linked to well-being. Discuss less fortunate people with your children, and encourage them to imagine what it must be like to live a far less privileged life than they lead. Every now and then, encourage them to donate toys or clothes they no longer need to charity.
Ask them how they think their donation would benefit the receiver, and to reflect on how it makes them feel to donate. This sense of empathy and awareness about the world around them will also make them grateful for what they have – another core virtue in positive psychology, which links to resilience in the face of upsets.
9 Try to understand your children
It can be easy to dismiss the viewpoint of children (especially young ones) as silly or irrational. This can make you impatient with them when their tantrums seem to happen for no reason.
Since children are less able to verbally communicate their feelings and
thoughts, rather than asking them why they are so upset and then being frustrated when they don’t come up with an answer, try to think about their viewpoint – how they
see the situation given their simpler understanding of the world. Trust that somewhere in there, they have a method to their seeming madness. This not only helps foster your own empathy and allows you to comfort them more genuinely, it can also be a learning experience for you to stop things escalating in the future.
10 Develop your own mindfulness
Even with positive parenting tools, there will be stressful times and situations that make you angry and frustrated by the child’s actions. This is normal and unavoidable. However, being able to acknowledge these thoughts and feelings without acting on them (shouting, blaming or enforcing punishments) can be very empowering.
We all have negative thoughts, but the good news is they are just that – thoughts that come and go. Try not to give your emotional reactions value. Do so by not reacting to these temporary states. In this way you can decrease feelings like being out of control. By being more in control yourself, not only are you able to handle the difficult situations with more ease, but you – also serve as a better role model for your child.