Before my daughter was born, a friend with two children told me that having a child would bring a sense of joy I didn't know was possible.
There are others who have said that having a child is like an extension of your heart outside your body. These are all true. Being a parent is rewarding and joyful. Being a parent is also hard.
We want to support our children's well-being, and we want to be happy, too, but everyday experiences can get in the way. Maybe it's the struggle of getting out the door in the morning or getting through a trip to the grocery store without a meltdown. Perhaps it's the feeling of wanting to decompress after a long day, but each step of the bedtime routine seems to cause an argument.
These are common experiences for parents. Most days, we just want it to be a little easier.
Research carried out by my co-authors and me, and by others, documents what it takes to make those everyday parenting experiences a little easier. And when we use those practices consistently, they can help reduce the risk of small issues becoming big and make it more likely that our children will develop positive social and emotional skills that they will use for the rest of their lives.
As a psychologist and a parent, I have seen how using these practices can also improve our quality of life and help us reconnect with that sense of parenting joy.
Pay attention to the positive
All our children want is us. They want our attention. They want to tell us what they learned at school. They want to show us that jack-o'-lantern they created. And they will get our attention any way they can.
If we miss an opportunity to pay attention to something positive, they may resort to not following our directions, because when they do, most of the time they will get a reaction from us. Our children will show us more of what we attend to - positive or negative.
Pay attention to the positive, and they will show us more positive behaviors. The next time your child brushes their teeth, puts away their toys or says something kind to a friend, pay attention, comment on it, tell them you noticed and how impressed you are.
Sometimes it can be tough to think of the right words. Try searching online for "100 ways to praise a child." Put the list on the counter or refrigerator and refer to it. Few things are more gratifying than the way our children respond when we praise them.
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Lean into your strengths as a parent
When parenting challenges start to pile up, we can feel like a failure. But you aren't failing. You are strong and capable. Parenting is personal, and we all have parenting strengths.
Take time each week to write down what parenting means to you and what your strengths are as a parent. If you have trouble coming up with a list, ask a friend to help or ask your child.
You might take time to listen when your child has a story to share. You might provide encouraging words when they've had a tough day. Perhaps you let yourself be silly with them, or maybe you go for a walk together. Perhaps you are good at setting up a routine so that getting ready in the morning is a little easier for everyone.
Writing down and remembering these strengths helps us notice when we are succeeding. When we do struggle, we can use these strengths as a place to start. Use the encouraging words to get through a tough morning. Take a walk together when your child seems distant. Borrow the structured routine from the morning to help with bedtime.
Expectations are everywhere. At school, kids are told to take turns, keep objects to themselves and follow directions. In grocery stores, we are expected to put things back if we don't buy them and pay for items before leaving. We are also expected to wait for a traffic signal to go through an intersection.
Expectations can help clarify what we want. Consider writing down a few household expectations that everyone can agree to, such as picking up items when we are done using them or treating others as you want to be treated.
Once everyone agrees to three to five expectations, watch for anytime your child follows those expectations - praise them, encourage them, go on a walk together as a celebration. Sometimes all we need to do is agree on how we want to live together under the same roof.
Connect with your child's school
Work as a team with your child's teacher. Communicating with your child's teachers can help support your child at home and at school. Ask how things are going at school. Share successes from home. When your child had a tough weekend or a hard day, tell the teacher. And when you need support, ask for a meeting with the teacher or school psychologist.
Our children benefit from consistency, and when the adults in their life work together, there will be more consistency across home and school. We can share what is working at home, so teachers can incorporate those ideas into their classrooms. And we can learn about strategies employed by our children's teachers that we can use at home.
Parenting can be tough, but it's also rewarding.
- Andy Garbacz, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and an associate professor and co-director of the School Psychology Program and the School Mental Health Collaborative at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.