5 Ways to Improve Family Interactions

(This recap is from a parent workshop by Cara Morales, who works with teens, couples, and families in difficult seasons of life, such as divorce or bereavement. She is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, professional clinical counselor, and parenting coach who has worked extensively to help high school students overcome depression, anxiety, self-harm behaviors, suicidality, and family stressors.)

“I was a wonderful parent before I had children.” So begins the book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Most people—even those who have no children—hold firm opinions on how parenting should be done, but the difficulty of dealing with a child’s specific personality can be understood only by people who have undertaken this task.

Powerful Emotions

Managing a child’s feelings is one of the most important things in parenting. Listening with full attention to expressed problems is essential, because it lets the child feel heard, which can help ease the intensity of emotions. Another way to help a child feel heard is to acknowledge his or her troubles with one word. This allows the child to keep talking, assured that the parent is listening. Another helpful tip is to give a name to feelings the child is voicing, which makes them seem more concrete and allows him or her to have more power over those emotions.

Recognizing a child’s fantasies and explaining why they are not realistic can also be effective, as it forces consideration of a more logical path. Empathy is the most important tool when dealing with emotion, and enough empathy can calm even intense emotionality.

Seeking Cooperation

One thing many parents struggle with is getting their children to cooperate. By focusing on the facts of any given situation and letting children come to their own conclusions of what to do, parents can help build each child’s problem-solving ability and, at the same time, prevent the anger that a child often feels if given orders. Similarly, giving accurate information to entice a child to act desirably can be more effective than just telling him or her what to do, because it teaches as well as gets the child to cooperate. Another powerful strategy is using a single word or phrase to invite cooperation, as children often listen better to brief instructions than to a lengthy speech.

An alternative approach is to talk about one’s own feelings. Children care about their parents and will usually stop behavior that is hurting them, so using first-person language shifts linguistic blame away from the children but is just as effective. Cooperation is a struggle of needs, and understanding both sides of the struggle is necessary in order to prompt desirable behavior.

Negative Consequences

Punishment is a very controversial topic, but it is essential to understand. One way to deal with misbehavior is to express strong disapproval. This can be just as effective as traditional punishment, but it causes less resentment. Another way to go about punishment is to suggest ways to make amends, which can seem more relevant than an unrelated penalty. Offering a choice between continuing bad behavior and being punished can also reinforce the idea that they are in control of their behavior. Since learning by experience is sometimes the only effective method, one valuable punishment is simply to let children experience the negative consequences of their actions. Punishment, when done wrong, is simply a distraction from bad behavior and can cause resentment, but consequences are a very real thing that children must experience.

Encourage Autonomy

An integral part of parenting that can be easy to neglect is letting children make choices appropriate for their age. Making decisions for children who are capable of making those choices for themselves can create a caged feeling and encourage negative emotion. Avoid asking too many questions, allowing them to decide what to share instead of forcing it out. Also, be sure to give a child hope for what he or she want to achieve while grounding the ideas in reality, as striking the right balance between these two can inspire a child to pursue ambitious yet achievable goals.

Another important way to encourage autonomy is to tell children to use resources outside of the home to solve their issues, which will teach them to problem-solve independently instead of always coming to you. Show respect for a child’s struggles and neither ignore them nor resolve issues for him or her. Training children to stop relying on parents, while difficult, is an important part of preparing every child for adult life.

Descriptive Praise

Lastly, parents must learn how to properly praise a child, which is important to his or her self-confidence. Describing the positive things children do instead of expressing direct praise helps them to develop internal self-esteem and severs reliance on external encouragement. After a parent uses descriptive praise, he or she should pause to let the child internalize it, which further develops healthy self-esteem. If done poorly, praise can actually harm instead of help by getting a child used to external rather than internal encouragement.

I encourage parents to think about where their child will be in 10 years, and what influence they will have on that young adult. Maximizing positive influence on the future child can help parents stay focused on the end goal rather than on fleeting emotions. While raising a child takes a little less than two decades, the influence from this crucial time lasts a person’s entire lifetime.

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