As a parent, I think the scariest part of raising a child would have to be the teenage years. With external influences like peer relationships, exposure to drugs, alcohol and members of the opposite sex and you have the working ingredients for a Molotov cocktail.
Okay, so my two boys are currently 18 months and 4 years old – surely all that is a long way away. Well, I believe it is never too early to worry about it. The question I have often asked is: “how can we raise children that are immune to negative peer influence?” How do we help our children say “no” to drugs, or better yet – tell us if they have been approached about it? How do we make sure they can be sensible with alcohol, or better yet – be teetotallers? I would love to ban dating until they’re 21 years old, but I’m sure that’s the best way to push it underground. If our children are going to get into trouble, wouldn’t it be better to be the first person they turned to instead of the last?
In order for this to happen, it is important to cultivate a strong relationship with our children and it has to begin as early in their lives as possible. Having a strong relationship with our children serves a purpose that is two-fold. Not only can we expect them to turn to us when they are in trouble, but children who have a deep respect for their parents are also more likely to hold the morals and values taught to them close to heart.
How much influence does a parent really have?
There are stories about children who came from abusive homes with a history so destructive that nothing good could come out of it, but some of these children manage to rise above it all. These individuals show us that there are elements within a child that is unaffected by nurture. Science has managed to pinpoint it to three resiliency genes that protect these individuals from the stress and trauma experienced through life. Unfortunately, few are born with these resilient genes.
Then there are certain characteristics, such as a child’s temperament, which do not change with parental influence. For instance, one in five babies is born naturally anxious. These babies are sensitive to their environments and are generally more explosive compared to other babies. No amount of nurture will change the fact that they will always be anxious.
Although these factors are beyond our control, remember that 50% is nature and 50% is nurture. We do have some influence, even if it isn’t as much as we would like. According to “Brain Rules for Baby” by John Medina, there are specific things we can do to increase our chances of raising children who:
- have better emotional regulation, calming themselves more quickly.
- have the highest academic achievement.
- show greater empathetic responses.
- show greater loyalty to parents and have a higher compliance rate with parental wishes, the obedience coming from feelings of connection rather than from fear.
- have fewer incidences of paediatric depression and anxiety disorders.
- have the fewest infectious diseases.
- are less prone to acts of violence.
- have deeper, richer friendships, and lots more of them.
What can we do to increase our chances of raising such individuals?
A study on families who raised terrific children revealed that there were six common practices amongst these families. They are:
1. Authoritative Parents
Baumrind’s four styles of parenting looks at the way parents interacted with their children on two scales – how demanding/undemanding they are of their children, and how responsive/unresponsive they are with their children. The parents who raised the best children are the ones who are both demanding and responsive. These parents were labelled authoritative parents. The parents who raised the worst children were the ones who were undemanding and unresponsive. These parents were labelled neglectful. In between these two extremes were the authoritarian parents (demanding and unresponsive) and the indulgent parents (undemanding and responsive).
Authoritarians are too hard. They are unresponsive and demanding, exerting power over their children. They do not try to explain their rules, do not project any warmth and their children are often afraid of them.
Indulgent parents are too soft. They are responsive and undemanding. These parents love their children but are unable to make and enforce rules. They dislike confrontation and rarely demand compliance with family rules.
Neglectful parents are too aloof. They are unresponsive and undemanding. These are the worst kind of parents because they care little about their children and are uninvolved in their children’s day-to-day interactions. They provide only the most basic care.
Authoritative parents are just right. Responsive and demanding, these are the best parents to have. Although they are demanding, they care a great deal about their children. They explain their rules and encourage their children to talk about their reactions to them. They encourage high levels of independence, but they also see that children comply with family values. These parents have terrific communication skills with their children.
2. Be Comfortable with Your Own Emotions
“Monkey see, monkey do”. The same goes when it comes to parenting. Our children are watching us all the time and they imitate whatever behaviours we express. How we handle our emotions is one of the behaviours they will mimic. While most adults generally handle positive emotions well, like joy and happiness, negative emotions, like anger, sadness and fear are what we usually struggle with.
We need to learn to be comfortable with our emotions, even the negative ones, and be consistent with our reactions to those emotions. I find I am usually comfortable with my negative emotions when we are in private, but a public scenario is when everything flies out the window. Contrary behaviour, such as this, can be a source of confusion for children.
3. Track Your Child’s Emotions
It is important for us to be attentive to the emotional cues from our children and to be able to respond appropriately. Just as it is important to engage our children, it is equally important to know when to withdraw to give them space. Too much attention from a person (even one that we love) can be stifling. Stifling also leads to children who are less emotionally attached so watch your child’s cues and respect his need for space.
4. Label Emotions
Toddlers often experience many big emotions they don’t understand. The experience can be frightening because they feel out of control. Being able to label the emotion (verbalising the feeling) has been shown to have a neurologically calming effect for adults and children alike. Children who learn how to label their emotions become better at self-soothing, are better able to focus on tasks, and have more successful peer relationships.
5. Face Your Child’s Emotions and Do Not Judge Them
Behaviours are choices, but emotions are not. It is important that we accept all the emotions that our children express and realise that there is no such thing as a bad emotion. Do not discourage the expression of emotions and do not ignore them because all it achieves is to teach our children which emotions are okay and which are not.
For example, a little girl might hit her baby sister because she feels threatened. Her parents should not make her brush away the feeling of being threatened as if it doesn’t exist. What they need to focus on is to teach her positive ways to deal with the emotion and that hitting her baby sister is not the way.
We’re human and that makes us vulnerable to all kinds of emotions – anger, fear, sadness – whether we think it is appropriate or not. Expecting our children not to feel those emotions is like expecting them to be robots. What we should teach them is how to handle that emotion.
Show your child empathy by repeating what he is feeling because it tells your child you understand his emotions. Empathy works because:
- Emotions are contagious. For example, a group of angry, violent protesters can spread the feeling of anger and violence causing such gatherings to get out of hand.
- Empathy is calming – biological findings show that empathy triggers the vagus nerve to calm the body.
The more empathy you show your child, the more empathic he will learn to be.
For more advice on how to raise happy, confident and successful children, I recommend reading “Brain Rules for Baby” by John Medina, and “The Complete Secrets of Happy Children” by Steve Biddulph.