By Carol E. Henderson, LCSW

No matter how your child came into your life, I am willing to bet that a handbook was not included. Yeah, none of my three kids came with one either. And each of my kids is so different, I have sometimes worried that the hospital gave me the wrong baby. So, what general tips could I offer to new parents? To struggling parents? Or to people thinking about becoming parents? I have more than 20 years of experience as a social worker, 10 of those years were working with at-risk youths in the school system. I’m also a single mom with three kids and no local family. I survived a wickedly stressful divorce as well as Stage 3 breast cancer. I have had a few rough patches with my kids in tow and want to share what I have learned. Take it or toss it.

Don’t be so hard on yourself

Trying to be the perfect parent can be just as damaging as being a negligent parent. I have worked with lots of kids with terrible intestinal disorders because their parents were too uptight. I wish that I was kidding. Every time I see a kid who suffers from constipation, I wonder what is going on at home. Is the parent nervous? Anxious? The answer is usually yes. At the other end of the spectrum is the negligent parent who won’t look up from their phone, never returns forms to school, doesn’t send in money for lunch or trips, or is, possibly, too depressed to care about anything. The types of behaviors that let us know something isn’t right at home in the case of negligent parents are a lack of boundaries. For example, kids who hug random strangers because they are desperate for attention. Or maybe the kid who barks like a dog in the middle of class.

So, what’s the answer? Balance. The answer is balance. We need to be flexible with our parenting. Being overly rigid and authoritarian hasn’t done much for North Korea, so it probably isn’t the answer in your household either. Letting your kids know that they are at the bottom of your priority list is bad juju as well. Shoot for the middle of the parenting spectrum. Put down your phone when your child speaks. Put it down to look them in the eye and listen. Be happy to see them at the end of the school day, even if your day has been miserable. Keep it simple and keep it balanced.

Give positive feedback

How do you change behaviors? You reinforce the good ones. That’s it. Set your kids up for success. Tell them to do something you know they will do and praise them for it. I wish that I had a nickel for every time that I tell parents this. I’d be retired! But we all forget to do this in our lives. We all get into a pattern of apathy after a few hard days, or months, or years. This is where insight comes into play. If you’re not getting the type of behavior you want from your kid, look in the mirror first. Is there something I could do differently or better? Am I being too negative? Am I giving attention only when my kid screws up? If you find yourself telling your kid what not to do more than you tell them good job for what you want them to do, you are a part of the problem.

The good news, though, is that you are also part of the solution. As the grown-up, you also get to be the hero, should you want to be. You can be the one to turn around a negative environment at home, making bad behaviors easier to reduce. Be the hero. Say something nice to that little face staring at you, or to the angry, hormonal teen who just slammed the door. Taking on an angry teen with kindness definitely makes you a hero in my book!

Let your kid struggle

By eliminating barriers and struggles, we are crippling our children. They need to learn to resolve their own conflicts, to tolerate being uncomfortable, and to try to solve their own problems. Want to know why kids today have zero frustration tolerance? Because we fix everything for them. If you intervene to prevent a tantrum, and you’re doing so eliminates the challenge, watch out. Your kid will become a small human who throws tantrums when they’re hot, hungry, or slightly irritated. It’s okay to let your kid struggle! It teaches them that being uncomfortable is almost always temporary. It improves their self-esteem when they can solve a problem on their own. I’m not suggesting that you completely abandon them, but if they are struggling with a shape-sorter, reassure them that they can do it. Be their coach! Cheer them on instead. “You can do this, I know you can!” Resist the urge to immediately intervene.

I recently had a parent reach out to me for advice about her child’s situation at school. She told me it is her job to change her child’s environment. Yikes! That’s a really big and impossible job. It is our job as parents to give our kids the tools to maneuver between different environments, some of which may be less than pleasant. It is our job to teach them and then to let them practice navigation. Why? Because it’s an important life skill. Without this skill, they will become an emotional mess at the first sign of frustration. It’s not fair to the kid to not teach them to try to solve an issue on their own a few times. And if you don’t have the skills needed to tolerate discomfort yourself? Get them. P-E-R-I-O-D. See a therapist, read a self-help book, or find a 12-step program. You are crippling your children by sending them into the world with no clue how to problem solve, how to stand up to a bully, or how to tolerate a smidge of discomfort. To quote Susan Powter, “Stop the insanity.”

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Carol E. Henderson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the Winchester area with over 20 years of social work experience. She specializes in behavior modification, high functioning autism, threat risk assessment, and parenting coordination for restructuring families. Carol is also fluent in Virginia Tiered Systems of Supports (VTSS) and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) after working with a local school system for 10 years. She utilizes a number of evidence-based interventions to help her clients remove barriers to their personal and interpersonal development.
You can contact her by emailing 
cellinger@lfsva.org or calling 540-450-2782 x6706.

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