Top Three Things All Parents Should Know
Top Three Things All Parents Should Know (or, “The Best Parenting Advice I Can Ever Give”)
By: Amy Jeffers, MA
As both a therapist who works with children, parents, and families and a mother of two adolescent daughters, I spend a massive amount of time sifting through the available literature, blogs, trainings, and anything else I can get my hands on related to parenting. When I have free time, I’m likely listening to a parenting podcast or reading a parenting-related article. I also value my experiences speaking with other parents and learning the tips and tricks that have worked for them, the specific challenges they face, and the things they wish they would have figured out earlier, as well as bouncing around parenting strategies and resources with other therapists. There is a wealth of information out there for individuals who are interested in honing their parenting skills and improving their relationships with their children, for which I am eternally grateful (both for myself and my clients).
However, the sentiment I hear time and time again when working clinically with parents is: “But I just don’t have the time to [read/listen/watch] this resource… I have a family to raise.” I get it – trust me! Most parents barely have a minute to themselves, let alone time to read an entire parenting book or listen to an hour-long parenting podcast (honestly, I’m honored you’ve gotten this far in my blog post). So, in an effort to simplify the lives of parents while still passing along important and hugely impactful parenting advice, I’ve compiled a list of my top three “things all parents should know” to share with you in the hopes that these bite-sized recommendations might increase your confidence as a parent, give you some direction during particularly challenging parenting moments, and improve your relationships with your children, which is ultimately what most parents are striving for! Without further ado… here are my top three “things all parents should know,” both as a therapist and a parent (who wishes she would have learned these things sooner):
1) All parents should know about… COREGULATION
The concept of coregulation refers to the way in which one’s nervous system attunes to the nervous system of another in order to collect data about the safety and security of one’s situation and environment. Because their survival is entirely dependent upon being taken care of by others, babies and children especially rely on coregulation with their caregivers to gather information about how to respond to situations, and whether they are physically and emotionally safe in specific situations. Coregulation happens on an unconscious, physiological, and neurological level and occurs constantly, making it an inherent part of the human experience, particularly for infants and children (but also for adolescents, teens, and adults). Through healthy coregulation, children learn to trust their gut, feel safe and secure, and manage and process their emotions appropriately (leading to the ability to self-regulate).
Here’s where we potentially run into trouble: if a child’s caretaker is not regulated (if they struggle with their own emotional regulation), a child is unable to regulate themselves emotionally in the caretaker’s presence. Essentially, an emotionally unregulated child cannot become regulated while in relationship to an emotionally unregulated adult. If a parent is stressed, highly anxious, or angry, and is attempting to get their child to calm down, the child is going to struggle to regulate their own emotions (as the parents is not able to regulate theirs). Similarly, if a parent is screaming at their child to calm down, the child will not calm down because they CAN’T. As a therapist, I see this dynamic play out time and time again, where a parent becomes highly emotionally dysregulated in response to a child’s behavior, then becomes upset and even more emotionally dysregulated when the child in question cannot calm down, leading to a downward spiral of negative coregulation that’s upsetting to both the parent and the child (who are now both experiencing simultaneous emotional meltdowns).
So how can we as parents change this dynamic and promote healthy coregulation with our children? We can take care of our physical and emotional needs through self-care, address and work through our own emotional baggage through therapy or self-reflection, and learn healthy emotional regulation skills to improve our own ability to emotionally regulate in an appropriate and effective way. When our emotions become overwhelming, we can use healthy coping skills to reduce the impact of our overwhelming emotions; when we feel ourselves reacting to our child, we can take a step back, take some deep breaths, and calm ourselves down before attempting to calm our child down. As parents, we have to make it our responsibility to regulate our own emotions first so we can promote healthy coregulation for our children (and if this seems overwhelming, we don’t have to go it on our own – there are therapists and other resources to support us in our journey to improving our own emotional regulation).
Most important takeaway: You cannot expect a child to regulate themselves if you are not also regulated. Children cannot regulate when those around them, particularly their caregivers, are not regulated. Have age-appropriate expectations regarding your child’s ability to regulate emotionally and work on increasing your own self-care and mental wellness to improve your own ability to regulate your emotions appropriately.
2) All parents should know about… MODELING
As a child of the ’80s (or the “1900s,” as my younger clients like to jokingly remind me), I vividly recall the concept of “do as I say, not as I do” serving as a foundational concept for much of the parenting during that decade (stemming from parenting approaches used in the decades before). Under this premise, the expectations of children’s behavior did not align with the behavior being modeled by parents; instead, children were urged to follow the rules and expectations for their behavior verbally set by their parents while observing seemingly contradicting behavior exhibited by the caretakers in their lives. This led to a lot of confusion for children as modeling the undesirable behaviors demonstrated by their parents, which is what children inherently do, oftentimes led to punishment, cognitive incongruence, and frustration for the child. Why were parents asking children to act one way then behaving differently themselves? So confusing!
At our core, humans are social creatures who learn about ourselves, societal expectations, and relationships through observing others. Regardless of age, people are constantly watching the behavior of others and learning about the world around them, as well as the outcomes of certain behaviors. Babies and children watch their parents and siblings like hawks… and whether you believe it or not, adolescents and teens are equally observant of their parents’ behavior and responses to situations. Ultimately, regardless what parents SAY, children are also watching what parents DO… and modeling the behaviors they’re observing.
I see this dynamic play out quite frequently with clients and their families in therapy. Parents will often come to me and say, “I don’t like that my child is [hitting/screaming at others/aggressive], I need interventions to change their behaviors.” However, after further exploration, it comes to light that the parent is spanking, screaming, or demonstrating the exact behaviors they have deemed problematic. Then, when working with the child, they may share a connection they’ve already made independently: “When my parents are angry, they spank and yell at me… so when I’m angry, I sometimes hit or yell at others.” The emergence of this pattern is so helpful because now we know what to do – in order to reduce the child’s aggressive or maladaptive behaviors, parents can model more appropriate behaviors for the child (in addition to the utilization of some great coping and communication skills we can teach the child in therapy). This is not to blame parents in any way, but rather to highlight the impact (both positive and negative) that behaviors modeled by parents can have on a child. I am a strong believer that most parents genuinely want what’s best for their children so when we highlight this dynamic, we then have the power to become the most beneficial and supportive parents possible by modeling desired behaviors (which is a wonderful position to be in).
Most important takeaway: Children are always watching. Model the behaviors you want to see in your child and avoid modeling the behaviors you do not. If you don’t want your children to act physically or verbally aggressive towards others, do not act physically or verbally aggressive towards your child or others; if you do not want your child to scream when they’re upset, do not scream at your child or others when you’re upset. Demonstrate for your child healthy problem-solving, communication, and emotional regulation strategies through modeling in day-to-day situations so they can absorb and reenact healthy behaviors.
3) All parents should know about… CONSISTENCY
In addition to healthy attachment, consistency is one of the most important contributing factors to the development of feeling safe and secure. Children feel vulnerable due to the inherent lack of control over their experiences and look to the adults around them for stability, safety, and security. One of the most effective ways to help children feel safe and secure in the face of uncertainty is by showing up consistently, both in terms of your individual parenting and collective parenting with a partner. Let’s explore more deeply what “showing up consistently” looks like and how you can implement this in your own family!
Consistency in parenting means repeatedly showing up in a way that is predictable. When children know that a parent will show up and can gauge what their response will be, the child feels safer in their relationship with that parent. For example, if a parent consistently responds to a child’s distress with a hug and quick talk about feelings, the child can predict their parent’s reaction (while also knowing that if they are upset, their parent will comfort them). However, when parents’ responses to similar situations vary wildly, children are never quite sure what type of reaction to expect, leaving them feeling uncertain and emotionally unsafe. We see this when parents sometimes react calmly and balanced in response to a situation, then respond with anger or punitiveness to the same situation on other occasions. In this case, children never know which parent they’ll experience – the “calm and balanced” parent or the “angry and punitive” parent – in a given situation, so they experience a constant sense of unease, discomfort, anxiety, and lack of safety and security. Children who experience inconsistent parenting are also much less likely to reach out to a parent for support because they’re not sure if they’ll get a hug or punishment.
Consistency also extends to the rules and boundaries of a family, as well as the necessity for parents to be on similar pages when it comes to parenting. Regardless of their age, children need a framework in which to operate, constructed by appropriate rules and boundaries, as well as consistent and developmentally-appropriate consequences. Children need to be aware of what is expected of them in terms of behavior in a family system and what the consequences will be if those expectations are not met (i.e. “You are expected to be home by your agreed-upon curfew. If you do not fulfill this expectation, the consequence will be X”). If parents are inconsistent in identifying, expressing, and reinforcing expectations and boundaries, children’s behavior will be all over the place – partially out of a lack of knowing what reaction to expect and partially in response to a desire to push already weak boundaries. Moreover, if one parent is consistent in the way they show up and express/reinforce expectations while the other parent is not, the inconsistency in parenting approaches will not only divide the parents and prevent successful coparenting, but will also lead in additional confusion and lack of security for children in the household. This is not to say that all parents will be on the same page all the time in terms of parenting (spoiler: they will not); however, parents should work together to understand each other’s parenting styles, compromise and collaborate, and present as a strong, cohesive, and consistent parenting unit whenever possible.
Most important takeaway: For children, consistency equals safety and security. When children know how to predict an adult’s reaction because the adult consistently behaves a certain way, children feel safe and secure; when children have no idea how to predict an adult’s response, they exist in a state of unrest and insecurity. Additionally, when parents present consistent expectations, boundaries, and consequences, children know what is expected of them and ultimately feel safer and more secure in their daily experiences and relationships. Parents should work to show up consistently both as individuals and as part of parenting team to increase children’s sense of safety and security in their family.
4) Bonus recommendation
If you are looking for additional resources regarding these and other parenting tips, I would highly recommend reading two books by Mona Delahooke, PhD.: Beyond Behaviors and Brain-Body Parenting. I regularly recommend both of these well-researched resources to parents wanting to know more about the connection between our nervous system and behaviors, and how to take active steps towards better understanding and supporting the needs of our children instead of just seeking out (ineffective) “quick fixes” for their children’s behaviors. You can also seek out support from a therapist who specializes in parenting issues – we love to help parents learn to actively apply these principles to their own families!