Parenting style: Make or break baby's happiness

November 11, 2010

There are several pieces of good news to start with. First, emotional attachment to the parent takes years. So if you're busy at work one month, distracted by other things like a death in the family, or just have an off day, there will be other chances for you to emotionally connect to your newborn. It's a process, not a once-and-done proposition. Obviously, the tinier, daily connections you make, the better. But Mother Nature never intended it to be an all-or-nothing premise.

Also, even babies have emotions and moods. So start by trying to be attentive to their interests and feelings. John Medina in his book BRAIN RULES FOR BABY, describes the emotional "ping pong" that an effective parent plays when feeding a newborn, or interacting with a toddler. The child's attention span may be short or interrupted for no apparent reason. A loving parent will patiently wait and be ready to interact with their child again when they turn back around. A kind parent doesn't become demanding and insist on complete attention from a baby, a toddler, a young child or a teenager.

Handling your child's emotional life is paramount to creating the kind of adult they will become. You can't ignore tantrums, outbursts, demands, crying or other strong emotional swings and expect everything to be okay on its own. Kids don't have the emotional maturity to just "shake it off" or to "outgrow it."

By the same token, experts say you can't overreact and try to spank the disruptive emotion out of them, yell at them or give them so many time outs that the discipline loses its effectiveness.

Think of it like the Goldilocks fable where the porridge is too hot, too cold and then just right.

Reactions to your child's emotions and the discipline you choose need to be in the "just right" category consistently, if you want to raise a happy, well adjusted, disciplined, smart child.

Medina breaks it into 4 categories of responsiveness: being authoritative, indulgent, neglectful, or authoritarian.

1. Authoritative is when you take a militaristic demanding stance... you care more about exerting power over your kids and having them fear you. There's little explanation of the rules or expectations and little warmth. This is not a good approach.

2. Indulgent is when you don't enforce any rules, you just want to avoid confrontation with your kids and you seem bewildered by the task of parenting. It's an abdication of your parental responsibilities and forces your children to raise themselves - often with disastrous results. This is bad too.

3. Neglectful is parents who don't care for their children and show little involvement in their day-to-day lives. This is the worst rejection a child can face and must be avoided.

4. Authoritative is the "just right" approach, which is responsive but gently demanding. You explain the rules, encourage your child to be independent, insist on regular communication and stay highly involved in the everyday care and emotional support of your child. This doesn't mean smothering your child, which can also damage them. But consistently tending them like roses in a beloved garden.

Once you've chosen a healthy parenting strategy or style, here are some other terrific tips from Medina to handle strong emotions in your child.

First, don't JUDGE the emotion. Emotions are what they are, and happen when they happen. It's better to verbally label the emotion and to help your child describe what they're feeling and why. And relating your own emotional experiences helps soothe your child too - telling them how you have felt the same way sometimes.

Then giving them a strategy for moving forward will help them handle their feelings.

For example, if your toddler throws a tantrum at the toy store, instead of a harsh spanking, or simply ignoring them and hoping no one notices the screaming inconsolable child, try the "just right approach."

You would say something like, "I see you're upset, let's go somewhere quiet so you can tell me what's wrong." You take the child gently to the restroom or outside the store. Then you describe what you saw. "You seem very sad. Is it because you wanted a new toy and I didn't buy it for you? I get upset when I can't have what I want all the time too. But today was a 'looking' day, not a 'buying day.' How about we make a list of all the toys you want when we get home, and maybe you can get some for your birthday or Christmas?"

It may seem like you're caving in to the child. But in reality, the child still did not get the toy; you just used the situation as a teachable moment for explaining delayed gratification.

The best parents run lovingly and patiently TOWARD strong emotions. They don't get embarrassed about them even when it happens in public. They try to neutralize any disruptive behavior that goes with the emotion by explaining that behavior is a choice, the emotion is not.

The net result is a happy, well-adjusted child who respects his/her parent and is disciplined, not spoiled and demanding.

Medina says empathy works because it calms the nerves, and emotions are contagious. If one person (your child) screams and gets upset, it upsets other people. You can neutralize the situation by being gentle and calm in the face of an emotional crisis.

Children are happiest if their parents are demanding but warm and if the child's emotions are named and analyzed but not judged.

Even if these are new ideas for you, they're worth trying! It's not easy, and as Medina says, parenting is not for sissies.

Your child will notice the difference and will thank you someday with improved behavior.

Best,

Monica Malpass

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