Tolstoy famously wrote “Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Modern psychological science supports this wisdom in findings that extend back for decades and traverse the globe. My work has focused on trying to distill this research into 10 effective and time-efficient strategies that hectic parents can use to promote wellness, happiness and resilience in their children and themselves.
So, my wish for parents in 2012 is to practice these 10 strategies (each of which constitutes a chapter in my parenting book Working Parents, Thriving Families: 10 Strategies That Make a Difference). Here they are:
#1. Spend one hour a week with each child doing nothing but paying attention and saying what you like about your child, what he or she is doing or what he or she is saying. This special time is different from quality time (i.e., in quality time something else is usually holding my attention in addition to my child). What an apple a day is to a pediatrician, this hour a week of special time is to a child psychologist.
#2. Discover what your child excels at, help her or him to develop it and give her or him regular experiences with such, especially in public. All of us have talents that reside at the top of the bell curve, though they often go undiscovered or undeveloped. To discover and develop your child’s talents is a major gift. (By the way, these first two strategies go to the core of self-esteem formation.)
#3. Develop and support daily, weekly, seasonal and special occasion rituals. Such activities can serve as islands of stability in the torrential currents of our culture. Think of it from the perspective of your child: Kids may be shooting kids in school, planes may be crashing into buildings but we still have pizza night, or go to church on Sunday, or have a family meal or, (fill in the blank). These “we alwayses” are music to a parent’s ears.
#4. Further develop your child’s psychological muscle to do things when he or she doesn’t feel like it by developing an effective discipline plan. Try to avoid what doesn’t work (e.g, corporal punishment, harshness)–knowing that we are all capable of lapses and not being too hard on yourself for them–and to use what does work (e.g., setting specific age-appropriate expectations and linking them to outcomes desired by your child, using time-out). By the time he or she is an adult this “muscle” will likely predict his or her success across multiple vocational and interpersonal realms.
#5. Monitor well. Of course, this means establishing appropriate parent controls on the range of media devices to which your child has access. But, it also means limiting sedentary electronic pleasuring to two hours a day and, when she or he is out of your site, knowing where he or she is, who she or he is with, what they are doing and what responsible adult is in charge of monitoring.
#6. Remember that your child’s wellness depends upon your wellness and the wellness of your relationship with your significant other. Secure your oxygen mask first before securing your child’s (e.g., each chapter in the aforementioned book includes a strategy from the positive psychology literature for parents to promote their own wellness.)
#7. Promote harmony, collaboration and effective relationships with the other important adults in your child’s life. The more you do this the better your child will fair. This is the case with teachers, coaches, and, especially, exes (e.g., two things best predict adjustment to divorce: the number of changes the child experiences, with the fewer the better, and how well the parents get along).
#8. Make sure that your child’s health tripod (i.e., sleep, physical activity and diet) is strong. Make sure he or she gets recommended doses of sleep (1-3 years old: 12-14 hours, 3-5 years old: 11-13 hours, 5-12 years old: 10-11 hours, Teens: 8.5-9.25 hours), sweats and breathes hard an hour a day (or at least most days) and eats a balanced diet (e.g., low in refined/processed carbohydrates and junk food, lots of veggies, fruits, whole grains, healthy fats, and quality fish). So many kinds of problems can go away, or be avoided to begin with, when this tripod is strong.
#9. Empower your child to make decisions that are developmentally appropriate and teach her or him how to respond adaptively to failure (e.g., crisis = pain + opportunity). We parents hurt worse when our kid hurts. This can sometimes cause us to make too many decisions for our kids and/or to try to protect our kids from the consequences of their choices.
#10. If your child is suffering from anything more than transient mental pain, treat it as you would more than transient dental pain, and seek out the services of a qualified mental health professional (most kids have such pain by adulthood but only a small minority get effective care). And, if you do, educate yourself regarding what differentiates pedestrian from quality care (lots of guidance is provided in my book).
We parents number among the most selfless beings in the universe. I hope you give yourself credit for that as you raise your progeny this year. And, if there is anything I can do to help you in your parenting mission, please don’t hesitate to let me know.
Dr. David Palmiter is a psychology professor, practicing psychologist, President-Elect of the Pennsylvania Psychological Association and Public Education Coordinator for the American Psychological Association. He also has been married for 20+ years and has three children ranging in age from 11 to 16. His blog is at www.hecticparents.com, his Twitter moniker is @HelpingParents and his primary website is at www.helpingfamilies.com.