Parent Power is the new Wiley Edition of the two previous books by John Sharry on bringing up responsible children and teenagers. This expanded edition includes new chapters and extra material. Parent Power shows how it is possible to enjoy a warm and loving relationship with your children whilst teaching them to be responsible. Focusing on the interaction between parents and child it assists parents in finding alternative and satisfying ways to relate to their children and teenagers in a positive way.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and the author of six self-help books for parents and families, including Parenting Preschoolers and Young Children, Bringing Up Responsible Teenagers and When Parents Separate: Helping Your Children Cope (Veritas 2005, 2001, 2001). John is also is co-developer of the award winning Parents Plus Programmes Ã¢â‚¬â€œ dvd-based parenting courses Ã¢â‚¬â€œ which are used extensively in mental health services throughout Ireland and the UK.
- PARENTING - A ROLLER COASTER RIDE
Being a parent is like being on a roller coaster. Once you get on, there is no getting off and you never know what is coming round the next corner. There are loads of ups and downs, lots of highs and lows. The ride can make you so frightened, scared and sick as well as thrilled, excited and delighted - all at the same time! But like being on a roller coaster, it is the ups and downs that make it so wonderful. The most important thing is to `go with the flow, do your best to hang on and to let yourself enjoy the experience.
One of my favourite films is Parenthood starring Steve Martin. The film provides a sympathetic and humorous look at the joys and challenges of being a parent and of family life in general. The central character, Steve Martin, struggles to be a good father, different from his own father who was not there for him, only to find himself making many of the same errors. A turning point in the film is when his grandmother uses the metaphor of a roller coaster ride to explain what parenting is all about. He begins to accept the unpredictable nature of being a parent, realising that many of the `ups and downs bring the most meaning and fulfilment. This shift in thinking allows him to let go of his worries, to simply do his best and to enjoy the experience. It also helps him become more compassionate towards himself as a parent, more accepting of his children as they are and more forgiving towards his own father. In this book, I attempt to promote a compassionate look at parenting and family life. My aim is to support you as you carry out a difficult but very valuable job. I hope to encourage you to enjoy the ups and downs of what is certainly a roller coaster ride!
THE CHALLENGES OF PARENTING
With increased pressures on families, being a parent these days can be a difficult task. With less support from extended family and the community, families sometimes feel more isolated than they did in the past. In addition there is the scrutiny from outside: there is much debate as to what is good parenting, and bigger expectations for parents to achieve this. We are much more aware of the need of children to receive unconditional love and affirmation and how this is vital for them to grow up into happy, confident and independent adults. Yet we are also aware of the dangers of over-liberal parenting, and none of us wants our children to be spoiled or out of control.
Many parents are confused as to what is the best way to discipline children. Many of the authoritarian means of discipline (such as physical punishment) which we were brought up with are being increasingly questioned. Yet there is little information on effective alternatives. Often being responsible and being loving as a parent seem to be in contradiction. How can parents maintain a good and loving relationship with their children while also teaching what is right and wrong and helping them learn good social behaviour?
This book attempts to provide an answer to this question, by describing a`middle way approach to parenting that shows how you can positively encourage children to behave well, teaching them how to take responsibility for their actions, while also maintaining a satisfying and enjoyable relationship with them. The long-term aim is to help your children grow into responsible adults who are independent and confident but also appropriately connected to their family and able to form their own intimate relationships in the future.
Many writers describe family life as being like embarking on a plane journey together.* You start the journey with a destination in mind and a navigation plan, but throughout the journey you can get thrown off course by other factors such as wind or rain or other air traffic. Being off course is in fact quite normal. As Stephen Covey says, `Good families - even great families - are off track 90 percent of the time! What matters most, is that you keep returning to your original course, you keep the destination in mind. You dont let events throw you off course permanently and you keep returning to the flight plan.
The metaphor of a plane journey is also a good one to describe the long-term aim of parenting. When a child is born the parent is in the pilots seat and is very much in charge of the controls. Parents make all the decisions about infants and young childrens lives, about what they wear and where they go, etc. As a child begins to get older, a good parent allows the child into the cockpit and begins to teach him how to operate the controls. The child begins to make some decisions for himself and learns how to do some flying under the supervision of the parent. As the child becomes a teenager, he begins to take the first steps of flying his own plane.
As a parent your role is really one of `co-pilot. Over the years your aim is to slowly teach your children all they need to become confident, independent and responsible adults. Your goal is to patiently teach them all the skills they will need to fly their own plane. A good `co-pilot is there for their children and teenagers, offering encouragement and guidance, letting them learn from mistakes and achievements, and handing over one by one the responsibilities of being an independent adult.
This training process is often difficult for families. Many parents fear that their children will not be able to fly safely and they battle with their children to take back the controls, insisting that they take over the flying. Other parents are critical and undermining of their childrens ability to fly and they never release them to fly in the first place. And other parents do not give children any lessons at all, letting them learn the skills of flying from other people, such as their school friends or from the television. Good parents, however, realise that the aim of the journey is not for the parent to remain in the cockpit, but to teach their children how to fly their own planes. They realise that it is far better for children to learn the vital task of being an adult, with their parents acting as good co-pilots - present, involved and supportive of them. A good co-pilot has faith in the trainee pilots ability and is there actively to encourage them in the crucial job of flying
HOW TO USE THIS BOOK
This book is divided into two parts:
(1) Parenting young children from three to age eleven and
(2) Parenting teenagers.
Clearly there is overlap between the two parts and many of the ideas are interchangeable. For example, Steps 5-8 in Part 2 focus on resolving conflict and negotiating agreements and this clearly can work with children as young as eight as well as teenagers. Equally, many of the ideas in Part 1, such as those on rewards, sanctions, effective commands and even time out, can be applied with young teenagers. Certainly if your child is ten or eleven years old then both parts of the book might be equally relevant.
In addition, each part of the book is divided between eight well-researched principles of parenting which are derived from two parenting courses (the Parents Plus Childrens Programme and the Parents Plus Adolescents Programme) which were developed in Ireland.
The principles in the book are less concerned with finding a cause for why things go wrong in families or for why children have problems and more interested in helping parents to find solutions to these problems and to create more satisfying ways of relating to their children. The focus is on the interaction between parent and child - when parents respond differently to their children, they help their children behave differently. The goal is to help parents discover ways of communicating (many of which you will be using already) with their children that are positive and which in turn help children and teenagers to change positively.
The principles in the two parts of the book can be viewed as eight steps that you can follow one by one over the next few weeks. Most of the ideas will be familiar to you and be recognised as good, positive habits of parenting to which we all aspire. While the ideas are well researched as useful to most families, none apply in every situation and in every context. Each parent, each child and each family is different, and it is the parents who know their children and their families best. Rather than giving you ready-made solutions, the aim of this book is to encourage you to pause and reflect about your parenting and to discover what works for you with your children. I invite you to adapt the ideas and suggestions provided in the book to your own unique family situation. While I encourage you to try new things out, trust your own gut instinct to lead you to whats best for you and your family.
WHO THE BOOK IS FOR
This book is for anybody who has a responsibility to care for children and teenagers. This includes fathers, mothers, foster parents, step-parents, grandparents,even uncles and aunts and anybody else who has a responsibility to provide nurturing and guidance to a child or teenager, either on a full-time or a part-time basis. Throughout the book, I use the word parent, but you can substitute the word grandparent or foster parent or any other one, if these more accurately describe your situation. Equally, when I use the word family throughout the book I want to include all types of families including separated families, stepfamilies, single-parent families and blended families. Throughout the book I have used a number of case studies that I hope are representative of the different types of families I have worked with. I have alternated between girls and boys and male and female parents in order to be as inclusive as possible. I hope the ideas can be of benefit to you in whatever context you find yourself.
BUILD ON YOUR STRENGTHS AS A PARENT
You will notice that, throughout this book, I encourage you to build on your childrens strengths and abilities. I also encourage you to apply the same principles to yourself. Too often parents give themselves a hard time, criticising their own behaviour and putting themselves down. Too often they focus on what they do wrong in every situation, thinking `I wish I hadnt lost my patience like that, or `I should have more time for my children. Similarly, parents in couple relationships can relate negatively to each other, focusing on what the other has done wrong: `I dont like the way you interrupted me talking to the kids, or `You shouldnt have lost your temper then.
I encourage you to break this negative pattern and reverse it. Start looking for what you and your partner are doing right as parents. Be on the lookout for the small steps of improvement you make each day, the times you manage successfully. Begin to notice what you like about yourself as a parent. Dont be afraid to praise yourself: `Im pleased at how I was firm in that instance, or `Im glad that at least I tried my best. Equally, if you are part of a couple, be on the lookout for examples of behaviour you like in your partner: `Thanks for supporting me with Joe like that, or `Im really pleased that you came home early and we have some time to ourselves.
It is in your childrens interests for you to identify your own strengths and successes. Children learn a powerful lesson from you when you model selfencouragement. They learn how to be confident and successful and how to relate positively to other people.
Often parents go through difficult periods when it is hard for them to be consistent or to give their children all the time they deserve. At times like these, the worst thing parents can do is excessively blame themselves or be overdefensive. It is better to try to learn from the experience, acknowledge what needs to be done differently and move on. Self-compassion is as important as compassion toward others. It is powerful modelling for children to see their parents being honest about their mistakes and not dwelling on them but moving on to make a fresh start. This helps children learn how to move on from misbehaviour in the same way.
Remember, the goal is not to be a perfect parent or to have a perfect child. Such people do not exist (and if they did they would be unbearable to be around!). Rather, the goal is to be a`good enough parent - someone who accepts themselves as good enough, appreciates their own strengths as well as their weaknesses, tries their best and learns from experience.
START WITH CARING FOR YOURSELF
Unfortunately, many of the parents I meet are stressed and `burnt out. They have put all their energies into caring for and attending to their children, so much so that there is little time and attention for themselves.
While their intentions are admirable, the long-term results are bad for themselves and their children. If you are burnt out and stressed, you can no longer be there for your children; you can even become negative, inconsistent and resentful in your parenting. So you really have to turn this around and start with yourself.
The first suggestion I give to stressed parents is that they try and turn some of the care and attention that they have lavished on their children towards themselves. I suggest that they take time to identify and think about their own needs and wants and then decide to prioritise and care for themselves as well as their children. The irony is that such a switch to self-care benefits their children as much as themselves, as the children will have access to more content, positive and resourced parents than before. Most of this book is about ways of providing positive attention and care to children and teenagers whether this is by praise, encouragement, rewards or respectful listening and communication. The first step, however, is really to make sure we treat ourselves the same way!
TIPS FOR GOING FORWARD
1 Set aside some time next week, to identify your needs and wishes as a person and as a parent.
2 Plan a special time for yourself in the next week, doing something you really enjoy.
3 Promise to think positively about yourself over the next week. Look for examples of your good parenting.
PAUSING TO THINK ABOUT YOUR PARENTING
Eight-year-old Pete and his six-year-old brother were constantly squabbling and rowing. Their mother Julie would never get a moments peace before one of them would approach her complaining that the other had hit him or taken his toy or been nasty to him. She found herself getting drawn into their rows trying to `be the referee deciding who was right and who was wrong. But this would lead to protests and tears, particularly by Pete who always felt wronged. She often found herself becoming angry and frustrated and this would leave her stressed for the day.
When faced by a conflict or a difficult situation we can find ourselves immediately reacting in a certain way without too much thought or deliberation. Sometimes our immediate reactions are helpful, for example, when we naturally respond to soothe a child who is crying in distress. But other times they can be unhelpful, for example if we react over-angrily to a minor challenge from one of our children or if we say something damaging in the heat of a row. Many different things determine how we react to other people and our children. It can be simply a habit (good or bad) that we have developed over the years or it can be a repetition of how we were treated by our own parents in the past, or it can be a function of how stressed or strongly we feel about what is currently happening. In addition, we all have our specific weaknesses; we all have our `buttons that when pressed by others make us fly off the handle.
Problems can occur, however, when we get stuck in our reactions or when they become over-rigid and negative. Most problems in families are maintained by patterns of reactions between parents and children that have become fixed over time. In the example above, the fact that Julie jumps in and becomes the referee each time her children squabble may be part of the problem. Maybe getting drawn into an argument about who was right and who was wrong only intensifies the problem.
So how can you break these cycles of reacting? How can you break the patterns of the problem? The first thing you can do is to pause and to take time to think about what is going on. Rather than letting your children `press your fast-forward button you decide to press `pause, so you can begin to choose how you best want to respond. Consider now how Julie, the mother in the opening example of this chapter, paused and thought through how she wanted to respond to the problem she was facing:
When Julie took time to think about her sons squabbles she wondered if it had simply become a way for them to get her attention and that it had simply become a habit for her to everything and get involved. Thinking about it, she also realised that in the role of referee she generally took the side of the younger boy, which was probably unfair as they were both responsible.
Julie realised that she did not want her sons to be dependent on her to sort out every squabble and wanted to teach them to sort things out themselves. She was also unhappy with the way she was acting angrily in the argument (which clearly wasnt working) and she wanted to find a calmer more respectful way to help her sons sort this problem out.
So Julie made some decisions. (1) Instead of jumping in to referee when her two sons got into a squabble, she decided to back off, saying to them, `Listen, the two of you are old enough to sort your disagreements out. (2) If the squabble escalated and she had to intervene, she would not be the judge or referee, but would firmly and calmly tell the children that they had to take time apart for a few minutes (or the disputed toy would be taken away) until they could play better together. (3) Yulie resolved also to talk things through with her sons at a later time, when they were calmer, about how they could get on
PAUSING TO SOLVE PROBLEMS
Family and child problems are commonplace. Good families, even great families, all experience problems. All parents are challenged deeply at times by one or more of their children and all parents find themselves reacting in ways or saying things that on reflection, they wish they hadnt. The mark of a healthy family is not whether they have problems or not, but how they respond to the problems they have. Healthy families do let problems overwhelm them and take active steps to try and solve and manage them better. Pausing to think through how to respond to problems is generally the first step to solving problems, even quite serious ones. Furthermore, this gives you the satisfaction of taking control of your own reactions and being able to choose a more respectful and empowering response to what is happening. In later chapters, we will look at how you can use these principles to sit down with your children and/or your partner to solve problems; but even if others are not yet participating, you can decide to take a lead yourself. You can decide that you are going to first pause and think through what way you want to respond.
Consider the following principles to help you think through how you want to respond to problems:
1 Think carefully about what is really going on during the problem. Is your child looking for attention or is she feeling inadequate? Is it a power struggle between you? Is it caused by your own unrealistic expectations? Some honest self-reflection is called for.
2 Focus on your goal and what you want to achieve. What do you want to happen? What do your children want to happen? How can you get both goals met? For example, your child may want to stay out with friends and you want them to spend more time at home. Perhaps you could get to know some of their friends and arrange for them to come over to your house.
3 Think of what way you want to respond. Most parents I meet are deeply unhappy when they find themselves reacting angrily or negatively to their children. Even if the problem is not immedi-ately reduced, you are more likely to feel happier in yourself if you respond calmly, respectfully and more patiently.
4 Focus on what you can do. Rather than waiting for your child to change first, what can you do to help her change or to make the situation better?
5 Remember what has worked with your child in the past. For example, one parent realised that it was a`bad time to harangue his daughter with questions about how school went the minute she came in from school and was tired, and remembered that a better time was later, after dinner, when everyone was relaxed.
6 If something isnt working, try something different. For example, if nagging doesnt work, try backing off and giving your children some space to decide for themselves. Be prepared to have to try out a few different responses or to think about things several times before you find what works for you and your child. Pausing for a change - more examples
Jeans five-year-old son would always say `No when she asked him to do simple things like tidying up. This would annoy Jean greatly and she would react in an authoritarian manner, insisting her son did what she said. Her son would then react angrily and `dig his heels in and a long power struggle would take place between them, setting a very bad tone for the rest of the day.
When Jean took some time out to think about what was happening, talking the problem through with a friend of hers, she realised that the battle of wills between them was making things worse. She realised that her young son found it very hard for him to be `told what to do and rebelled if she was angry or argumentative in her style of insisting. As a result she decided in the first place to acknowledge his feelings in a respectful way, without giving in or getting drawn into an argument, when she had to insist on something being done. For example, she would say, `I know youd like to stay playing now, but we have to tidy up now for dinner ... youll be able to play later after dinner. Then, in the second place, shed give her son choices whenever possible so he could take some control. For example, she might say, `Would you like me to help you tidy up?, or `Which game will we tidy away first?. This respectful cooperative approach helped reduce a lot of the power struggles between them.
LEAVING A MESS
Peter used to constantly nag his thirteen-year-old daughter not to leave her `stuff all over the house and to clean her room which was like a pigsty. The problem continued and it was a constant source of tension between them leading to big public rows about it. When he paused to think about it, Peter realised that, while the house being clean was a big issue for him, the most important thing was the relationship with his daughter which was suffering because of the nagging and conflict. As a result he chose a good time to talk the problem through with her. The conversation took place when he was driving her to a class, which worked well as they had privacy and no interruptions. When he listened she told him how much it bothered her that he was on her back all the time and how it hurt her that he criticised her in front of other people. They reached a compromise about the cleaning. She resolved to make sure none of her stuff was in the communal areas of the house, and he resolved to back off and let her take responsibility for her room. The arrangement worked reasonably well, and they were able to joke a little about it. But most importantly, the fact they had spoken about it, heard each others point of view and come to an agreement had cleared the air and made a big difference, improving their relationship.
DAWDLING AT HOMEWORK
Jamess eight-year-old son, Tony, would dawdle and delay doing his homework as James sat with him. He would slowly do his writing and pretend he didnt know how to do his sums. James had to `sit over him as he did each part of his homework and he became increasingly frustrated as it would take longer and longer, and it really delayed him getting the dinner ready. Often James would end up nagging him and this would eventually lead to a row.
When James paused to think about what was going on, he realised that he had high expectations about his sons abilities, when in fact his son might be struggling with the work. He also realised that sitting over his son and turning homework into a battleground might be further undermining his confidence about what he could do. As a result, James made contact with Tonys teacher and together they came up with a plan as to how to help his son, which included less, but more focused, homework and a referral for help from the remedial teacher. James also changed his style of helping Tony at homework. He set aside a fixed homework time during which Tony was to try his best to get everything done. James only sat with Tony at the beginning and end of homework, ensuring that Tony had a lot of time to try out the work himself. In addition, James became very positive, picking out what Tony had done well rather than what he had done wrong. He also focused on helping Tony improve at his own pace. Finally, James made sure that a period of playtime followed homework as a natural reward to Tony for all his work.
ALL STRESSED OUT
Joe worked in a very high-powered job that placed great demands on him. When he came home to his wife and children, he would be frequently preoccupied and stressed. Often he would be grumpy and snap angrily at his children over minor things. He used to collapse in front of the TV and not even have time to play with them. When he had time away, Joe began to reflect on how out-of-balance his life had become. He realised that his family and children were more important than his work and wanted to spend more time with them. As a result he began to change his working hours, trying to get home earlier. A useful routine he found was to take a fifteen-minute walk through the park before he went home. During this time to himself, he would unwind and let the stress of the day go. He would prepare himself to arrive home, pleasant and attentive to his children who would be demanding his attention.
NOTHING WORKS ALL THE TIME OR FOR EVERYBODY
I hope reading this book will give you a chance to `pause and reflect about your parenting. By taking time to think through what was really going on, you can come up with a respectful response that has a good chance of working. While you cant control how your children will react, what you can do is change your own responses. And what you will find is that, when you can choose respectful and empowering responses taking into account your own and your childs needs (rather than reacting the same way over and over again), you will begin to positively influence your children. In simple terms, your children will begin to change as you begin to change. It is important to remember, however, that nothing works all the time or for everybody or in every situation. For example, in some situations ignoring a childs tantrum can cause too much distress and it can be better to adopt a more soothing or listening approach. What counts is that you take time to think through what works for you, and that you are flexible enough to adapt and change if something is not working. You may have to `press the pause button several times before you finally work out how best to manage a problem!
TIPS FOR GOING FORWARD
1 Think of a particular problem that occurs in your family. Take some time to think it, through until you understand what is going on and what you might do differently to make a difference.
2 Sit down and make a list of your goals. What, way do you want to be as a parent, as a Couple (if you have a partner), as a family? What is important? Maybe start a discussion with others in the family.
PROVIDING POSITIVE ATTENTION TO CHILDREN
Bedtime with four-year-old Zoe was a nightmare. She just would not settle by herself and would insist on story after story from her parents. First, she wanted her Dad to read and then her Mum. When they left her, she would cry until they came back or she would come down the stairs saying she was thirsty or the room was too cold or too hot. Her parents would go up to sort this out and then she would want something else. It was endless. Her parents would resort to lecturing, cajoling and bribing her to stay in her room, with just `one more story or `another five minutes downstairs. Both her parents and Zoe herself would become exhausted and sometimes very upset.
Have you noticed how young children will do anything to get their parents attention? Having their parents notice and respond to them is probably the greatest reward for children and they will seek this in as many ways as possible. Often parents find ways of giving approving, loving attention to their children, with warm hugs, close conversations and kind words. These are good habits and are very healthy for parent and child. Unfortunately, parents often unwittingly provide attention negatively via shouting, criticising and even slapping. Strange as it may seem, these negative interactions are preferable to no attention at all and children will seek them out in place of being ignored.
In the example above, Zoe is getting loads of attention from her parents for not going to bed. If she makes a fuss she gets extra stories, extra time up and can even persuade her parents to sit in the bed with her. Youd wonder why she would want to change this at all! In this situation her parents can make some simple changes in how they respond to Zoe at night time that could make a real difference. For example, they could:
1 Set up a routine at night (which they keep!) that specifies at what time she goes to bed, how many stories she gets, and at what time they leave her in her room.
2 Ensure she gets lots of positive attention during the stories and lots of praise when she goes to bed on time, or gets into the bed as asked.
3 Ensure she gets little attention when she gets out of bed or asks for something. The parents could firmly guide her back to her bed, without saying much at all.
4 Ensure she gets no extra rewards such as an extra story or extra time up, when she gets out of the bed, but is simply brought back to her room.
5 Also use a star chart to encourage her to stay in her bed (see Step 4 for information on star charts).
CATCH YOUR CHILD BEING GOOD
We know from research that when attention is given to a certain behaviour, that behaviour tends to be repeated and to develop, while behaviour that is not given attention disappears. It is human nature to get trapped into giving children more attention when they are misbehaving than when they are behaving well. For example, when two children are playing quietly together they are usually ignored until one of them starts an argument or begins whining. Parents respond rapidly to the childs negative behaviour, often with criticism or scolding, thus providing attention for negative behaviour while ignoring the positive behaviour shown when the children were playing quietly. If this pattern is repeated often enough, it does not take long for children to learn from experience that fighting and whining get a lot of adult attention. Sometimes this can become a vicious cycle. A child who misbehaves gains attention from a parent in the form of shouting or criticising. This can leave both parent and child upset and angry. From this position the child is more likely to seek attention again with misbehaviour and the parent more likely to respond angrily, and so the cycle repeats itself.
So how can you break this cycle? Or, even better, how can you turn it on its head so that it becomes a positive cycle? The best way to do this is to go out of your way to make sure your children get lots of positive attention and encouragement whenever they behave well - literally