Every parent knows that parenting can be one of the toughest and demanding jobs they will ever have. In addition to keeping their children safe and healthy, parents want to raise children who will become responsible, caring, and confident adults. When these efforts are coupled with the busyness and stressors of everyday modern life, it’s understandable that parents are searching for guidance that will help them do what is best for their children.
Unfortunately, most parenting advice focuses on how to achieve the short-term goals of parenting, such as those everyday tasks like getting your toddler dressed and out the door or preventing fights between siblings. The long-term goal of parenting—raising an independent, happy adult—is often lost in the shuffle. This is because most parenting guidance overlooks the fundamental key to resolving many of the issues that families are facing—a parent’s relationship with their child. A positive, loving relationship can help ease the day-to-day conflicts and power struggles and have a positive effect on the adult a child eventually becomes.
Why the parent-child relationship is so important
A parent’s unconditional love is the foundation of their child’s self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-worth. To a child, her parents are everything. Because of this, how a parent responds to a child becomes a template for how she will treat herself and others. As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper, M.D., explain, “A child believes that every experience she has is intended by her parents and is good for her; she will understand that her parents want her to feel that way and how she feels is how she should feel.”
In other words, the relationship that parents cultivate with their child creates the road map from which children model their inner well-being. For instance, similar to mirror neurons, where children mimic what they see others physically do (i.e., how to open and shut a door, how to hold a spoon, etc.), children also mimic the way that mom and dad make them feel. So if a child’s relationship with her parents is joyful – she will seek out experiences and relationships that provide that emotion. And alternatively, if the relationship is stressful or frustrating, a child will seek experiences that bring those emotions. It is the latter that causes children to suffer from frequent tantrums.
All children, regardless of the health of the parent/child relationship, act out – they are children after all and every day losses from not being able to find their teddy bear to scraping their knee or not being able to have a second scoop of ice cream can cause tears. But the ability for a child to recover from such losses is a reflection of their relationship with their parent. And it is in those times when a child is struggling, acting out, or having a hard time that the parent/child relationship is fine tuned.
Traditionally, acting out and other attention-getting behavior have been labeled as “bad” behavior that must be disciplined. So, parents feel compelled to respond to this behavior without patience or compassion. These responses may get the behavior to stop in that moment, but they subsequently cause the parent/child relationship to suffer, making the child feel alone, angry, or sad. And it is these unhappy emotions that are fueling the behavior that parents are hoping to alleviate.
But by viewing your child’s behavior with a different lens, you can gain a new perspective on why she is behaving a certain way. Instead of seeing this behavior as “bad,” you can view it as a call for your help, support, connection, or care. This helps parents focus on how a child is feeling in the moment instead of only the desired outcome—or the short-term goal—such as, getting their child out the door, eating their lunch, going to bed, etc.
How to approach troubling behavior with the parent-child relationship in mind
Approaching parenting with a focus on protecting and nurturing your loving parent-child relationship involves understanding a child’s mind and emotions at each stage of their development. This understanding can then guide how parents respond and manage a child’s immature (but developmentally appropriate) behavior in a way that protects and nurtures their loving relationship.
For example, if a child is constantly seeking his parents’ attention, it is not uncommon to hear phrases like “He’s just doing that for attention, just ignore him.” However, ignoring their child does not address the behavior because it also does not address the child’s feelings in the moment (a need for his parents’ relationship).
If your child is requesting or demanding your attention, try to be available. But if you can’t at that moment, let your child know. You could say something like, ‘I would love to play with you right now, but I need to put your brother down for a nap. I’ll be happy to play afterwards.’ Being able to communicate to your child that if you could play, you would, helps to preserve your relationship and ensures he still feels cared for. The more you are able to respond in the moment, the more patience your child will have the next time when he must wait for you because his self-esteem will grow under your kind responses.
If your child is expressing out-of-control behaviors like throwing toys, screaming, crying, or some other kind of tantrum try using loving regulation. As Drs. Piepers explain, “Since children have tantrums only because they feel their parents are angry, unresponsive, or otherwise unavailable, when your child’s frustration boils over, try to react positively and emphasize your availability. Above all, try not to distance yourself from your shrieking child. You might say something like, ‘I am sorry you are so upset. I’m right here, and I want you to feel better.’ Offer a hug. If the hug is rejected, you can try to present a constructive alternative to whatever unfulfilled wish brought on the tantrum (‘You can’t have more candy today, but would you like to help me make popcorn?’). Even when your child throws things or becomes destructive and you must restrain him, you can do your best to hold him gently, in a positive and loving manner, while you tell him that you cannot allow him to hurt himself or anyone or anything else, and that you will let go when he calms down.” In this manner, parents cultivate a relationship with their child that is unconditional– through tantrums and all – creating a road map for how their children can respond to losses in the future.
With patience, consistency, and a dose of humor, you will start to see the tantrums reduce.
How parents respond when their child is struggling is how children will handle stress and troubling emotions throughout their own life. These interactions create the default template that children use when handling difficult emotions in the future. If parents are impatient, children may be impatient with themselves during a test at school, or with peers when they don’t want to play the same game, or with their siblings at home. However, if a parent offers patience, understanding, and kindness when a child is stressed or upset, he is better able to handle every day losses and move past them.
So, when parents are feeling overwhelmed and just want to get through the day, taking the long view can help. Doing so will not only ease their stress in the long run but also guide their responses in a way that manages their child’s behavior while also acknowledging the emotions underneath their child’s actions, strengthening the parent-child relationship, and working toward their long-term parenting goal. As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper explain, “When you keep both the special nature of the child’s mind and the long-term goal of your parenting efforts in mind, your short-term goals change to raising children who have no need to make themselves unhappy.”
Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999.