By Dr. Sarah Haas *
"I wish my child came with a manual!"
Let's pretend that as your child is developing from zygote, to embryo, to fetus, that a tailor-made manual was also written for you, specialized to your child's unique traits and specifications. Would this excite you?
While a manual sounds great in theory, I'm not sure how helpful one would be--even one that is specialized for your child's needs. The implementation of the techniques is often the hardest and the one that a manual provides little guidance about. Let's put this into a different context: You have a manual for your car, right? Have you ever read it? If you have read it, was it helpful in determining what was wrong with your car or how to fix it?
Why would a manual for a child not be helpful?
While knowing some standard parenting techniques that are helpful for the vast majority of children to grow and develop in mentally healthy ways, like providing praise for appropriate behaviors and providing your child individual one-on-one attention, how children learn and adapt their behavior based on those techniques is extremely unique to each specific child. Ever hear, "I tried this with my oldest and it worked great, but my youngest doesn't care about it!" Yeah, then you've experienced this firsthand.
You don't need me (or research!) to tell you that being warm, loving, empathic, responsive to a child's needs, and being consistent in these traits is going to yield the best outcomes for your child's development (but here's the citation anyway ;) Reid, Webster-Stratton, & Hammond, 2003). I probably still wouldn't be blowing your mind with defining for you how you can show warmth (physical hugs, being approachable, making time for them, etc.), love (talking with them about how they feel, supporting their decisions, etc.), and empathy (repeating back the feelings they express to you, etc.) to your child. But, this is exactly what a manual would spell out for you.
OK, so I'll modify my original statement of, "A manual would not be helpful" to "a manual would only provide you with a starting point". A good one for sure, but still, a starting point.
Implementing these techniques all of the time every time is (A) impossible and (B) ineffective, so then we are left wondering how and when we need to be utilizing these techniques. See the issue becomes--and where the manual likely would be less than helpful (or would be way to cumbersome to be helpful)--is in understanding how your child is learning from these parenting techniques of warmth, love, and empathy. In this way, understanding when and how to implement these awesome parenting techniques, is the key piece to your child's healthy development.
As you probably have experienced, your parenting techniques likely change as a result of your child's behavior. You may have also noticed that your child's behavior changes as a result of your parenting techniques changing. And just maybe you have realized that what used to work with your child when your child was younger, is not as effective--or flat out is not effective--now. These observations really drive home just how dynamic the relationship is between child behavior and parenting, and demonstrates the major dilemma for parents: How do I adapt my parenting techniques in this specific situation to result in the most impactful result for my child's development?
By nature, children are egocentric, and they need to be to figure out their world. This means that they are innately focused on themselves and are driven by things that feel good to them without necessarily considering the consequences on themselves or others. Again, this is a healthy part of their development, and this also results in children testing limits and boundaries, which can appear manipulative. Again, this is healthy for children to do, even though we at parents might get very frustrated with this at times, and what can be most helpful for your child's development is your child understanding where those boundaries are. And being warm, loving, and empathic can easily clash with demonstrating boundaries.
So, let's say you want to be warm and loving and empathic, and you are taking time out of your day to make your children a nice, healthy lunch. Let's say that your child does always eat much at meals, and after 30 minutes of lunchtime they are claiming they are still hungry. An empathic response to take is, "Alright, take your time and keep eating", but what if homework time immediately follows lunch, and your child is saying "I'm hungry" as a method to see if they can delay homework time? So now instead of saying "Alright, take your time and keep eating" you may be inclined to tell your child "No, lunchtime is over. Start your homework", which doesn't feel empathic at all. So what's the right approach?
Here's another example. You tell your 10-year-old child that you are going out on vacation with one of your friends. Your child asks, "Can I come?!" An empathic response would be, "Absolutely, I'd love to spend more time with you!" Is responding in this manner always appropriate? What would happen developmentally if they always get their way and never separate from you? Might this lead to separation anxiety? Is this the healthiest development?
So where a manual becomes less helpful, and where we as parents often feel stuck, is when we experience the theoretical notion of being "between rock and hard place". In parenting terms this place can often be described as is often "between parent guilt (often referred to as "mommy guilt") and parenting instincts". You may ask your friends what to do in certain situations, and they may be helpful in providing advice, but knowing that each child develops differently, it becomes very likely that what worked for your friend and their child may not work for you and your child. And this is often where therapy is most helpful for parents. Therapy can provide you with a basic manual, but also teach you how to implement that manual in a manner that is most effective for your child's unique learning style.
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Reference: Reid, M. J., Webster-Stratton, C., & Hammond, M. (2003). Follow-up of children who received the Incredible Years intervention for oppositional-defiant disorder: Maintenance and prediction of 2-year outcome. Behavior Therapy, 34(4), 471-491.
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