Here we are, about a month into the New Year. Did you make any resolutions? How are those coming along? If you are like a lot of people, you start off really strong out of the gate. You keep up with the changes until something happens that sends you back to pre-New Year behaviors. Maybe you have a stressful day and the chocolate cake looks just too good to pass up. Or maybe you burn the midnight oil one night too many and you just can’t get yourself motivated to go to the gym one morning. It doesn’t take much to derail the best of intentions. Making changes, while oftentimes necessary for our health or emotional well being, is also more than a little difficult. I find this to be especially true for parenting resolutions. You know, those promises we make to ourselves on January 1, or any other time throughout the year, which involve becoming a “better parent” that we just can’t seem to stick with for longer than a few weeks. Part of why I think change of any type has limited success is because we often try to change too many things at one time.
I’ll use myself as an example, though I find this to be true for many parents I work with on the Support Line as well. Through the years, I have tried to praise more, and do less yelling, rescuing, negotiating, giving in–you get the picture. I think any one of us can look at how we parent and see a plethora of ways we could be doing it more effectively. The truth of the matter is, there is almost always more than one ineffective thing we may be doing. Just as it’s more effective to focus on changing one behavior at a time with our children, it’s also more effective for us to pick one ineffective parenting style at a time to focus on changing. So, if you find that you yell a lot, are prone to over-negotiation, step in to rescue your child so they don’t have to feel any frustration or discomfort, or buy things for your children out of your feelings of guilt or to make them feel better, trying to change all of that at once in an attempt to become the perfect parent really is a recipe for disaster. So, pick just one to focus on at first. Picking just one thing helps to narrow down the effort and allows for developing a specific plan based only on that one behavior.
Maybe you decide you’re going to limit the yelling you do to emergencies and really great touchdowns during Monday Night Football. You can then come up with a plan which specifically outlines ways you can limit yelling. For example, maybe you follow some of the following steps Debbie Pincus outlines in her article How to Stop Yelling At Your Kids — Use These 10 Tips: learn to recognize your triggers, avoid power struggles, count to 10 before responding. We have countless other articles that talk about yelling and other ineffective parenting techniques you can review to come up with a plan that’s going to work for you. When you do find yourself yelling at your child, you can learn how to disengage and walk away so you can stop the argument before it continues to gather momentum. This strategy can also be used for just about any ineffective way you may be responding to your child’s behaviors and choices. When you realize you are falling back into old habits, disengage from the situation by taking a step back.
One of the most important things to keep in mind when beginning to make these changes is that you are going to slide back into the less effective techniques you have used in the past. Those are habits you have developed over time. It is going to happen, and telling yourself it isn’t won’t increase the odds of success. Actually, just the opposite is true. When we involve ourselves in black-and-white thinking by telling ourselves things like “I’m not going to yell anymore” or “I’m never going to rescue my child again”, and then fall back into old ways of responding because we are tired or stressed, it can be easy to beat yourself up over the slip. And, just as negative self-talk can be destructive for the changes our kids are trying to make, it can also have an adverse effect on our ability to develop better coping skills or problem-solving skills. When you yell or give in, recognize it as an ineffective tool, think about ways you can respond differently in the future, and move on. Review your plan and try to do it differently next time.
You can move on to another goal once the behavior you’re trying to change has progressed to a point you’re happy with. Remember, we’re not aiming for perfection, just improvement. As James Lehman reminds us “Accept bad moods and bad days,” both your child’s and your own, and sometimes starting the day over can be a useful reset. Most importantly, keep in mind that it’s never too late to make changes, and you don’t have to wait until January to start!
Denise Rowden is a parent of two teens: an 18-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son. She has worked in Special Education, Alternative Education and adolescent group homes. She has a BS in Psychology from the University of Southern Maine and is currently working on her Life Coach certification from the International Coach Federation.