David Coleman's top 10 tips on happy parenting
Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet. Raising happy children involves a mix of minding them and minding yourself writes our parenting expert. Here is how he does it ...
There is quite a debate about whether adults are happier being parents or being childless. It is easy, even on first glance, to see why there is no clear winner.
On the one hand, parenting can be exhausting and frustrating (have you ever seen the comedian Michael McIntyre's hilarious description of trying to get out of the house in the morning?), but it can also be rewarding and fulfilling.
Even the most recent research study to analyse the issue of parental happiness, concluded that sometimes being a parent makes you happy and sometimes it doesn't. How disappointing and inconclusive is that!
I guess, however, that the fact that the researchers couldn't be more definitive just underlines how nuanced our experiences of being parents can be.
It seems that being happy (or not) as a parent depends on characteristics of the parent and child, such as personality and age, as well as details about their situation, like socioeconomic status and the family's structure.
In general, they found that older parents are happier than younger parents. Older parents report feeling more mature, competent, and less stressed, while younger parents report more feelings of restlessness, isolation, and stress about finances.
The age of your children is also a factor. Generally, when children are babies and toddlers, we report greater feelings of exhaustion and stress (because lots of babies don't sleep, and because of the adjustments to parenthood), but by the time our children are older, we are able to recognise a greater sense of achievement and pride in their development and their own achievements.
The temperament of your children is also a factor in how happy you are likely to be. Not surprisingly, parents seem to experience lower wellbeing when they have a child with a difficult or sensitive temperament (for example, a child who has intense emotions or cries a lot), but higher wellbeing when they have a child with an easy temperament (for example, a child who adapts easily to new situations and is often in a good mood).
Also, parents seem to be happier when they have greater financial security, more social support and stable relationships (whether that is married, co-habiting, same sex or step-parenting).
Even with all of the research findings, I still find myself drawn to my own experience of parenting, which is that when my children are happy and occupied, I feel happier and more satisfied.
Like lots of parents, I have discovered that when I tailor the day to suit my children (like a day trip), it is always more successful, and I enjoy it more when they are having fun. So, I have complied my own top 10 tips for raising happy children, which is a happy mix of minding them and minding ourselves.
1 Be reliable
Reliability and trustworthiness from parents, when our children are babies and toddlers especially, is the key to secure attachment. Securely attached children (children who can depend on us to meet their needs) grow into teenagers and adults with better self-esteem, greater resilience, the capacity to establish and maintain friendships and the ability to deal with strong emotions and impulses.
2 Be positive
Parents who can maintain a largely positive attitude towards their children foster similar positive responses from them.
The flip side also seems to hold true, with researchers showing that parents who regularly get cross and aggressive with their toddlers are likely to find themselves with children who are cross and aggressive. This can even have a long term negative impact because levels of aggression at age five can predict levels of aggression in adult life.
3 Mind your own mental health
The unfortunate reality is that mothers and fathers with depression struggle more with parenting and, for example, can show muted responses to their babies cries.
They may also adopt a more negative approach to their parenting, increasing levels of stress in their children.
While it may seem a bleak picture, there is also evidence that if parents get the right kind of support and guidance, they can adopt positive parenting approaches, even if they are struggling with their own mental health.
4 joke with your kids
A lovely and heartening piece of research has shown that joking with your toddler can help to set them up for social success. When parents joke and pretend, it gives young children the tools to think creatively, to make friends and to better manage stress. So it may pay to act the eejit with your little ones (and your bigger ones too).
5 Focus on your own relationship
If you are married or living with your partner when you have children, don't let your couple relationship fall by the wayside when your baby is born.
Marital instability, parental conflict, separation and divorce cause a lot of stress and distress within families and this affects everyone, including your children.
6 See behaviour as an indication of strong feelings
If we only ever focus on children's behaviour, we may come to the conclusion that they are just "bold", because children can do exasperating and bold things. However, if we take the view that their behaviour is trying to tell us something about their feelings, we can often feel more patient, tolerant and willing to diffuse, rather than escalate, a situation.
By helping them to recognise and more effectively express those feelings, by empathising with them, we may find that tantrums or misbehaviour become shorter and less intense, improving our relationship with them.
7 Allow children to challenge your opinion
Giving children and teenagers a voice within the family can help them to be stronger in the face of peer pressure. By allowing children to argue, make suggestions and offer opinions, we give them a greater sense of autonomy.
Research shows that children who show greater autonomy at home also show greater autonomy in their relationships with their friends.
So, by giving them a greater say at home, you encourage them to make their own choices when they are with their friends, even resisting the dreaded peer pressure.
8 Get your children outdoors and involved in sport
The benefits of sport and exercise, whether individual or team-based, are well recognised.
Participation in sports can help build self-esteem and confidence, can motivate children to excel academically and can help build social skills. Participation also can teach children the benefits of goal-setting and practice. The benefits to their physical health from exercise are also self-explanatory.
If children are too small to be involved, more formally, in sport then make sure to get them out and about, running, walking, climbing, no matter the weather. A bit of fresh air, at times of stress can be a relief for everyone.
9 know that children are all different
It is easy to adopt a single approach to dealing with all of our children, only to discover that what works with one child, causes friction or conflict with another.
Each of our children come with their own temperament and so, even though they grow up in the same environment, can have very different childhood experiences and relationships with us.
So, remain flexible and tailor your parenting style to your child's personality to reduce the stress and the anxiety they experience.
10 Be happily imperfect
Nobody is perfect and yet sometimes we can set impossibly high standards for ourselves or for our children. According to research, recognising that we, and our children, will make mistakes and that these are opportunities to learn rather than to be self-critical or critical of our children will reduce stress and increase our confidence in our abilities.
David Coleman is a clinical psychologist
Health & Living
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