The 12 psychological tricks every parent should know when bringing up kids
There’s such a deluge of advice out there, and so many choices to make, that many parents find themselves constantly questioning whether they’re getting it ‘right.’
Books, blogs, family and friends may all have helpful tips, but nobody spends time with your child like you do. Though we might sometimes wish there was a manual telling us what to do, we know that every child is unique and there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy.
But, in an attempt to cut through the masses of information out there, we've spoken to the experts and got their tips for smarter parenting.
1) Give children a 'forced choice'
When you want a child to do something - whether that's eating vegetables or doing their homework - give them a 'forced choice.' Psychologist Linda Blair explains: "It gives the child the illusion of choice. Never say 'eat your carrots.' Say 'do you want peas or carrots?'"
It can work with anything, such as, "Do you want to do your Maths or English homework first?"
2) Offer them positive instructions
Instead of telling your child not to do something, it can beneficial to frame it in a more positive way. In parenting guru Steve Biddulph's bestselling book Raising Girls, he says if you don't want a child to walk on the road, then it's best not to tell them 'don't walk on the road' - because you put the idea into their mind. Instead, say 'walk on the pavement because it's safer that way'.
3) Talk about technology
"Today’s parents are the first to raise a generation of ‘digital natives' - children who have grown up with screens since birth," says clinical psychologist, Dr Genevieve von Lob. "In this new territory, there are no ready-made answers for managing online activity. Some families draw up a formal ‘contract’, governing screen use and ‘switch-off times’ for devices. But the main thing is to start an honest conversation and keep the dialogue going."
4) Stay calm during exam time
Anxiety can prove contagious, so it’s important to keep your cool - even if your child is feeling the strain. "Try to discuss specific issues that are bothering them, normalise their feelings, and find out the best ways you can support them," says von Lob. "By providing a kind, nurturing presence, you can model the kind of self-care that will stand them in good stead for life."
5) Take your child seriously
"When a child comes to a parent with a problem – whether it be friends, school or siblings – it’s natural to want to suggest solutions borne of your own, much longer, life experience," says von Lob. "However, there are times when all your child really wants is someone to listen, empathise and validate what they’re feeling."
That means adults have to take their children's problems seriously - and not intervene too much. That means sometimes letting your child make their mistakes and ignoring the 'parent alarm'.
"How do we get the balance right?" says von Lob. "There's no fixed answer – but allowing children to overcome challenges in a safe, contained way allows them to build their competence and sends a powerful message that you trust them."
6) Overestimate your child
Too many parents underestimate their children, says Linda Blair. "But if you really overestimate your child and expect a lot from that - not pushing, but having pride in their potential - it translates and makes them want to try."
She read Shakespeare to her children at a young age, and though she knew they wouldn't understand it, believed that it taught them rhythm and poetry. One is now a musician.
7) Praise a child who's behaving well
"If a group of children are together, praise the child who is doing what you're looking for - not the ones who aren't," says psychologist Dr Rachel Andrews. "Often the others will then copy that behaviour in search of the same level of praise."
So if you're throwing a birthday party and only one child is lining up quietly for their food, praise them instead of telling off the misbehaving children - and watch the others fall into line.
8) ...but don't praise achievements
It might sound strange but Blair advises that instead of praising a child's A grades, you should instead praise them for working so hard.
"They can control effort not results," she explains. "That depends on who else competes or what questions are asked, so if you want them to grow up into a confident adult, praise the effort they put in."
9) Hide their vegetables
Trying to make a child eat their vegetables can be a challenge. Many parents use the promise of dessert to encourage kids to eat their greens, but Dr Perry Buffington says children under the age of 12 don't understand this logic.
He recommends that instead parents hide vegetables in meals, such as by putting them in mashed potato or cooking a meal where they are less visible - think pasta bakes, and tomato sauces.
10) Use siblings for competition
Dr Andrews also suggests making the most of siblings. "Put them in competition with each other to get the best out of everyone," she advises. "Whether it's about sleeping or manners, if you make it a 'family thing' so they're all competing, then you'll see the best results."
11) Take time for yourself
With all the modern pressures on parents, it can be difficult – if not impossible – to find any time for yourself. Von Lob says: "There might be times when you feel judged or under-appreciated by family and society as a whole. Remember that raising the next generation is the most important job going. Value yourself enough to take a little-me time" - and don't berate yourself too much or overthink your child's behaviour.
12) Remember: children will be children
When confronted with a child in the grip of a tantrum, some parents may blame themselves and worry that the outburst is a reflection of their poor parenting skills. But von Lob says it’s worth remembering that the brain is not fully formed until age 25 (yes, really) and children have not yet developed the capacity to control big feelings.
"During full-blown meltdowns, the primitive part of the brain takes over, and the circuitry that handles logic goes off-line," she says. "Your first priority is to remain calm so that you can choose how to respond. Pause, take a deep breath and ask yourself: what do I and my child need in this moment?"