4 Small Changes You Can Make Today to Be a Better Parent

From being too critical to not showing your emotions, many parents make these "mistakes." The good news is there are ways to clean up your act and break your bad parenting habits.

An image of a mom disciplining her daughter.
Photo: Getty Images.

When it comes to parenting, we all want what is best for our children. Raising kind, compassionate humans after all is (for most) a measure of success. It is the ultimate goal. But getting there can be tough. The parenting journey is hard, and every one of us will make mistakes. It is inevitable, like taxes, life, and death.

The good news is your "bad" parenting habits can be changed. You do not have to repeat the past, for example, and your past behaviors do not dictate your future—or your child's. With some help and guidance, you can break these habits and be on your way to a new and improved family life. Here are four small changes you can (and should) make today.

Avoid "Freak Outs" and Curb Negative Talk

It's easy to roll your eyes when your 7-year-old leaves their sneakers out after basketball practice and say "There you go again!" It's also easy to lose your temper when your puppy has accident in the living room—or (worse) on your bed. Emotional responses are normal. You are human after all. But before yelling, screaming, or losing your proverbial cool, stop, pause, and assess the situation.

In some situations, going "ballistic" or having a meltdown is a completely normal reaction, Scott Haltzman, M.D., a psychiatrist and author of The Secrets of Happy Families: Eight Keys to Building a Lifetime of Connection and Contentment, says. But if you sweat all the small stuff—things that you can't control, for example, and/or things that don't matter in the big picture—your child won't know how to react to life's ups, downs, and in-betweens.

"It's hard for them to figure out what's appropriate versus what's over the top when you constantly raise your voice and exaggerate by using phrases such as 'you never' or 'you always.' Your child may say, 'You're so unfair! You're the worst parent!' because you don't let him eat ice cream before bedtime. The other big negative is that when something really is wrong, kids may block you out because it sounds like your everyday communication," warns Dr. Haltzman. If "The dam is breaking in Lehigh County, and we have to evacuate" comes out with the same intensity as "You didn't pick up your Legos," kids may not snap into immediate action when you really need it.

When something goes wrong, mentally assign it a number on a scale of one to ten, with one being an incident that has no bearing on the quality of your life—your 6-year-old misplaced their sweatshirt, for example—and ten as an emergency. Your toddler fell off the playground and may have broken their arm. Once you've assessed the situation, you'll be better able to respond. "At first, you may feel like everything is a 20, but over time you'll begin to see that there are differences between these events," Dr. Haltzman says.

Show Your Emotions

While some parents wear their hearts (and emotions) on their sleeve, not everyone does, and that's okay. We all react differently to different stimuli. But if you find yourself constantly covering up your feelings—i.e. if you find yourself smiling and telling your 5-year-old nothing is wrong when you're actually furious over a fender bender you were in that morning—you may want to reassess the situation. Being honest about your emotions can actually be helpful, to you and your child.

Your child needs to learn that it's okay to feel sad, angry, or frustrated, explains Charlotte Reznick, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of The Power of Your Child's Imagination: How to Transform Stress and Anxiety Into Joy and Success. It helps with their own development and emotional regulation. It helps you, as a parent. Being honest about your emotions can actually relief stress and mitigate many stress-induced issues, like high blood pressure and insomnia, and the truth is that no matter how much you think you're hiding, children come equipped with highly sensitive radar.

"Kids pick up what's left unsaid," Reznick says. "If you don't share your emotions appropriately, you'll teach your kids to lie about their feelings," says Dr. Reznick. "Plus, your child could think that they're the reason you're upset and end up feeling bad about themself."

Put a label on your emotion, explain the reason for it in a way your child will understand, and relate it to something they're experienced. You might say, "I'm getting a new boss, and I don't know how we'll get along. Remember how you were nervous about meeting your new teacher? Well, that's how I feel now." Or, "I'm feeling sad about Grandma being sick. It's okay to be sad. Parents feel this way too. But I know the doctors are taking good care of her."

Give more details to 7- and 8-year-olds than to younger kids because they can understand more and separate other people's problems from their own, says Dr. Reznick. Let kids ask questions, so you can allay their concerns and they can hear the truth about what's happening, rather than fantasize about the worst.

Be Direct

Have you ever asked your child to tidy up only to get no response? Perhaps you've said "Can you put your toys away?" and followed up with, "Now, okay?" If so, you're not alone. Many children have "selective hearing." But did you know you may have a delivery problem, too? It's true. When given too many options—and an out—kids tend to pick the out.

"You relinquish your authority and drag out the process of getting your child to do what you need them to do," says Fran Walfish, Psy.D., child psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond With Your Child. When your child ignores your "request," you'll repeat yourself and lose your patience. Then no one's happy.

Clarity is key when you expect immediate follow-through. And it starts with putting a period at the end of your sentence: "Get dressed for the park, please." Or, "Turn off the TV, now." That's it. "If your child doesn't immediately listen, say the following one time only: 'Show me how you can turn off the TV, or I will help you,'" advises Dr. Walfish. "Wait for a silent count of two, then take the remote." Of course, giving clear directions still requires practice and persistence. But being clear will regain control and stop you from losing your temper; meanwhile, your child learns who's boss and how to follow directions.

Stay Positive

Intentional or unintentional, it's easy to scrutinize children when they make a mistake. When their report card is filled with A's and B's, for example, you may point to the C they got in spelling and say, "What happened here? What went wrong?" (My mother used to lambast me for this very thing.) It's also easy to see shortcomings and "failures," as mistakes are often more glaring and obvious than successes. However, if your critiques outweigh your kudos, your child may ignore you or get defensive. In either case, they will miss out on anything constructive you have to say. Worse, nitpicking also can erode their self-confidence to the point where they could stop trying to achieve because they're afraid they'll fail and disappoint you.

"If you constantly give negative feedback or fixate on your child's weaknesses instead of her strengths, they may believe that they can't succeed," says Cathy Cassani Adams, a child and family psychotherapist and the author of The Self-Aware Parent: 19 Lessons for Growing With Your Children.

So what can you do? How can you kick the habit? Well, you should always give your kid more praise than put-downs. Both kudos and encouragement go a long way.

Of course, that doesn't mean you need to avoid mentioning mistakes. However, you should acknowledge your child's achievements first. "Wow, look at all the A's and B's. That's great!" Then, gently offer assistance in the area where she fell short: "Spelling's a tough subject. I'd like to help you study for your next test."

You should also resist the urge to point out every error, and instead, try to mention the good things your child does on a daily basis, Adams advises. You might say, "Thanks for bringing your dishes over. That helps me clean up after dinner" instead of "Why did you leave the ketchup on the table?" Another benefit of upping the kudos: Your child will be more willing to take a critique seriously because she knows that you see what she does right.

A version of this article was originally published in the September 2012 issue of Parents magazine.

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