Guiding kids to self-regulation

FAMILY psychologist, parent educator and father of two Michael Hawton sees many parents experiencing a crisis of confidence in their parenting as a result of the overwhelming amount of conflicting parenting information and advice.

"I have seen many parents who love their children but sometimes lack confidence in parenting their children's difficult behaviour," Michael says.

"Parents have become paralysed, because they are not sure what they can and can't do when their children misbehave.

"For example, they have been told not to smack, rather to be positive with their kids, but then they then don't know how to pull their kids up when they are misbehaving."

While Michael believes that positive parenting techniques have a place, he says they need to be part of a mix of strategies that parents can use.

These strategies are covered in his book and online program, Talk Less, Listen More.

His approach differs from the positive parenting approach that has been drummed into parents recently.

"I'm not sure if ours is a tough love approach," he says, "but it does assume that parents are in a much better position to take charge of what happens in their children's lives, just because they are more mature, their brains are fully formed. It also assumes that there is a lot a parent can do not only to make their life easier but also to develop life skills in their children.

"The Talk Less, Listen More (TLLM) approach is more than just a positive parenting approach.

"While rewards are positive and important for helping children learn new things, it is also important that we do what we can to help children learn self-control, and this does not occur by using stickers and rewards.

"I devised my ideas for the TLLM method after reading lots of books that didn't provide it. In other words, I could see what was missing and wanted to write down something that put all the bits and pieces together into a method.

"Very few books gave parents something to do if their child misbehaved. On TV I would see lots of programs about not smacking, for example, but no-one said what parents could do instead.

"We have all been told what we can't do, but not much of what we can do. I wanted to develop a method that was answering parents' presenting problem and that was easy to use and that helped their children develop self-regulation."

Defining our role as parents seems like the first step towards better parenting. Are we supposed to be their friend? Their role model? Their disciplinarian? Or all of this and more?

"As I see it a parent's role or job is threefold," Michael says. "Number one; build your relationship, as often as you can. Number two; help your children achieve maturity. Number three; intervene when your children need protection from themselves or others.

"Part of our role is also to help our children react in proportion to the situations they come across."

Michael says part of the problem is that many parents don't want to be the 'bad guy'.

"I think some parents don't tolerate being offside with their kids for any length of time. But, unless a parent can occasionally tolerate their child being upset with them, it's going to be very difficult for children to learn how to self-regulate.

"Parents need to believe that their child's attachment to them is so strong that they can afford to brush off the occasional 'You're a mean mum' comment from their children."

While Michael says there isn't a one-size-fits-all method, there are commonalities that we can all use.

"A lot of what I have seen as behavioural difficulties are to do with children not having consistent boundaries in place and the lack of practice they get using their mental brakes.

"I don't like thinking that any one approach to parenting has all the answers. However, I don't think you need a PhD to do the job well either.

"For the most part, parenting is pretty instinctive. Love your kids and treat them as special. Help them behave appropriately. And always give them hope.

"We should try to remember that our children's attachment to us and ours to them is strong and awesome, so have confidence in that."

The book aims to help parents help their children self-regulate their behaviours and emotions. And, Michael says, it's not always easy.

"Helping them achieve self-regulation sometimes involves discomfort (them learning to wrestle with frustration and us having to watch them struggle with frustration)."

So what about that old technique that most of us rely on: reward and punishment?

"Most parents would prefer, I am sure, that our children behave appropriately because they had developed emotional regulation rather than because they'd been rewarded or punished for their behaviour.

"Positive rewards and negative punishment do have their place in a spectrum of strategies for learning how 'to do' certain behaviours and how to avoid negative consequences.

"But, for parents experiencing children's difficult behaviour - and wanting a solution - they need to teach their children to use their mental brakes.

"Children who develop defiant behaviour have really good accelerators, but lousy brakes. Our job is to teach them how to balance their emotions."


Michael's top five tips for parents

  1. Pull yourself together if you want your children to do the same.
  2. Organise what you need to let go of and what needs a response from you.
  3. Learn what you're going to do before a crisis occurs, so that when it arrives you can avoid panicking. Pilots do this.
  4. Develop your own drop-down menu of tactics, so you can retrieve them at a moment's notice, or have reminders strategically placed so you can see them, such as on your fridge door.
  5. Develop your relationships by set-up opportunities to spend 'good' times together, such as Friday pizza-making nights.

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