As a therapist, I often meet families when they are in crisis. They come to therapy for respite, a new beginning, and a place to learn how to make things right. They are often exhausted, stressed, guilt-ridden, and feel like they have completely failed as parents. In truth, most parents have done their best in trying to parent a difficult child. Unfortunately, at times those efforts may fall short.
The rudder of a ship determines its direction. It may be small, but the slightest adjustments forever alter the destination. It's the small things that make big changes in parenting, too.
Listen. Really listen — don't just hear the words. Be careful that computers and TVs don't become babysitters and time-fillers. While allowing your child to have a cell phone or drive a car gives them autonomy, make sure it doesn't take away from the time you share with them.
Spend Time. No amount of money, gifts, or freedom will ever take the place of time shared with your child. You may regret a lot of things as a parent, but time well spent with your child should never be one of them.
Give the right consequence. Do you find yourself taking away your child's cell phone as the consequence for everything she does wrong? This isn't a natural consequence. Be sure the punishment matches the infraction. In this way, children can visualize the natural pathway of a wrong choice resulting in a natural consequence. For example, if she is a slob in the kitchen, make her clean the kitchen. If she comes home late, make her come home early next time.
Be the parent. I often speak with parents who decided to be their child's friend rather than parent. It seemed more important for their child to like them than for them to enforce the rules in their home. Just like speed limits and yellow lines keep people safe while they are driving, holding boundaries in your home helps keep your child safe and happy. Children, especially adolescents, want to know they have boundaries. They need to know they are safe and protected and that someone is looking out for them. When they know the boundaries in your home, kids will test them to their limits. However, this gives you an opportunity to talk about why you have the rules you do and build communication with your child.
Set an example. If you want your child to use his imagination, create, study, explore, be musical, use his body in healthy ways, eat healthy, get proper amounts of sleep, and take in positive and educational things, you need to set the example.
Do what you love. Share your passions with your children. Let them see you living your dreams. Invite them to disconnect from their iPods, cell phones, computers and TV, and get them excited about finger painting, building blocks, Legos, puzzles, coloring books, writing stories together, and so much more.
Be spontaneous. Remember when someone wrote you a note or gave you an unexpected gift for no apparent reason? Do you remember how that made you feel? Be the parent who delivers balloons or candy to your child at school — for no reason. Take your child out on a dinner date or for ice cream — just because. There is something magical about creating moments and memories like these with your child.
The effort you place in making your children a priority will be the smartest investment you will ever make.