In this issue, we are going to talk about how to make family life less stressful. While this a parenting advice column, it will be informed by not only my experience being a mom, but my work for over 35 years as a therapist for children and families. Please send your questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have been asked to write about ‘anger management’ and children many times. I would prefer to label it ‘challenge management’. Often our job as parents is to set up family life in a way that gets things done with patience, humor and in response to the realities of our family’s strengths and challenges. This column I will focus on what is called ‘start behaviors’. Here are a few examples.
Chores: Expecting your forgetful son to take out the garbage when it is full is a set up for frustration. A chore he excels at or you can do with him is a much better way of teaching him to have responsibility in the family. My son at age 10 loved to vacuum and that became his job. Did he do a great job? Probably not, but if I was overwhelmed by other tasks, at least it gave me a break and he felt like he was very proud of himself. Children are not our live in maids. They are not going to clean, make beds or cut the lawn like an adult would. So expect to work with them. Make work tasks brief. For example, have them rake leaves for 15 minutes then they can take a break and come back and fill the bags with leaves with you. Make it fun! Do a treasure hunt in the leaves or cover your child up like you would at the beach. Watch out for nagging and repeating yourself when your child is not listening. Sometimes we need to take our own time out so we can come back at the problem in a different way. Some children will need to have a chore chart with stickers for a reward. Older children may need you to set up the chore and start it with them. Money is an incentive for some kids but it is best to be more creative with others. Pick something they love to do as a reward but if you can include another family member’s participation that is even better. If there is additional resistance you can ask “What can I do to help?” or offer that they take a break and try again in 5 minutes. You can also use short directions like “outside, rake and bag” for your kids that get overwhelmed or manipulative about directions.
Major Transitions: Pretty much all children have some problems with change, even if it is what you would consider that it is a positive one. Think of these times as transitions, which means that there is usually a time of lead up to the change. As a parent it is your job to deal with your own issues while helping your children with theirs. So first identify what you are feeling, use your support system (partner, friends, family) to deal with what is difficult for you. For instance, maybe you are anxious about moving. So work on the logistics of it so you are less stressed. Accept that you are not in control of every aspect but you just need to do manage what you can. You can hire a mover but you are not in control of their timing and how they treat your possessions. Having a contract and insurance is great but will not really replace your grandmother’s broken prize vase. So do some ‘reality checks’. Is a broken vase the reason for your angry outburst or is it the stress involved with the move? What you are modeling for your children will come back to haunt you. So practice the things that help you reduce stress every day. If you need physical energy or the social time with friends day to day, you need it more when you are going through change. You may have to adjust what you usually do by calling friends instead of meeting, keeping a journal or doing some exercise at home while watching a workout on your computer. It is also ok to admit that you are overwhelmed and be clear about what you need for help from others. Remember kids are not mini adults, so don’t expect them to do adult things. Children cannot wrap fragile items or make plans with the mover. Hire someone or reach out to other adults for help.
Your children will get through major transitions with less problems if you do your work first. Then help them express what they feel about a big change with you, a relative or family friend. Identify and address what fears they have. Create ways for them to express and manage them throughout the change. If they are old enough they can make lists of what they want to bring in the car while moving, have a yard sale of old items and use the money for setting up something special in their new room. If your children are used to lots of activity to work off energy don’t expect that staying home packing boxes isn’t going to cause a crisis. Ask friends to take them out while you pack. Don’t forget to reward them when they are helpful with a smile, a hug and a ‘thank you’.
Daily Transitions: These are often the most difficult. For instance, day after day parents worldwide struggle with getting their children to school, practice or any event on time. With multiple children this is often compounded by multiple issues. Someone is usually very proud to be ready first and tease the child who is lagging. And how about all the attention and control that late child is getting from you. If this is happening in your house you need a better ‘exit strategy’. Use some of the positive strategies I spoke about like rewards, reframing and taking your own ‘time out’. Sit down with your support system and talk about a new strategy. Maybe someone can take the children to school for a short time and break the cycle of morning chaos. Resist shaming or judging statements. If the struggle continues there may be a deeper issue that may want to check with your child’s teacher or reach out for some professional help.
For small transitions during the day such as homework, meals and bedtime add to your strategy one of having prompts. Young children have no sense of time and teenagers have their own priorities which don’t include you. Setting a timer (phones are great for this) near them with a reminder that they have so many minutes until the activity can help. You can help them finish what they are doing to make a positive transition to the next activity. Sounds like a lot of work. Consider all the time you waste cleaning up after an emotional incident for you and your child. Parenting is often about making the decision to invest time on the front end to make for smooth transitions and a more positive family life. Start with just one behavior you would like to change and give yourself a sticker for trying.