Love is the key to successful parenting

Psychologist Paul Gilligan’s book tries to alleviate parental guilt with tips on turning daily tasks into quality time


If there is anything that Paul Gilligan has learned in more than 25 years of working as a clinical psychologist with children and teenagers and running a large mental-health service, it is that for children, love is the essence of emotional wellbeing.

“Children who love themselves and are loved, particularly by their parents, have a healthier sense of emotional wellbeing and stronger psychological resilience,” he says.

When writing his new book, Raising Emotionally Healthy Children, Gilligan was acutely conscious of the immense pressure and stress on modern parents trying to juggle work and family.

He did not want to write another “preachy” book that would make parents “beat themselves up” even more than they already do, but one that would empower parents to connect with their own self-belief and natural parenting abilities.

This he does through a series of exercises aimed at encouraging parents to look at what they do really well and identify the areas that they may need to improve. Chapter one focuses on teaching parents how to find their inner parent while chapter six focuses on loving ourselves.

The book also includes a series of help sheets that give parents practical tips in areas such as teaching positive discipline, spending time together and creating an emotionally healthy family.

Expressing our love for them

“Nothing is as heartening as witnessing the young lad who’s not the best footballer volunteering to take the penalty. His belief in himself exceeds all fear or social expectations. You know he is having a good childhood and that he is moving towards a fulfilling adult life,” writes Gilligan.

When it comes to building our child’s self-belief and esteem, telling and showing them that we love them as often as possible makes a big difference, no matter what age they are, he says. Even on difficult days or after a disagreement, when we might not feel particularly loving, it is most important to reconnect with our love for them and to express it. A child, no matter what age, will feel good about themselves if they believe that they are loved, particularly by their parents, and the easiest way of reinforcing this is by telling and showing them, he says.

“For most children, telling them directly is most effective, but as children get older, how and when we do this can change. Some children like to be shown love through physical contact while, for others, a mere smile can be sufficient.”

Spending as much time with our child as they need and want

So many parents Gilligan meets have a hang-up about spending “quality time” with their kids which they interpret as intense emotional time.

He believes parents need to pull back from the guilt they feel at not spending enough time with their kids and to integrate the time we spend with them into our daily lives, even if that means getting them to help us with the housework, taking them with us on a message or asking them to help us clean the car.

“When my kids were small, I used to love strolling around a supermarket with the kids helping out and chatting as we were going around. If that’s Thursday night after work, then that’s quality time. Asking them to help choose what to put in the trolley helps children to make decisions for themselves and shows that you trust their knowledge, which is great for building their self- belief.”

Gilligan says we should try our best to be with our child when they need or want us to be. This will change as their lives change, placing great demands on us when they are younger and less as they grow older.

The best time spent together is that which is integral to daily living, with the primary focus on interaction and, where possible, enjoyment, he notes.

Listening and communicating

“One of the best and most effective ways of teaching children to feel good about themselves is to listen and communicate with them genuinely, honestly and constructively. Genuine communication involves paying attention to what they are saying, encouraging them to share their thoughts and feelings with us, and trying our best to understand fully what they are trying to express.

“It means paying attention to their actions and behaviours, understanding that this is often how they express their feelings. It involves doing everything we can to understand and to be understood.”

Children, in particular, respond much better to praise, positive reinforcement and support than they do to criticism, Gilligan points out. This is not to say that difficulties, problems or things we want to change cannot be discussed, he stresses, but it is how this is done that is important.

“If you tell a child ‘you’re bold’, you are giving them a label. If you say ‘I am disappointed in you for hitting your brother and making him cry’, this is something that is changeable and he can make you happy later by being nice to his brother.

“You don’t want the child to feel that they themselves are bad or a failure but that it is their behaviour that has hurt you.”

Gilligan points out that how we listen will change as our child grows older but if we encourage them to talk to us when they are young, they will learn that we want to listen and will be much more likely to talk to us as they get older.

Teaching positive discipline

To feel good about themselves, children need to learn how to obey rules and to control their own behaviour, he explains. This involves learning to respect others, to give and take, and to make the right decisions when confronted with moral and ethical decisions.

“Teaching our child discipline, and particularly self-discipline, is a core function of helping them to feel good about themselves. A well-disciplined child will be more secure and more confident. Disciplining our child teaches them about right and wrong, enables them to contribute to society in a constructive way and helps them be secure, happy people.”

Some parents associate discipline with punishment, such as slapping, usually because they were taught discipline through such punishments themselves, Gilligan notes. Others resort to punishment because they find their child’s behaviour extremely difficult to handle or feel under pressure from family, friends or other parents.

However, he points out that punishment-based discipline does not work, creates difficulties in the parent/child relationship and, in many cases, fosters the opposite of positive self-discipline.

“Teaching a child self-belief is an essential part of helping them develop emotional health and psychological resilience. Feeling good about themselves does not mean that they believe that they are perfect or are better than others.

“It is, rather, teaching them the ability to recognise and appreciate their own strengths and weaknesses and their distinct set of personality traits, skills and abilities.

“Helping them to foster self-belief and how to feel good about themselves also encourages them to see the good in others.”

Raising Emotionally Healthy Children by Paul Gilligan is published by Veritas and is available in bookshops and on The author’s earnings from sales of this book will be given to St Patrick’s Mental Health Foundation in support of the Walk in My Shoes campaign that raises funds for services to help people with mental health difficulties in Ireland.

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