The fun guide to becoming a good parent
Psychologist shares ‘effective parenting’ tips for a happy home
Give your child or children all your attention for 10-20 minutes after you step in the door – doing with them something they choose to do, be it getting down together on the floor to play a game, or with a favourite toy. Photograph: iStock
It’s a dangerous time of day for family harmony: that time when everyone reconvenes in the evening after a tiring day at work, school or creche.
Between needing to attend to dinner, homework, the washing machine, bedtime and preparations for the next morning, it’s a parental feat of multi-tasking to get everything done. Add children acting up into the mix and it can quickly descend into cranky chaos and tears before bedtime.
If, in the manner of the Gwyneth Paltrow film Sliding Doors, you were to go back outside the front door and re-enter your home, what could you do differently to help avoid that scenario?
There’s one strategy psychologist Patricia FitzPatrick advocates which, in her experience, always leads to a happier home if parents do it every day. That is to give your child or children all your attention for 10-20 minutes after you step in the door – doing with them something they choose to do, be it getting down together on the floor to play a game, or with a favourite toy.
Parents working outside the home are caught up in very busy lives, she acknowledges. However, this is a small but hugely important change that “can make up for a whole load of other things”.
It’s equally important for those working inside the home, with their own workload and pressures, who can also neglect to make space at least once a day for this “special time” with their children – ideally one-on-one but with children together if necessary.
The 100 per cent attention is very important – no eye on the phone, or prepping the dinner or putting on a wash during those 10 or so minutes. The child, or children, having fun and being in charge are the other two stipulations.
If this dedicated play time goes on much longer, the parent’s attention is liable to wander “and that is when it may turn negative and it is no longer fun”. She also recommends giving a few minutes’ warning about when the period is going to end and suggesting that the child either continues to play alone beside mum or dad, or helps with whatever household task the parent needs to move on to.
FitzPatrick says the men and women she has worked with over the years on parenting skills courses, such as Incredible Years and Early Bird, didn’t always like the idea of sitting down doing childish games. “But they would inevitably come back and say ‘I actually enjoyed it’. That was fascinating for me to hear.”
Consistent parent-child play time is, she believes, vital for a positive relationship on which all other aspects of effective parenting are based.
So passionate is FitzPatrick (64) about sharing the insights she has gleaned from the latter half of her career as a primary care psychologist specialising in parenting skills, she has condensed them into a book (self-published but produced by Kells Publishing Company). The suggestion she do that came from a former colleague during a party held to mark FitzPatrick’s retirement from the HSE in January 2017.
Effective Parenting – A Simple Guide for a Happy Home (available from Amazon) is a manual she would have liked to have had when she was raising her four, now adult, children, she explains over a cup of coffee.
Not that you are ever finished being a parent, she hastens to add. It’s something she is very conscious of, constantly building and maintaining her relationship with her four. “Your mother might be 90 and you’re 60 and you are still looking desperately for approval,” she says.
Parenting books are a bit like cookery books: there are usually some recipes that appeal and work particularly well for you, even if you don’t slavishly follow the entire contents. The first half of this book focuses on parenting skills, while the second looks at finding solutions to common challenges such as children fighting, refusing to do what they’re told, bullying and anxiety.
To time-pressed parents, she would say that effective parenting takes less time in the long run than ineffective parenting. Happier, more relaxed children – and adults – mean a household runs more smoothly.
A native of Co Roscommon, FitzPatrick first trained and worked as a psychiatric nurse at St Brendan’s Hospital in Dublin, before taking 10 years out as a stay-at-home mother.
After being head-hunted to return to part-time nursing at St Loman’s psychiatric hospital in Dublin, she studied for a psychology degree at Open University in her early 40s, before going on to do a masters in counselling psychology at Trinity College. With that qualification, she worked as a clinical nurse specialist doing counselling therapy at St Loman’s and later was appointed to a “parenting skills” role based in the HSE’s Cherry Orchard campus.
“I loved working with parents,” she says, whether they were enrolling in a course to improve their skills, or looking for ways to cope with challenging behaviour or had been automatically referred for support after a child had received an autism spectrum diagnosis.
If she knew what she knows now when she was raising her own children, she says, “I would have concentrated less on the academic; the emotional and social is far more important.” Although, when she comes out with pronouncements like that, her two sons and two daughters are inclined to respond: “What’s wrong with us?”
Generally, parents tend to move from a preoccupation with early physical milestones to a focus on academic achievements right through the education system, from creche to college. FitzPatrick believes there’s still less awareness of the importance of emotional development.
We see the behaviour and try to correct it, rather than trying to see the message behind it
A child’s language is behaviour; if a child is having a tough time, this will be expressed in their behaviour “We see the behaviour and try to correct it, rather than trying to see the message behind it.”
Equally, we have to be mindful of the messages we give through our own behaviour, whether it’s through direct “modelling” or the impact of our style of parenting. In breaking down “effective” and “non-effective” responses to various kinds of challenging behaviour, she analyses what each teaches the child – in the context of that all-important child-parent relationship.
Think for a moment about the people whose company you enjoy and why: the answers are likely to include having fun, being listened to, no harsh criticisms, honesty and loyalty.
“If the fun leaves the relationship, if you no longer feel listened to, if you cannot believe what this person says, if you can no longer rely on this person to be on your side, even when you make mistakes, the relationship is in deep trouble.”
While parents need to hold boundaries and not be a child’s best friend, they should strive for a warm, friendly relationship. Her advice, no matter what age your children are, is: “If what you are doing is working and building the relationship, keep doing it. If what you are doing is not working, you need to change it. If what you are doing is working but is fracturing the relationship, you need to change it.”
It’s not about controlling children, it’s about helping them learn how to take the appropriate action themselves in any given situation That’s why FitzPatrick also puts a big emphasis on problem-solving skills.
She detests older people labelling the “Snowflake” generation. “That is so disrespectful to young people”; what’s more we need to take responsibility. “If they’re Snowflakes, who made them Snowflakes?”
As well as the play time outlined above, the other three keys elements to building a positive relationship with your child right from the start is to “smile, smile, smile”, praise and rewards. Being careful of your facial expressions with small children is essential because they are “very good at tuning in and they can read our faces”, she explains. “They see the anxious or cross face and think it is something they have done wrong.”
It’s important to be honest. If a child asks “are you sad Mammy”, the instinct might be to deny it. Better to validate their observation and say “did I look sad?” before reassurance that all is well.
She also raises validation of feelings in a scenario where a child is clinging to a parent, not wanting to go into a creche. Don’t jump in with a “you’ll be grand” in an effort to reassure and distract.
Instead, she recommends taking a moment to say, “I can see you’re sad leaving mammy” – or daddy – acknowledging what the child is feeling. Then move on to “when you come home, we’re going to do . . .” but don’t make that leap too quickly, otherwise it gives the child an emotional message “that is not something I am allowed to do [feel]”.
It’s small things like this, flipping a situation to see another side to it, that can make all the difference to parenting. Also telling a child what to do, not what not to do.
If there was a small child in here, FitzPatrick says, pointing around the hotel lounge where we’re talking, he or she might try to climb on one of the low tables. The parent is likely to react with a “don’t do that” but that’s not telling the child what to do.
A more effective response would be to remind the child: “The floor is for your feet; the table is for cups and our hands . . .”
Some of the common challenges that parents raise with FitzPatrick include:
As all behaviour has a message, it’s important to try to figure out why a child is biting. It’s most likely to happen with children under three and in a childcare facility.
The three most common reasons are: seeking attention, trying to communicate something and sensory issues.
Her rule of thumb is to give immediate attention to the victim, rather than admonishing the biter. Then turn to the offender, point out that the other child is hurt and ask what he or she might be able to do to make the playmate feel better.
With cases like this and other kinds of children fighting, “parents waste an awful lot of time insisting children say sorry. It makes no sense,” she says. The best way for a child to learn to say sorry is if we as parents say it when we do something wrong.
“What is the point of forcing a child to say ‘sorry’ through gritted teeth? The message the child is getting is that it is important that this word comes out but as soon as the parent’s back is turned, he is going to thump his friend again.”
The approach she recommends is to say: “‘I see you are sorry your friend got hurt – what would you like to do to make up?’ Turn to the friend and very respectfully ask what could he or she do to make you feel better?
“It is very much about teaching children respect for each other and not telling them what we think will make it better,” she adds.
Unreal expectations of your child or doubts about your own parenting can add to the stress around sleep time. Essentially, do what works for you and your child and don’t worry about what anybody else might think.
Key tips include: have a positive and relaxing night-time routine; sing to an infant and when a little older, read a story to/with the child; know that you can’t demand sleep but can have a rule about staying in bed; use a reward system to encourage good habits, such as staying in bed.
Refusing to comply
If parents change their responses to a child’s defiant behaviour, “it inevitably brings about a positive change”. Firm but kind should be your mantra in asking a child to do something, perhaps listening sympathetically to reasons why they don’t want to do it, but then insisting the task is done before moving on to a favourite activity or getting some reward.