Self-care and the brain
Mirror neurons in your child’s brain light up when he or she experiences emotions such as happiness, fear, anger or sadness.
The neurons also light up when they see you experience those same emotions. These neurons show us what it is like to experience what others do, allowing us to feel one another’s joy and pain.
While this response lays the foundation for the wonderful skill of empathy, it also is the reason why it is so critical for parents to be happy in order to raise happy kids.
The new year often is a time of reflection as we seek to break bad habits and start fresh. Some of those habits we seek to break relate to how we parent our children.
“Am I a good parent?” is a question I ask myself a lot. I am writing a book about parenting, leading parent workshops and writing articles about parenting, yet I still find myself in situations with my kids where I am at a loss. I’m too busy, too stressed or too impatient, and I definitely do not always say the right thing.
What does it mean to be a good parent? I have researched the pros and cons of just about every brand of parenting out there. What I have realized is that there is no magic bullet. All kids are different. Within the same family, a tool that works for one child might fail miserably for the next.
I don’t think it is possible to be a good parent all of the time, but there are a few qualities that I think good parents do their best to embrace. This list is not meant to be used as a tool to judge yourself or anyone else. It is merely a collection of themes that appear to thread throughout my work. Perhaps you’ll find it helpful.
■ Take care of themselves first. This is probably the most important, but the most difficult. It doesn’t matter how much you do for everyone else, if mom or dad is not happy, no one is happy. You can’t take care of your kids if you don’t take care of yourself.
■ Are not too busy or stressed out. The ability to be present and engaged with our kids is compromised when we are racing from one place to the next and our mind always is on what we need to get done or what we forgot to do. Plan down time with the family and use effective stress-management techniques like mindfulness, exercise or yoga.
■ Are patient and teach patience. We live in a world that expects instant gratification. We watch our favorite shows on demand, we expect our text messages to be returned within seconds and our kids now have the same expectations of us. Kids need time to transition and time to tie their shoes, and they need to learn from us to be patient.
■ Work to maintain a happy, healthy relationship. Kids are affected by parent-to-parent conflict. Whether you scream and yell or give each other the silent treatment, research demonstrates a negative impact on children. Many argue that an unhealthy relationship is harder on kids than divorce. Put effort into maintaining a healthy relationship, even if it is with your ex.
■ Embrace mistakes. Kids need to be given the opportunity to learn from their mistakes when the stakes are low. Rescuing, protecting and hovering will not help them develop the skills they need to become resilient, persistent and hard-working adults. Let your kids know that parents make mistakes, too.
■ Set boundaries. Kids need their parents to act like parents rather than act like their best friend. Set boundaries and enforce them lovingly and respectfully.
■ Create fun family rituals and routines. There are so many options for this, but the family dinner is at the top of my list. Family rituals evoke positive emotions, strengthen family bonds and decrease risky behaviors in adolescence. Examples include: practicing gratitude, a bedtime routine that promotes connection between parent and child, time for unstructured play, a morning routine that does not include yelling and family adventures.
■ Value effort. Use growth-mindset praise to encourage hard work, focusing on the process and not simply the outcome.
■ Are intentional. Try to be thoughtful rather than reactive to your kids. When times get tough, take a deep breath, give yourself a timeout and address the situation in a calm state of mind.
■ Are not perfect. Good parents acknowledge the fact there are going to be times when the previously listed qualities go out the window. They acknowledge their mistakes to their kids and to themselves. They forgive.
Kristen Race, Ph.D., is the founder of Mindful Life, an organization dedicated to providing solutions to help families become more resilient to the stress in their lives. She has been a member of the First Impressions executive committee for five years.