I’m a mental health expert. Here are 5 things I’d never do with my kid
Parents get an endless supply of rules and unsolicited opinions about what to do and what not to do with their kids.
But the truth is "there's no handbook," Shari Rogers, a licensed clinical social worker at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, tells TODAY.com. Every child is different, every parent is different and what might work for you may change from day to day, says Rogers, who is the mom of a 16-year-old boy and specializes in working with children and adolescents with eating disorders.
More than anything, "Parents shouldn't feel like they're doing something wrong," Rogers says. "Everything's trial and error... No parent wants to be judged."
But the experts TODAY.com spoke to say there are some tips from both personal experience and research that could be useful for parents.
"Being a child psychologist, I use so many of our techniques with my child," Shannon Dorsey, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Washington and parent of a 9-year-old son, tells TODAY.com. Dorsey, whose research focuses on evidence-based mental health treatment for children, says she's found a few of those strategies particularly helpful.
I never invalidate their emotions.
This tends to come up when kids are locked into a certain behavior and parents need them to do something else. For instance, maybe they need to clean up their toys before going to the park, which a child may not be too excited about.
"But one thing we know from clinical psychology is validating emotion is very important," Dorsey says. "So, you can see your child be upset and you can still expect a behavior, but you can also validate that emotion."
You can say something like, "I see that you're feeling really angry and frustrated, but we still need to clean up the toys before we can leave for the park," Dorsey explains.
If children grow up without feeling their emotions validated — including negative emotions, can lead "kids to not trust their feelings, not know that they're valid and not know and not realize that there's a difference between how you feel and what you do with your body," Dorsey says.
For example, those children may have a hard time recognizing that being angry doesn't need to translate to hitting or kicking, she adds.
I never underestimate "special time."
What exactly is special time? It's just five minutes during which "you play with your child and you focus on what they want to do," Dorsey explains. "You're not giving any instructions and not asking a lot of questions, but really being focused on them."
For example, Dorsey often sits down and lets her son direct them in playing with Legos.
"You're not teaching them something, you're not coaching, you're not tutoring," she says. "It's a different role for parents to play and it pays dividends for your relationship."
Rogers, who often works nights and weekends to accommodate families' schedules, says she really tries to maximize the time she and her son have to spend together.
In fact, the two have them have a nighttime "tea party" routine before he goes to bed during which they'll watch sports or a TV show together, drink tea and talk about their days. "He doesn't seem like somebody who'd sit down and have tea with his mom," Rogers jokes, "but I make a point of being able to talk to him after the end of my day."
When I set a limit, I don't let it slide.
Dorsey has three keywords for parents when setting limits: consistency, predictability and follow-through.
When it comes to setting rules for bedtime routines or screen time, it's crucial for parents to be consistent and predictable, meaning the limit or bedtime is the same and "you're not going to sometimes enforce a rule and other times not," Dorsey explains.
Then you need to actually enforce the rule. "You give your kid an expectation and you say there's going to be a consequence (if they don't meet that expectation)," she says, such as losing TV time or not being able to go to the park. Adding reminders, like alerting kids that they have five minutes left before their time is up, often helps, Dorsey adds.
But your mileage may vary — especially as kids get older and start wanting more independence, Rogers says.
"I say to clients a lot, like 'You don't want to engage in a power struggle as a parent,'" she says. "Sometimes we're just going to say no." In her own life as a parent, though, it doesn't always work so well, she says, and it might even be more or less successful on different days.
That said, when it comes to rules around screen time, “on sick days and when parents don’t have childcare, all that goes out the window,” Dorsey says, and parents shouldn’t judge themselves for that.
We never talk about food in a shaming way.
“Because I’ve worked with eating disorders so much, I never talk to (my son) about food in that way,” Rogers says. "I never talk about wanting to go on a diet — no one in our house does."
In her home, "we don't ever say any foods aren't good foods," she adds. "Seeing people who really struggle so much with (eating disorders), it's just been on my conscience."
Instead, she lets her son make his own decisions about food during the day. And, when they do talk about food, it's Rogers reminds him that skipping meals can trigger his migraines. "I do often say to him, '(Food is) like medicine for you. You can't not eat,'" Rogers says.
I don't have big conversations at bedtime.
"Kids will bring up a lot of things at bedtime that might be important to talk through," Dorsey says, such as friction with other kids at school. But "the more tired a kid is, the less emotional resources they have to bring to bear on a stressful topic," she says.
So, drawing on the other tips she described above, Dorsey will first validate her son's feelings then suggest they talk about it in the morning or after school the next day — and then follow through on that promise.
"I will often say, 'These are so important. We're going to talk about them, but let's talk about them in the morning. So let's switch the channel in your mind to another topic,'" she explains. From there, they'll read a book or sing a song together and continue their bedtime routine.
"Children are better at addressing problems and challenges if they're well rested, they're fed and it's the time to do it," Dorsey says. Drawing on the power of distraction and redirecting attention at bedtime makes it that much easier to talk through the next day.
This article was originally published on TODAY.com