Why is parenting so hard? Because it is not a science or math problem with equations to be understood and solved. It is a great work of art painted by you (the parents), using the colors God has given you (your children). Every family will look different because there are different painters and colors for each. And this work of art can change over time because the skills of the painter change, the shades of colors change, and even the easel and canvas can change (our life circumstances). But the goal of parenting is always to assist God in the creation of a beautiful family aimed for heaven.
When our beautiful co-creations with God are born, being a competent parent involves the skill of recognizing needs and knowing how to meet them. This is pretty straight forward and can often leave us unprepared for the toddler and school-age years when they develop a challenging partiality toward their own will. This is the time when parents are far better off seeking God’s grace, love and wisdom than trying to solve a parenting equation that does not exist. Of course, we need to arm ourselves with the basics, so what can we do to begin our great work of art? The answer is different for youth and teens.
Reinforce Good Behavior and Decisions
CHILDREN: For younger kids, this looks and sounds like a lot of praise and cheer. Make a big deal out of small accomplishments and kindnesses toward others. Not only will this lead to more good behavior but will also become the foundation of healthy self-love, self-esteem, “I’m OK” identity, and a general sense that everything in the world is, and will be, OK.
TEENS: While younger kids frequently react enthusiastically to praise, teens often do not. In fact, they sometimes not only do not want to hear it, they react angrily if you praise them. DO IT ANYWAY. Just be smart about it. No over-the-top praise or public praise that may risk embarrassing them in front of siblings or friends. Be sincere and to the point. Tell them why you are impressed and mean it. Then leave it alone and do not require any “thanks.” A forced “thanks” from your teen will make the whole thing look like it was about you.
CHILDREN: When you were 4 or 5 years old, could you process your emotions and sort through your feelings, resolving to just let it go when some injustice, real or imagined, occurred? Of course not. So do not expect your child to either. Most tantrums can be ignored because attempting to immediately address the noise, inconvenience, disrespect etc. with a consequence will only make things worse. Of course, do not give them what they want either. That will only reinforce and increase the tantrums going forward. Because most tantrums are an immature response to disappointment (i.e., Mom or Dad says “no”), they can simply be resolved with a strategic response. You can try: “I can see that you are feeling angry but your behavior is unacceptable. We can talk about it after you have calmed down.” When the child is calm, and thinking and feeling better, you can discuss how to make better decisions when angry, that disrespectful words spoken are not acceptable and teach them to make appropriate apologies. Also help them to realize how the tantrum affected others. Make sure they know it is not wrong to feel angry, but that there are good and bad ways to deal with those feelings. The quote I used around “ignore” is intentional because you do not want to ignore the disrespect and additional problems caused by the tantrum. It is just more effectively done after the tantrum is over and the child has calmed down.
TEENS: Anger and strong emotions experienced by teens are less predictable in their manifestation. You could get a mean stare, a verbal lambasting, an angry “I hate you” or a quiet retreat to their bedroom for a long dose of silent treatment. As badly as you might want to talk about it, they may not want to. As a general rule, here is the best you can do: Assess realistically what happened and take ownership of your role in the incident. Show respect toward them by offering a sincere apology for whatever your role may have been, large or small. Let them know you love them and are willing to talk about it whenever they are ready, or not at all if that is what they want. As an alternative, write them a sincere letter, including an apology, explanation, or praise. Whatever you feel is appropriate and will make a positive difference. Then forget about it. If a situation comes up that could lead to a similar incident, talk to your teen about how you can manage it better. What do they want you to do differently? In this way, you are respecting them and letting them know that what is important to them matters to you. You are also at the same time, modeling a mature, adult way to have a better relationship with someone.
Love and Respect Your Children
CHILDREN: No matter what your parenting philosophy, or favorite techniques are, unconditional love manifested in physical affection and words of affirmation rule the day. Reinforce this kind of love every day. No conditions. No trade-offs. Just LOVE no matter how you feel or what they have just said to you. If necessary, avoid smothering or making your need for love the issue. Healthy boundaries are necessary with everyone including our kids. If we can love unconditionally, this will overcome all parenting missteps and even the occasional parental temper tantrum. Parents make mistakes too but our love combined with God’s love is a grace-filled formula for a good life, a beautiful work of art, and a trajectory toward heaven!
TEENS: As with younger children, love them with words and affection, but more importantly respect. Always show them that you recognize they are their own person, they have the right to their opinion, and they are free to make decisions for better or worse. With teens you have to be clear on what rules are non-negotiable. You can respect their opinion about house rules but they need to know you will enforce them with consequences never-the-less. Pick your battles wisely. Let them win some, even when their logic is flawed. It is hard to lose that loving, snuggly, affectionate middle-schooler to the teen years. Just remember, they still love you too, but have a harder time showing it. Do not stop showing them your love and respect just because it feels like they have stopped loving you
Our Children are God’s Children
Never forget, our children are God’s children first. He willed them into existence to love them perfectly and draw them to Him. His love is stronger, purer, and more directed to heaven than ours. So, feel free to give up some control to God. It is hard, but you will find peace in letting go and letting God. And your family work of art will be even more beautiful if you do!
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