This is the first in a series on Parenting

Tool #1: Setting and Communicating Expectations

Most parents do a good job raising their children in an effort to nurture them into becoming happy, healthy, productive adults. But there is no definitive manual that provides new parents with a ‘how-to’ for raising our babies from newborn to successful adults. Parenting is often an instinctual process using a combination of common sense, love, information available, and tough decision-making to guide us through.

But what happens when the tools at our disposal and our instinctive responses seem not to be enough? What do we do when our children begin to show behavioral problems, or when an unexpected situation arises that takes us totally off guard, seems out of the norm, and poses a challenge that does not present a clear path to resolution?

We want what is best for our children and we can start by making common sense decisions that are meaningful and can result in significant behavioral improvements.  Sticking to these principles can help children know what is expected of them, and enable them to feel safe and follow the rules.

Let children know what is expected of them

Parents understand what they mean by ‘the rules.’ Children often do not. They don’t immediately know what kinds of behaviors might be considered appropriate or inappropriate. You can help your children learn this through explanation and guidance that may need to be more explicit than you would first expect. It also should be offered in a kind, normal tone of voice that does not express displeasure with the behavior you want to modify.

For example, if we want children to be in bed by a certain time, we need to state clearly what time bedtime is, and tell children well in advance of the deadline so they have time to mentally prepare. [i.e., This is the last game, show, story, before bedtime; or, it’s a half-hour to bedtime]. This helps develop an expectation of when bedtime occurs.  A clear statement that becomes a consistent pattern over time, helps children understand and accept the rule with minimal reinforcement.

Younger children, who are less independent, may need additional assistance from us to feel successful in meeting the rules (for example, young children will not get themselves ready for bed on their own, and will need parental reminders). As expectations of children change, for example, as children get older and become more self-sufficient, it is important to adjust the rules accordingly, and communicate them to the child. A child’s behavior may look like acting out or breaking the rules when in fact they may simply not know the rules or they may have outgrown some of them and are seeking more independence.

Provide consistency

If a rule has been set for your children, the rule needs to be applied regularly. It should not change based on varying circumstances or for your convenience. For example, if bedtime is 9 pm, parents need to be consistent in enforcing this rule every night (unless there are clear exceptions, such as on weekends or if the family is attending a special event). Forgetting about the rule one night, or saying it’s okay to ignore a rule another time, sends a conflicting message. It tells them that you may not be serious about the rule, or that it’s okay for them to challenge your rules when it suits them.  Inconsistency invites whining, crying, acting out, and rebellion to established rules since children determine that they can change them at will because you do.

Follow-through is important, especially when children push back.

Although children often complain about having rules, setting limits on children allows them to feel safe and secure. Kids want to know that an adult is in charge. By having a parent who is clearly in charge and setting limits, children know that they don’t have to worry about things, and that someone else is taking care of them. When children argue or push back about the rules that have been set, they are actually trying to find out where the limits really are. They want parents to stay firm (even if they insist they don’t!) as it allows them to know what they can count on in their world. When parents give in to whining or arguing of their children, children are given more control than they can handle, which can actually be anxiety provoking for the children. Although children may deny this and often are not aware of their own feelings, they do and feel best when they know that the world is predictable with someone else looking out for their well-being.

Dr. Carolyn Heier welcomes your ideas on future topics you would like to see discussed.