The best advice on how to be an effective parent

DBT-C, English, Supersensers / By Francheska Perepletchikova

Parenting is the most demanding and responsible job that we have. And it is a very punishing job, as we need to teach our children, correct their behavior and set limits. So, children are naturally pushing back and punish us for doing all that wonderful parenting, as 1) any learning is about change, and change introduces uncertainty; 2) when we are told what to do, it restricts control; 3) when we have limits, it restricts freedom of choice; and 4) the more loving, accepting, supportive, validating and consistent we are, the more our children take us for granted, as we are not threatening their core senses of self-love, safety and belonging. 

As with any other job, we need to learn how to do parenting effectively. Yet, although we need to get a license to fish, somehow, we are not required to get educated in parenting before considering starting a family. Most of us are under the impression that we will be wonderful parents, even though we may have sustained parenting that was not too adequate, by our own admission. We may think that we will be good parents simply if we do the opposite of what our parents did to us. However, this is just an illusion. Our parents modeled a particular way of parenting, which got written as programs into a biological computer – our brain, putting us at a high risk of repeating the same behaviors. For example, a child who is being physically punished is not thinking “Oh, what a wonderful way to teach me a lesson! I will do the same to my kids.” No! They think that they will never inflict the same pain on their own children. And what do you think happens when that person has kids? That person most likely will start punishing them physically as well. This is the mechanism behind the transgenerational transmission of violence. Further, even if we are determined to avoid doing the same as our own parents, this is not sufficient, because we only know what NOT to do. We still do not know what to do instead. So, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes. 

This post is an introduction to the basics of effective parenting. 

As parents, we have three main tasks to do – protect, model and teach. 

1. Protection

Our sense of safety requires protection and parents are our only protectors. Who else is to protect us? Our partners? Our friends? Our children? Even when we grow up, the need for protection remain just as strong, which is one of the reasons why humans invented a concept of God as our Heavenly Father, who protects us, guides us, punishes us, and reinforces us.

So, an effective parent is a parent-protector. The role of a protector necessitates: 1) our ability to know what to do, 2) have the capacity to do it, 3) exercise control and 4) have a relationship where we are not afraid of the child and the child is not afraid of us. Effective protection cannot happen if a parent: 1) does not know how to satisfy child’s needs in an effective manner, 2) is not in control of own responses, 3) does not firmly hold contingencies, 3) accommodates, which demonstrates a fear of the child, and 4) is so punitive, unpredictable, and harmfully invalidating that a child is afraid of a parent. 

So, to be a protector we need to: 1) learn effective parenting, 2) gain control over our own responses, 3) model adaptive behaviors, 4) maintain control of the contingencies and 4) build a relationship with our children based on trust and mutual respect. 

Parents, please recognize that you are kings and queens of your households! You have all the power, as your children are fully dependent on you. Claim it! Kings and queens do not ask their subjects what to do, they tell them what to do. The same applies to parenting children. While taking into consideration their best interests, with their perspectives and needs in mind, and after collecting all other necessary information to make an informed decision, once we reach a decision, we tell our children what to do. Of course, we cannot control our kids and they may refuse to follow directions. That is why we need firm control over contingencies. Children need to learn that we mean business and there is no wiggle room, otherwise, they immediately stretch a tiny crack into a Grand Canyon, and this is how we get overthrown. 

For example, your ruling is that your child has one hour on a device. Your child knows this but refuses to get off the computer. Please do not argue or debate and, of course, do not try to arm wrestle with your kid over a device. Instead, before giving a prompt to get off a computer, please make sure that you have the ability to turn your child’s devices into bricks with a press of a button on your own phone. So, this is a no wiggle room – the time on a device is 60 min and not 60 min and 25 seconds, and if your child refuses, you simply turn the device into a brick.

If you argue with your children, if you fight with them, if you arm wrestle with them – you lost, regardless of the outcome, because you lost your parental authority. And this is one of the main aspects of being a protector. Your child will not do what you want them to do if you have no authority. Just like if you are a bodyguard and you said lay down and keep low under a crossfire, and instead the person that you are protecting decided to run and got shot, because they did not trust you and did not see you as an authority. Whose fault was that? To gain and maintain parental authority, you need to be in control of contingencies. If you cannot control a contingency, do not even mention it. Such as saying to your child that “if you do not do your homework, you cannot watch TV” but cannot control your child’s ability to watch TV. Your child can just take a remote and turn a TV on. What are you going to do? Arm wrestle?

Also, to be an effective protector, we need to avoid getting stuck. Thus, at all times our parental stance has to balance the two sides of the Dialectic: 1) stable side – I love you just because you exist, I accept everything that you do through validation and NO wiggle room; and 2) flexible side – I take all possible information, including my child’s perspective and needs into account, when making decisions, and I change my decisions when new information come in. 

There are three main gain/loss transactions in parenting:

1. My gain/child’s gain – e.g., reinforcement, having fun with your kids and developing reciprocity.

2. My loss/child’s gain – e.g., ignoring and validation are great examples, as these techniques are mostly mood-inconsistent, which means that you will not want to use them. Yet, if you do, your child’s functioning will improve.

3. My gain/child’s loss – e.g., criticism, judgements, verbal and physical aggression, etc. These are our gains because we want to do these at the moment. We are angry and these actions are mood consistent, while damaging to our children.

The first two levels represent the parent-protector style of parenting. 

Any other styles of parenting, other than parent-protector, are ineffective, dangerous or traumatizing. 

An example of ineffective parenting is the parent-friend style. Unfortunately, sometimes parents want to be their child’s friend. First of all, this is not real – you cannot be a friend to your child, and they have other friends. And as soon as you try to become their friend, you and your child are on the same level, so you lose your ability to be a protector. 

An example of dangerous parenting is the parent-servant style. Frequently, through the process of transaction with an emotionally dysregulated child with challenging behaviors, parents turn into servants. This means that they started to accommodate a child to avoid outbursts. This is understandable, as behaviorally dysregulated children can make the lives of families very painful and nobody wants a 3-hour temper tantrum. So, parents start to tip toe around their kid, and then the child is the one who is calling the shots and becomes a king or a queen of the household. On the surface, the child may seem quite happy with such an arrangement. But we can all attest that their functioning continues to deteriorate, their demand and problems keep escalating and the entire family continues to suffer anyway. The issue is that this child is without protection. Their sense of becomes vulnerable. And nobody is teaching them what to do instead of outbursts and they are spinning out of control more and more. Also, the message that this child is receiving, when a parent is accommodating is – “I am not in control, I do not know what to do with you, I am afraid of you, you are a Monster!” The child’s sense of self-love, sense of safety, and sense of belonging get significantly damaged in the process of accommodation. And if a parent is a servant, that parent will be treated accordingly by the child – with disrespect. That parent will be verbally and even physically abused. If we want respect, we need to earn it. 

An example of traumatizing parenting is the parent-perpetrator style. This style of parenting includes: 1) harmful invalidation – criticizing, blaming, shaming, comparing, threatening, interrogating, retaliating, using silent treatment, judging, etc.; and 2) traumatic invalidation – verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. If other people judge or criticize a child, or are verbally or physically abusive, this is terrible BUT this child still has protection. If a protector is turning into an aggressor, then your child is without a protector. This is how complex trauma develops.  

2. Model

Parents are unquestionable authority to their child. This is preprogrammed into our hardware at birth to increase safety, as we all crave control and a freedom to do whatever we want. Our first word is usually “mama,” second is “papa,” and third is “no!”  “No” and “but” are words of control. Our little kids, barely capable of walking and talking, already want to exercise control. And this is just how it is. If nature did not preprogram the tendency to learn from parental modeling, we would all try to learn from our own mistakes and would likely perish. A wonderful example of this is the over-imitation phenomenon that was discovered in early 2000s. It stipulates that children repeat what their parents do even if parental responses are obviously irrelevant to the goal. The over-imitation phenomenon is purely human programing, as we do not share it with other animals. An example – a father demonstrates how to get an apple out of a box. First, he runs around the table, then knocks himself on the head, followed by stroking a lid with a feather, and only after all these irrelevant actions, takes an apple out of the box. A monkey is not going to do any of this “monkey business,” as it will go straight to the last step and get an apple out of the box. But a human child will repeat as many steps that they remember, given the chronological age. This means that human children treat all the actions of their parents as – tested and proven necessary, even if they seem irrelevant to the child. This is how cultures and religions are transmitted through generations. 

So, when you tell your child “You are an idiot” he can send you to hell and tell you that you are an idiot back – but this is on the level of awareness.  On the unconscious level – “my dad called me an idiot; therefore, I am an idiot.” Being an unquestionable authority is power and responsibility. And this is a statement of hope – we can program our child any way we want, within the limits of their biological make up! And even these limits can be stretched. For example, a sensitive, creative, and empathic child can be turned into a sociopath, through systematic abuse. 

Thus, model everything that you want your child to do and avoid modeling what you do not want your child to do. As other parenting formula, this one is simple, but not easy. 

3. Teach

Teach your child effective responses. Give direct instructions and help them develop the capacity to use this knowledge. Knowing what to do is necessary, but not sufficient. The capacity to use this knowledge comes from practice, such as practicing skills in the “pretend mode.” 

Unfortunately, most parenting starts to happen when something is already happening. There are only 3 ways to respond during an event: 1) I like it, I reinforce it with praise and point; 2) I do not like it and it is safe – I ignore it; and 3) it is unsafe, I suppress it with mild punishment. But this is not parenting. These events are the results of parenting. If we reinforce our child for effective behaviors, it means that we contributed to effective programing. If we need to ignore or punish a child, this means that we contributed to some maladaptive programming. 

Parenting happens between incidents and consists of 1) modeling adaptive behaviors, 2) teaching what to do and not to do, 3) practicing these skills with a child to give them a capacity to use this knowledge when needed, 4) using validation as the main foundation of change, 5) providing cognitive restructuring, 6) looking for patterns to understand the function of child’s behaviors, etc.

Putting it all together

Just like everything is live, parenting is a very strategic endeavor. We need to bring our children to somewhat adequate maturity levels, so that they can venture into the outside world that is not as supportive, understanding, and protective as within the family, and to be able to function well. This is a long-term goal, which requires multi-step thinking. Strategy is about winning the war instead of each individual battle. Winning a battle is about tactics. Tactical wins or losses are frequently irrelevant to winning a war. We can lose tactically and win strategically and the other way around. Such as ignoring a temper tantrum may cause a child screaming for 5 hours – tactical loss but wonderful strategic win, as if you ignore consistently, this behavior will extinguish. You can validate a child during a temper tantrum or pacify by giving in and have a nice quite evening where everyone is enjoying each other’s company. Tactical win but terrible strategic loss, as you taught your child that using force is the way to solve problems and reinforced that behavior, so your child will keep having temper tantrums in the future. 

Parenting is not about giving your children shelter and food and dragging them to extracurricular activities. The strategies discussed above are about giving your child an ability to love themselves, just as they are, control the only things that they actually can – their thoughts, actions, feeling and biology, and belong with other people. The main goal of parenting is to promote the development of the core senses of self-love, safety and belonging. So that our children can have a healthy relationship with themselves through learning from us how to give to themselves. Through that, they will be able to form and maintain healthy relationships with other people, by gaining the ability to give to others. 


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