Flexibility: the key to parents’ and children’s success

I am Mum to two now adult children. I have been a parenting coach for ten years and, together with my business partner Melissa Hood, help parents to raise happy and successful children, by teaching positive parenting skills.

However, I have to confess I haven’t always enjoyed the role of parent. In the early days I found parenting to be complicated, messy and exhausting.

I frequently felt overwhelmed, guilty when I got things wrong, angry when my child would not listen and sometimes resentful that my children seemed to demand my attention constantly. I found myself nagging, cajoling, bribing, pleading, threatening and shouting. I would swing between being overly controlling and punitive to just giving in to the demands and adopting a laissez faire approach. Neither worked.

I had no idea how to bring out the best in my son. And that was because I didn’t understand him, his needs or his temperament. So, by the age of seven, when he had been excluded from three schools and was written off as a failure, when he had so many diagnoses that he became known as the Alphabet Kid, I had to completely recalibrate what was normal and adapt to parenting this particular boy.

Like many parents I believed that when my child misbehaved I had to punish him. My husband and I believed that the way to teach our son right from wrong was to respond to poor behaviour with sanctions that he wouldn’t like. Thus he would learn not to do it again… How wrong we were!

When he wouldn’t put his shoes on, I nagged and repeated instructions to no avail. Finally, shouting like a banshee, I punished him by saying he couldn’t go to Harry’s birthday party at the weekend, a sanction I really didn’t want to deliver as it deprived him of a lovely social event and denied me a precious 3 hours to myself!

I had to adapt to parenting a different child. I came to realise that the traditional methods of discipline involving punishment and the naughty step just made matters worse and led to resentment and rebellion. Both my husband and I had to learn to be flexible and open to learning a new parenting style. We had to learn why he was doing the things he did. Once we realised that our son’s temperament was intense and sensitive and impulsive, and that much of his behaviour was not purposefully designed to press our buttons, we became open to parenting differently. We learnt that influence is greater than power.

The key to good parenting is having the flexibility to throw away the approaches that aren’t working and think about what does work for your child.

  • If you’ve tried the ‘naughty step’ and you find that you’re having to wrestle with your child to get him to sit there and he seems to find it a great laugh can you let it go and try something else?

Instead consider that his sense of self is fragile and he’s trying to protect it with bravado. Of course, he doesn’t want to sit in the place that confirms his identity as a bad person. He wants to be a good person and needs your support to get things right and fix his mistakes.

  • When you scold your daughter for being mean to her younger sister and she cries and follows you around rather than staying in her room where you’ve told her to think about what she’s done, can you let it go and try something else?

Instead can you try to connect with her before correcting her behaviour? Let her know that you know she’s a good person who made a mistake. Help her to understand the feelings that led to her behaviour and show her other ways of dealing with those feelings. Eg use role play to rehearse how to tell her sibling how she feels.

  • When your 13-year-old won’t get off the computer and lies to you about how long he’s been on it and that he didn’t have any homework can you resist the urge to ban the computer for the rest of the week?

Can you understand the compulsion he feels about his game and being able to chat with his friends about it the next day? Do you get that this is an area of his life where he feels successful? Does his need to discuss the finer details of the game with his mates make sense as part of belonging to the group which characterises this stage of development? Do you have the flexibility to think in terms of problem-solving discussions rather than rigid sanctions? Obviously, the homework needs to be done but explaining the reasons for your screen rules and showing understanding about his impulses would help.

  • It’s November and the 11+ exams are looming and your daughter isn’t studying. Other parents in the year are offering their girls ‘incentives’ for good grades. Can you resist the urge to bribe your daughter?

Do you have the flexibility to think about empowering your daughter to take charge of her own learning by asking her what her goals are rather than making her grades be your achievements?

 It takes some flexibility to give up on parenting practices that we think of as being set in stone. Sometimes our default settings feel like ‘instincts’. In fact, they are learned behaviours. These were the responses that our parents adopted, that we see other parents using and that we read about in parenting chat rooms, blogs, articles and books. But if these approaches are causing resentment, if your child is digging his heels in or you fear her self-esteem may be suffering, then do you have the courage to try something else?

Elaine Halligan is London Director of The Parent Practice, an organisation that enables parents to bring out the best in their children, and author of My Child’s Different.  My Child’s Different is about the lessons learned from one family’s struggle to unlock their son’s potential. It explores the enabling role parents can play in ensuring their children develop into thriving and resilient adults.  The book is an No 1 Amazon Best Seller and Richard Branson says about the book;

It is really important that we provide young people with the support they need to succeed, and to understand dyslexia as a different and brilliant way of thinking. Alternative thinking can spur creativity and innovation and has the power to change the world. This book shows how with the right support, young people can maximise their potential.”


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