Does Having Kids Make You Happy?

1Research has found that having children is terrible for quality of life—but the truth about what parenthood means for happiness is a lot more complicated.

Few choices are more important than whether to have children, and psychologists and other social scientists have worked to figure out what having kids means for happiness. Some of the most prominent scholars in the field have argued that if you want to be happy, it’s best to be childless. Others have pushed back, pointing out that a lot depends on who you are and where you live. But a bigger question is also at play: What if the rewards of having children are different from, and deeper than, happiness?

The early research is decisive: Having kids is bad for quality of life. In one study, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues asked about 900 employed women to report, at the end of each day, every one of their activities and how happy they were when they did them. They recalled being with their children as less enjoyable than many other activities, such as watching TV, shopping, or preparing food.

Other studies find that when a child is born, parents experience a decrease in happiness that doesn’t go away for a long time, in addition to a drop in marital satisfaction that doesn’t usually recover until the children leave the house. As the Harvard professor Dan Gilbert puts it, “The only symptom of empty nest syndrome is nonstop smiling.”

After all, having children, particularly when they are young, involves financial struggle, sleep deprivation, and stress. For mothers, there is also in many cases the physical strain of pregnancy and breastfeeding. And children can turn a cheerful and loving romantic partnership into a zero-sum battle over who gets to sleep and work and who doesn’t.

As the Atlantic staff writer Jennifer Senior notes in her book, All Joy and No Fun, children provoke a couple’s most frequent arguments—“more than money, more than work, more than in-laws, more than annoying personal habits, communication styles, leisure activities, commitment issues, bothersome friends, sex.” Someone who doesn’t understand this is welcome to spend a full day with an angry 2-year-old (or a sullen 15-year-old); they’ll find out what she means soon enough.

Read: It isn’t the kids. It’s the cost of raising them.

Children make some happy and others miserable; the rest fall somewhere in between—it depends, among other factors, on how old you are, whether you are a mother or a father, and where you live. But a deep puzzle remains: Many people would have had happier lives and marriages had they chosen not to have kids—yet they still describe parenthood as the “best thing they’ve ever done.” Why don’t we regret having children more?

One possibility is a phenomenon called memory distortion. When we think about our past experiences, we tend to remember the peaks and forget the mundane awfulness in between. Senior frames it like this: “Our experiencing selves tell researchers that we prefer doing the dishes—or napping, or shopping, or answering emails—to spending time with our kids … But our remembering selves tell researchers that no one—and nothing—provides us with so much joy as our children.

It may not be the happiness we live day to day, but it’s the happiness we think about, the happiness we summon and remember, the stuff that makes up our life-tales.” These are plausible-enough ideas, and I don’t reject them. But other theories about why people don’t regret parenthood actually have nothing to do with happiness—at least not in a simple sense.

One involves attachment. Most parents love their children, and it would seem terrible to admit that you would be better off if someone you loved didn’t exist. More than that, you genuinely prefer a world with your kids in it. This can put parents in the interesting predicament of desiring a state that doesn’t make them as happy as the alternative. In his book Midlife, the MIT professor Kieran Setiya expands on this point.

Modifying an example from the philosopher Derek Parfit, he asks readers to imagine a situation in which, if you and your partner were to conceive a child before a certain time, the child would have a serious, though not fatal, medical problem, such as chronic joint pain. If you wait, the child will be healthy. For whatever reason, you choose not to wait. You love your child and, though he suffers, he is happy to be alive. Do you regret your decision?

Read: How adult children affect their mother’s happiness

That’s a complicated question. Of course it would have been easier to have a kid without this condition. But if you’d waited, you’d have a different child, and this baby (then boy, then man) whom you love wouldn’t exist. It was a mistake, yes, but perhaps a mistake that you don’t regret. The attachment we have to an individual can supersede an overall decrease in our quality of life, and so the love we usually have toward our children means that our choice to bring them into existence has value above and beyond whatever effect they have on our happiness.

This relates to a second point, which is that there’s more to life than happiness. When I say that raising my sons is the best thing I’ve ever done, I’m not saying that they gave me pleasure in any simple day-to-day sense, and I’m not saying that they were good for my marriage. I’m talking about something deeper, having to do with satisfaction, purpose, and meaning. It’s not just me.

When you ask people about their life’s meaning and purpose, parents say that their lives have more meaning than those of nonparents. A study by the social psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues found that the more time people spent taking care of children, the more meaningful they said their life was—even though they reported that their life was no happier.

Raising children, then, has an uncertain connection to pleasure but may connect to other aspects of a life well lived, satisfying our hunger for attachment, and for meaning and purpose. The writer Zadie Smith puts it better than I ever could, describing having a child as a “strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight.” Smith, echoing the thoughts of everyone else who has seriously considered these issues, points out the risk of close attachments:

“Isn’t it bad enough that the beloved, with whom you have experienced genuine joy, will eventually be lost to you? Why add to this nightmare the child, whose loss, if it ever happened, would mean nothing less than your total annihilation?” But this annihilation reflects the extraordinary value of such attachments; as the author Julian Barnes writes of grief, quoting a friend, “It hurts just as much as it is worth.”

By Paul Bloom

Source: Does Having Kids Make You Happy? – The Atlantic

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More Contents:

. “A review of the relationship among parenting practices, parenting styles, and adolescent school achievement” (PDF). Educational Psychology Review. 17

 “Parenting Style as a Moderator of Associations Between Maternal Disciplinary Strategies and Child Well-Being”

“The Influence of Parenting Style on Academic Achievement and Career Path”Day, Nicholas (10 April 2013). “Parental ethnotheories and how parents in America differ from parents everywhere else”. Slate. Retrieved 19 April 2013.[verification needed]

“The Terrible Twos Explained – Safe Kids (UK)”Kenneth R. Ginsburg. “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds” (PDF). American Academy of Pediatrics. Archived from the origina

How Cultural Forces Shape Parenting Around the World

So much parenting advice focuses on the slog of the early years: How to manage sleep, feeding, tantrums, and the like. And while much of these efforts are in service of a long-term goal—raising an adult human you can be proud of—there’s much less out there that addresses life with that human as they come into their own.

Novelist Yang Huang explores that space in her latest book, My Good Son, allowing the reader to observe how parenting has shaped father and son, especially as some of the more complex, even morally questionable questions arise in the son’s burgeoning adulthood. Add in the setting—post-Tiananmen China—and a cleverly-positioned American father-son relationship to serve as the foil, and it’s a loving and intricate study of what it means to be a good Chinese parent.

Here, Huang turns her gaze to how different cultures approach the measure of being a “good parent,” sharing her research on how geography and traditions inform the many ways families grow and thrive. She explains:

“Although all of my fiction talks about parenting from both the parents’ and children’s perspectives, I have not read a book on parenting before! Finding parenting stories around the world opens my eyes and also affirms my values in many ways.”

A Lost Secret: How to Get Kids to Pay Attention

Yang Huang: “Don’t just blame a child’s short attention span on video games. Perhaps we can learn from Maya parenting—they motivate children to pay attention by giving them autonomy. When a child is setting the goal, they also learn to manage their own attention, rather than relying on adults to tell them what to do.”

I Spent 7 Years Studying Dutch Parenting—Here Are 6 Secrets to Raising the Happiest Kids in the World

YH: “Dutch parents raise the happiest children, in no small part helped by the government policies. Still, there are many things Americans can learn from, such as the family eating breakfast together, and children biking in all weathers. The Dutch have high ambitions for their children and see happiness as a means to success, the gateway to self-awareness, intrinsic motivation, independence, and positive ties with their communities.”

The Peril of Surplus Safety: Giving Kids Room to Become Adults [WATCH]

YH: “Children are drawn to things that we adults fear. We want to protect them and childproof their lives away. But does it work? People in Norway, Japan, and many other cultures, believe that the greatest safety precaution you can give a child is to let them take risks, so they can hone their judgement about what is safe and what is not, physically, emotionally, and socially.”

L’éducation “à la Française” [WATCH]

YH: “Here, an American journalist and mother speaks about what she learned from French parenting. (She’s speaking French, but the subtitles are in English.) She appeals to a French audience without pandering to them, and admits that American parenting aims to speed up the stages of our children’s development, calling it ‘a giant race from the cradle.’ Fortunately, she learns to parent with conventional French wisdom, which she summarizes into eight phrases: Hello, wait, be wise, you have to try it, balance, autonomy, it’s my decision, and poop sausage. Simple, right? Hear how she interprets them with glee and humility.”

Toilet Training at 2 Is Normal in U.S. But Very Late in China and Other Countries

YH: “Toilet training is a milestone in child-rearing. Compare the practices in first vs. third world countries, and gain a sobering perspective on nature vs. nurture, economics, and politics.”

A Chinese-Canadian to His Parents: ‘Privately, I Yearned for Your Love’

YH: “Before becoming Marvel’s first Asian superhero, Canadian actor Simu Liu had a childhood strikingly similar to mine, although we are not the same generation and grew up in different continents. His teenage angst mirrors my character Feng in my novel My Good Son. In broad strokes, Liu tells a timeless Chinese parenting story where a child learns to transform their anger and resentment into understanding and admiration for their parents. And that is a superhero feat.”

Letter From Africa: Parenting Culture Clash

YH: “In Ghana, children are taught to call an elder person with a title of respect like uncle or auntie. A teenager can enjoy being coddled, while their parents make the big decisions for them. What an indulgence! But with a price. It is similar in China, which led me to explore a clash of generations in My Good Son.”

What American Parents Can Learn From Chinese Philosophy

YH: “More Christine Gross-Loh here, this time about how kids relate to each other and the world. The Chinese philosophers saw the world as one of endless, shifting relationships—we have influence over the trajectory of our lives when we focus on learning how to relate well to others. Caring for one another is hard, albeit rewarding work. This is not just how our children will become better people and live better lives—it is how they can create a better world.”

Motherhood Around the World

YH: “This series on Cup of Jo features firsthand accounts of Americans parenting abroad as well as locals sharing how their home country approaches different aspects of raising children. I especially liked reading how one South African mother raises her mixed-raced child to be trilingual and specifically not colorblind in a culturally diverse environment with a wide socioeconomic gap. Also, this Colorado mom, now in Jordan, who shares her experience getting to know local Muslim women and their approach to food, soothing babies, and friendship.”

By: Yang Huang

Source: How Cultural Forces Shape Parenting Around the World

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Related Contents:

Want to Raise Successful Kids? Science Says These 5 Habits Matter Most

I’ve been on a mission, collecting science-based parenting advice both here in my column on Inc.com and in my continuously updated free e-book How to Raise Successful Kids, which you can download here.

Here’s a short but detailed look at five of the most useful studies that I’ve found, and the habits they suggest for successful parents.

1. Be a role model (but not their only role model).

Let’s give the plot twist up front: Kids need great role models, but one of the most important roles you can model is how you deal with failure.

Deal with it honestly, openly, and transparently. Let them see that you do sometimes try and come up short. Because, of course, they will fail at things themselves, and you want to teach them two things:

  • Don’t be afraid or ashamed of failure, especially if they’ve given it their all.
  • Rebound from it the right way.

A few years ago, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ran experiments with children as young as 15 months old. The more their parents let them see that they struggled and failed at times, the more resilient the kids became.

“There’s some pressure on parents to make everything look easy,” one of the study’s leads said. “[T]his does at least suggest that it may not be a bad thing to show your children that you are working hard to achieve your goals.”

Beyond that? Make sure they have great role models, both in their lives and in literature.

2. Teach them to love the outdoors.

This advice seems especially timely as we emerge from the pandemic. But kids need to be outside.

Studies show that kids who spent a lot less time outdoors during the early days of the coronavirus crisis experienced a strikingly negative effect on their emotional well-being.

This almost seems like common sense, but we see it come up again and again in both children and adults.

These kinds of habits — and a lifelong appreciation for nature (or not) — can start young, and cost almost nothing.

Against this — and I’m no Luddite, and I know we live in a digital world, but — researchers have found that happiness and well-being among U.S. middle schoolers has declined steadily since 2012.

Hmmm, what happened in 2012? That’s when American kids largely started to get their own smartphones, combined with unlimited data plans.

3. Teach them to prioritize kindness.

A couple of years ago, psychologist and business school professor Adam Grant and his wife, Allison Sweet Grant, wrote a book about kids and kindness. In an article they wrote for The Atlantic around the same time, they made an interesting point:

  • More than 90 percent of U.S. parents say that “one of their top priorities is that their children be caring.”
  • But if you ask children what their parents’ top priorities are for them,  “81 percent say their parents value achievement and happiness over caring.”

There’s a disconnect. And it might stem from people not realizing one of the most fascinating paradoxes, which is that people who demonstrate kindness and caring for others are often more likely to achieve what they want as a result.

As the Grants put it:

Boys who are rated as helpful by their kindergarten teacher earn more money 30 years later. Middle-school students who help, cooperate, and share with their peers also excel–compared with unhelpful classmates, they get better grades and standardized-test scores.

The eighth graders with the greatest academic achievement, moreover, are not the ones who got the best marks five years earlier; they’re the ones who were rated most helpful by their third-grade classmates and teachers.

And middle schoolers who believe their parents value being helpful, respectful, and kind over excelling academically, attending a good college, and having a successful career perform better in school and are less likely to break rules.

We see this in negotiations, too: Develop empathy with the people you’re dealing with, care legitimately about what they want as well as what you want, and you’re more likely to reach a desirable resolution.

4. Praise them the right way.

There are at least three facets of praising kids well that I’ve found in my surveys of the research.

The first is to praise kids for their effort, not their gifts. I’ve gotten a bit of pushback on this idea recently, which I’ll address in a future column. But in short:

  • Good: I’m very proud of you. I saw how hard you studied for that test.
  • Not-so-good: I knew you’d do well on that test. You’re so smart and naturally good at math.

The second is to praise them authentically. Kids aren’t stupid (mostly). They know if you’re blowing smoke when you praise them for things that don’t really merit praise. But they also need reinforcement to know that you’re proud and think they’re doing the right things.

In one study of 300 kids, researchers found that:

When parents perceived that they over- or underpraised their children for schoolwork, children performed worse in school and experienced depression to a greater extent, as compared with children whose parents thought their praise accurately reflected reality.

Finally, however: Be generous with your praise in terms of quantity.

A three-year study out of Brigham Young University found that there’s no magic amount of praise, but it’s helpful to do so as often as possible. One trick might be to break down tasks and praise for each one specifically, as opposed to holding your positive reinforcement until the end of a task.

5. Be there for them, and then some.

This last bit of advice is perhaps the hardest because it flies in the face of one of the parenting clichés we all want to avoid: namely, becoming a helicopter parent.

That said, I’m going to combine studies here, and at least give you food for thought — if not a complete guide.

The bottom line up front is to be there, be vocal, and be involved, while still letting your kids do for themselves as much as they can.

  • Study No. 1: Researchers found that girls whose mothers “nagged the heck out of them” were less likely to become pregnant as teenagers, more likely to go to college, and less likely to have long periods of unemployment or get stuck in dead-end jobs.
  • Study No. 2: A series of studies, actually, found that parents who were quick to run to their children’s side when they faced big challenges or had setbacks — at almost any age — wound up raising kids who were more successful and had better relationships with their parents as they got older.

In short, you’re your child’s parent, and they need you to act like that: guiding them, pushing them, and showing that you’ll always be there for them. Do that much, and you’re doing quite a lot.

By: Bill Murphy Jr., http://www.billmurphyjr.com@BillMurphyJr

Source: Want to Raise Successful Kids? Science Says These 5 Habits Matter Most | Inc.com

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Critics:

Parenting or child rearing promotes and supports the physical, emotional, social, and intellectual development of a child from infancy to adulthood. Parenting refers to the intricacies of raising a child and not exclusively for a biological relationship. The most common caretaker in parenting is the father or mother, or both, the biological parents of the child in question. However, a surrogate may be an older sibling, a step-parent, a grandparent, a legal guardian, aunt, uncle, other family members, or a family friend.

Governments and society may also have a role in child-rearing. In many cases, orphaned or abandoned children receive parental care from non-parent or non-blood relations. Others may be adopted, raised in foster care, or placed in an orphanage. Parenting skills vary, and a parent or surrogate with good parenting skills may be referred to as a good parent. Parenting styles vary by historical period, race/ethnicity, social class, preference, and a few other social features.

Additionally, research supports that parental history, both in terms of attachments of varying quality and parental psychopathology, particularly in the wake of adverse experiences, can strongly influence parental sensitivity and child outcomes.

Parenting does not usually end when a child turns 18. Support may be needed in a child’s life well beyond the adolescent years and continues into middle and later adulthood. Parenting can be a lifelong process.

Parents may provide financial support to their adult children, which can also include providing an inheritance after death. The life perspective and wisdom given by a parent can benefit their adult children in their own lives. Becoming a grandparent is another milestone and has many similarities with parenting.

See also

Damage Done By Emotionally Immature Parents Can Have a Long Term Impact on Children

Mandy* says her mother has always had a controlling streak. In something of a nightmare scenario for most kids, when Mandy was 10, her mum got a job at her school. “My mother was telling me who I was and I wasn’t allowed to be friends with. She was prohibiting most people I made friends with,” Mandy says.

“She would actually leave her post during my lunchtime to see who I was hanging out with and if I was following her orders.” Mandy is now in her late 20s. Until a few years ago, she says her mother was still trying to control what she wore — going as far as to pre-approve what she could buy.

“There was one day where I was wearing an outfit that she didn’t like the combination and she started freaking out to the point where she went up to the door and blocked my exit. She would not allow me to leave the house,” Mandy says.

Mandy says the control extended to what she ate, and she developed an eating disorder between the ages of 11 and 15. “She was always incredibly controlling of what I was eating, always watching every move.”

Mandy says as a child, she would make decisions to please her mother and prevent fights in the house, which left her stressed and insecure.  “Part of that insecurity led me to a period in my teens where I was suicidal for quite a long time, and I had a suicide attempt when I was 15,” she says.

She argues that her mother’s immature behaviours — controlling various aspects of her life and reacting angrily when Mandy didn’t follow the rules — has caused her significant problems as an adult.

Who are these emotionally immature parents?

Mandy’s experience isn’t uncommon. In her practice as a clinical psychologist, Lindsay Gibson has come across many people with similar stories. Ms Gibson was “astounded” at the emotional immaturity of parental behaviours reported by clients.

“As I’m listening to them I’m thinking, ‘oh my gosh, her father is acting like a four-year-old, or her mother sounds like a 14-year-old’.” Ms Gibson has seen a range of emotional immaturity – from parents who can be volatile and hysterical, through to those who are cold and rejecting. Many also exhibit controlling behaviours.

She’s encountered this problem so often, she wrote a book about it. These troubled relationships can have significant long-term impacts on children when they become adults themselves, she says. One of these impacts can be a disregard for their own feelings and instincts.

“They [the parent] teach you to doubt yourself and mistrust your emotional needs, and you can imagine how that plays out later when that person has to figure out what they want to do for a living or decide who to marry,” Ms Gibson says.

“All these things that have to come from an internal sense of guidance.” Mandy isn’t a client of Ms Gibson’s, but says what Ms Gibson describes is similar to the impacts her mother had on her. She finally moved out of her parents’ home last year and has since started seeing a therapist.

“Sometimes a trauma response isn’t just like having panic attacks, sometimes it’s also being a people pleaser because I just want to lessen the conflict.” Ms Gibson argues that emotionally immature parents grew up at a time when there was little emphasis on the emotional needs of children.

Instead, the focus was on the physical needs of children — things like reducing levels of child labour and malnutrition. That changed around the middle of the century. “Around about the 1950s, there was a paediatrician, Benjamin Spock, who began to push this idea that children had emotional needs and that meeting the child’s emotional needs had tremendous importance in their adult life. And so there was an awakening,” Ms Gibson says.

Going no contact

The main strategy advised by psychologists when it comes to parents who may be overbearing or manipulative is to set firm boundaries or guidelines around how other people can behave towards you. Examples of behaviours people might push back on include unwanted visits, or unwelcome advice about how a child is being raised, Ms Gibson says.

“And if you learn how to say no in whatever awkward, frightened, shy way that you want to say no, but you just continue to say what your limits are, that really works pretty well, because emotionally immature people are not prepared for repetition,” she says.

“That’s a very hard thing for an adult child to do, but it can be done and that’s the way to do it.” Boundaries are something Mandy says she tried to establish with her parents many times over, but for her it never quite worked. “And of course it all got worse when they realised that I was queer. I kept establishing boundaries around it where I was like, ‘look, my identity is not up for debate’. That was completely dismissed,” she says.

By 2020 she had finally saved enough money to move out of her parents’ home for good. She’s had no contact with them for the past six months. Mandy now helps run an online forum where adult children who have difficult relationships with their parents can swap survival stories, share encouragement and try to heal.

As for how to be a good parent? Ms Gibson says at its core, it’s simple.

“All you have to do is to not only love your child, but be able to see your child as a unique individual who has a real internal world of their own, where everything is just as important as it is to the adult, and there have always been parents who had that sensitivity, thank goodness,” she says.

By: Sana Qadar and James Bullen for All in the Mind

Source: Damage done by emotionally immature parents can have a long-term impact on children – ABC News

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Critics:

Melitta Schmideberg noted in 1948 how emotional deprivation could lead parents to treat their children (unconsciously) as substitute parent figures.”Spousification” and “parental child” (Minuchin) offered alternative concepts exploring the same phenomenon; while the theme of intergenerational continuity in such violations of personal boundaries was further examined.

Eric Berne touched on the dangers of parents and children having a symmetrical, rather than asymmetrical relationship, as when an absent spouse is replaced by the eldest child; and Virginia Satir wrote of “the role-function discrepancy…where the son gets into a head-of-the-family role, commonly that of the father”.

Object relations theory highlighted how the child’s false self is called into being when it is forced prematurely to take excessive care of the parental object; and John Bowlby looked at what he called “compulsive caregiving” among the anxiously attached, as a result of a parent inverting the normal relationship and pressuring the child to be an attachment figure for them.

All such aspects of disturbed and inverted parenting patterns have been drawn under the umbrella of the wider phenomenon of parentification – with the result (critics suggest) that on occasion “ironically the concept of parentification has…been as over-burdened as the child it often describes

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References:

  • R. A. Gardner et al., The International Handbook of Parental Alienation Syndrome (2006) p. 200
  • Gregory J. Jurkovic, ‘Destructive Parentification in Families’ in Luciano L’Abate ed., Family Psychopathology (New York 1998) pp. 237–255
  • Jurkovic, p. 240
  • Jurkovic, in L’Abate ed., p. 240
  • Eric Berne, Sex in Human Loving (Penguin 1970) p. 249–53
  • Virginia Satir, Peoplemaking (1983) p. 167
  • Adam Phillips, On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored (1994) p. 31
  • John Bowlby, The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds (London 1979) p. 137–38
  • Karpel, quoted by Jurkovic, in L’Abate ed., p. 238
  • Satir, p. 167
  • Bryna Siegal, What about Me (2002) p. 131
  • Harold Bloom, Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (2007) p. 142
  • Diana Brandt, Wild Mother Dancing (1993) p. 54
  • Jurkovic, in L’Abate, ed., p. 246-7
  • Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of the Neuroses (London 1946) p. 510-11
  • R. K. Holway, Becoming Achilles (2011) Chapter Five ‘Fathers and Sons’; and notes p. 218–19
  • Siegal, p. 114
  • Jurkovic, p. 237
  • Paula M. Reeves, in Nancy D. Chase, Burdened Children (1999) p. 171
  • Katz, Petracca; J., Rabinowitz (2009). “A retrospective study of daughters’ emotional role reversal with parents, attachment anxiety, excessive reassurance seeking, and depressive symptoms”. The American Journal of Family Therapy. 37 (3): 185–195. doi:10.1080/01926180802405596. S2CID 145504807.
  • C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (London 1983) p. 69
  • Laurens van der Post, Jung and the Story of Our Times (Penguin 1978) p. 77
  • Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (1990) p. 174
  • Murasaki Shikiki, The Tale of Genji (London 1992) p. 790
  • Nina S. “Unwilling Angels: Charles Dickens, Agnes Wickfield, and the Effects of Parentification”. Dickens Blog.
  • E. D. Klonsky/A. Blas, The Psychology of Twilight (2011) Nancy R. Reagin ed., Twilight and History (2010) p. 184–85 and p. 258-9

Teaching Your Kids How to Resolve Conflict Without Fighting

You know how we have epiphanies as we grow older? One of the most profound ones for me has been the realization that just because someone doesn’t agree with what you’re saying at the moment doesn’t mean that they don’t agree with you all the time or that they don’t like you anymore.

This simple realization has had a huge impact on my life.

Just recently, my parents and brother were in town for my daughter’s birthday. We were at dinner the night before her party, and my brother hadn’t put his phone down the entire half hour we’d been seated. I made a comment on this – that it’s not pleasant to share a meal with someone that can’t take their eyes away from their smart phones – and he stormed off, refusing to engage in any conversation.

This isn’t the first time he’s had a violent outburst of anger over a small conflict. As his family member, it upsets me that this happens so frequently.

While I tried to make amends over text message (the only way he was willing to communicate), I noticed something in what he was saying – he thought that any criticism of his actions was a criticism of him. He thought that if I respected him, then I would not say anything negative to him. And worst of all, he thought that disagreeing meant we couldn’t be friends.

I started to wonder why this might be. Did we not have good examples of conflict resolution growing up? Did we witness violent outbursts of anger? When I think back on it, I can’t remember my parents ever arguing. And while that may seem like a good thing, I think that may be where the problem lies.

In order to know how to handle conflict in a productive and healthy manner, we need models of healthy conflict resolution. While on one hand fighting and inflamed emotions only create pain, on the other, never seeing adults disagree means our children don’t know how to deal with conflicts at all.

Productive arguments and even conflict are good, and can bring us closer when handled well. Among the many things we teach our kids, how to resolve conflict without resorting to either drama or fighting, or just simply sweeping it under the rug to fester, is very important.

Here are some ways we can teach our kids to argue in a way that builds connections, instead of destroying them –

1. Teach that disagreement and conflict do not mean that the relationship is damaged or in jeopardy

Our children need to know they are loved unconditionally. This is true in our homes, in school, and on the playground. It is far too common for individuals to view a disagreement as the undoing of a relationship. It is entirely possible to have opposing views and to still get along.

When your child comes home after a disagreement with a friend, listen to the grievances, and remind your child that their relationship with their friend remains intact.

Saying “I see, you didn’t like it that Mila wouldn’t share the swing with you” places the burden on the action; saying “it sounds like Mila was being mean today” places the burden on Mila.

This important distinction does two things:

  1. it helps your child understand that it was the action, not the friend, which was truly upsetting and
  2. it promotes a growth mindset.

Your child will learn that Mila’s actions do not define her completely. If the negative feelings are linked directly to your child’s friend instead of the action, your child may incorporate that image of Mila as always being mean. By linking the feelings to the action, your child will be more likely to understand that having one disagreement does not mean that Mila will always be “mean”.

You can also teach your child this truth by affirming it whenever the two of you disagree. Be careful and intentional with the language you choose.

Instead of criticizing your child (“you’re being disruptive”), make it clear that it is the behavior that you are unapproving of (“the way you are banging your silverware on the table is disrupting our family dinner”).

This can help your child take an outside perspective of the behavior or disagreement. Instead of aligning him or herself with the behavior in opposition to you, he or she can align with you in opposition to the behavior. Which makes it easier to teach kids how to resolve conflict in a healthy manner and brings us to our next strategy…

2. Instill in your child a sense of family and friends as teammates

There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re outside of a group. Being ostracized in time out or left out of a game of tag can be debilitating for a child. We want to belong. And one of the things that can make us feel like we don’t belong is having a fight.

I noticed this in my communication with my brother. He felt rejected because of our disagreement, when in reality I only meant to point out a behavior that was hindering our ability to connect. I should have been more careful to make it clear that it wasn’t him that I had a problem with, but was the behavior instead.

One way we can do this with our children and other adults is reminding ourselves and each other that we are on the same team. When your child is disrupting dinner time, saying something like “we all want to have a meal together and spend time with each other” reminds him or her that you have the same goal.

Back to our example of Mila not sharing her swing – this is a good time to explain that individuals often have different ideas of the same goal. In this example, our goal on the playground is to have fun and play together. Mila is expressing this goal by swinging. How else can we meet this goal together? How can we cooperate, rather than compete, to find different options for reaching the same goal? Can we take turns with one on the swing and the other pushing her 10 times and then switch places so both of us can have fun?

This is the sort of conversation that may be difficult to have with young children, but if we are able to open our children’s minds to seeing different ways to get the same thing accomplished, and ultimately look for a win-win solution, we have done them a great service for their lives to come.

3. Encourage your child to recognize the emotions that come to the surface during a conflict

When we don’t view each other as teammates, we may come to assume that the other person has bad intentions or is trying to hurt us. Where does this come from?

Most often, it is a defense against the pain and fear of being rejected. These emotions are quick to come to the surface in any conflict – our stomach gets tight, we sweat, our heart pounds. We are afraid of what the other person – our partner, a friend, a coworker – might say.

In order to protect ourselves against these scary feelings, we often fight back. We lash out instead of taking a moment to recognize our own vulnerability.

We can help our children recognize this cascade of thoughts and feelings by verbalizing it for them and asking them how they feel.

When you see anger rising in your child, place a hand on their shoulder and ask them what they’re feeling. The touch will help them feel safe and grounded, and the answer to your question may help them step out of their escalating anger and fear.

If they have trouble finding the words to describe their emotions, help them out. Say “it seems like you’re feeling angry/scared/frustrated”. Giving them a variety of words to express their emotions and helping them understand the more complicated ones will give them tools of emotional intelligence that they can use throughout their lives to build healthy relationships. This primer from The Natural Child Project has suggestions on how to observe and verbalize the emotions that arise from a difficult situation.

Once the emotions are identified, help them dig deeper to explore the causes of these emotions: “you felt frustrated when Mila wouldn’t share the swing with you”, or “did you feel scared that she may not be your friend if she didn’t share?”

By now, your child will probably start to be more calm and able to think through a healthy solution for how to resolve conflict. This is a good time to use our first two strategies: reminding your child that the disagreement does not mean that the friendship is over, and that there may be other ways to view the situation so that you can reach your shared goal together.

4. Model these strategies every chance you get

There is no greater teacher than the world around us, and our children are sponges, absorbing all of our actions and words as the blueprint for their lives.

A lot of pressure? Maybe.

But that’s one of the beauties of parenthood – it pushes us to be our best selves.

I mentioned above that my brother and I never saw our parents disagreeing. How were we meant to learn how to disagree if we never saw it happening? It seemed to us that disagreeing was something so bad that it had be hidden, if it happened at all. But disagreements happen, and there’s no way to avoid them. What we can avoid is an inability to deal with conflict in a healthy manner.

For example, having a disagreement with your spouse is not a time to run to another room and argue in hushed tones. Instead, use it as a teaching moment for your child and for yourself.

Saying “when you forget to go to the grocery store, I feel disrespected” gets to the heart of the issue much more than angrily shouting “you’re so forgetful!”

It also helps your spouse recognize the impact of their actions on you – it is highly unlikely that he or she neglected to go to the store out of any disrespect for you – and it helps you recognize that you may be experiencing emotions that are more about your own reaction than about the actions of your partner. According to nonviolent communication pioneer Marshall Rosenberg, “what others do may be a stimulus of our feelings, but not the cause”.

Modeling this behavior is hugely instructional for our children. They get to see us being vulnerable, and they start to see this honest discussion of emotions as a normal and healthy part of our interactions with each other.

The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents

At the heart of teaching healthy conflict-resolution skills is a deep understanding of our own reactions to conflict. Just as we discussed helping your child recognize his or her emotions, we need to practice this ourselves.

The next time you disagree with your child, your spouse, your coworker, or your friend, notice how your body feels. Our bodies can often teach us a lot about our emotions. Do you hunch over, taking a protective stance out of a feeling of fear? Do you immediately cross your arms, unwilling to move forward hand-in-hand with the other person?

Identifying the tension in your body is the first step to letting it go. See if you can relax into your own vulnerability. Remind yourself that this is not a fight-or-flight situation, but rather an opportunity to understand each other more deeply and to forge an even stronger relationship.

The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents

If you are inclined to write, you can take the 2-minute action plan a step further. Keeping a daily stream-of-consciousness journal can be a wonderful tool for unraveling our thoughts, feelings, actions, and the connections among the three.

Julia Cameron pioneered this idea in The Artist’s Way, calling the ritual “Morning Pages”. While it was originally meant to clear the mind to make room for creativity, the Morning Pages practice can also be used to clear your mind of any clutter or complicated thoughts, to make room for full, authentic engagement with the world and your family.

When it comes to conflict, a writing practice can help you understand your own reactions to difficult situations. This in turn helps us connect with and better understand our children. This high level of empathy is crucial for helping our children learn to understand their emotions related to conflict and disagreement, and one of the best ways to cultivate empathy is by being vulnerable ourselves. From that place of kindness and empathy, we can teach our children to deal with these moments in a way that fosters continued harmonious relationship at home, at school, and for the rest of their lives.

By: 

Tiffany Frye is the co-founder of nido durham (www.nidodurham.com), a coworking space with childcare in Durham, NC. She supports and mentors parents who want to craft a career that fits around their lives and honors their parent-self as well as their professional-self. You can connect with Tiffany at tiffanymfrye.com or on Twitter @nidodurham.

Source: Teaching Your Kids How to Resolve Conflict Without Fighting – A Fine Parent

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