Adults make New Year’s resolutions because they want to have a better year than the one before. The start of a new year is symbolic of change and the desire to create a new beginning. Getting to the gym, getting a healthy meal plan, and getting financially sound and organized are among the top New Year’s resolutions. Every January, millions of people vow to make positive changes, but as February and March approach, quite often those promises are broken. According to the website Statistic Brain, out of the 45 percent of those who make resolutions, only 8 percent achieve their goals. Although adults are committed and motivated when they decide to make changes, the odds are not in their favor that they will actually reach their goals. This is because change is really, really difficult. Change for children is very hard, as well, and parents need to recognize this when they are asking their children to make changes.
Unlike adults, children have little to no understanding of what it means to change and, therefore, no motivation to change. I recently asked a fairly sophisticated 10-year-old what he thought a New Year’s resolution was. He responded, “It’s when someone resolves to make a change before the end of the next year.” I probed further. “What kind of a change?” His response was, “like stopping smoking.” Although he used the right words, it was pretty obvious he had no real idea of what a New Year’s resolution was. The truth is that the idea of change is a foreign concept to children and, therefore, must begin with the adult, not the child. Children can develop motivation to change in response to a strong connection with an adult. A classic example of this is when an underperforming child performs better after developing strong rapport with a new teacher.
Many parents want their children to make behavior changes, and they become increasingly frustrated when those changes don’t occur. A great New Year’s resolution for parents is to commit to spending more time with their child as a way of strengthening the parent-child connection. The benefits of creating a stronger parent-child bond include increasing positive self-esteem in their child and building a foundation to help their child make positive changes. Children don’t change because they are told to change. And unlike adults, children don’t change because it’s a new year. Children have no inherent motivation to change, because they are focused on the present moment and attaining instant and immediate gratification. From a child’s developmental perspective, if change needs to occur, it can happen outside of themselves and by those around them. However, there is one condition that motivates children to change, and that is when they feel connected to and understood by their parents.
Here are some specific guidelines for parents:
1. Be flexible. Children change in response to their parents’ flexibility. For example, if a child hates the feel of wool against his bare skin, a parent’s ability to be flexible and accept that their child may not be able to wear the new, very expensive wool sweater will not only eliminate behavior outbursts but also establish trust because the child sees that what he says is important and acted upon.
2. Parents may be frustrated because of their child’s problematic behaviors, and yet, they need to put those aggravations aside long enough to engage in a positive connection with their child on daily basis. Parents who initiate and commit to five to 10 minutes of daily or near-daily one-on-one time with a child experience an improvement in their child’s behavior. A child’s self-esteem is also positively influenced as a result of a strong parent-child bond.
3. Parents need to meet their child where they are. If rapport is tarnished and interactions are negative, this is not the time to focus on changing behavior. Instead rebuild trust and then together work on improving the troublesome behaviors.
4. Parents can model positive behaviors. If a parent wants a child to get more exercise, they can engage in an exercise program and demonstrate how it’s done.
5. Parents can change together with their children. Parents who want their children to eat healthier need to have a healthy diet that they insist on for the entire family.
6. When parents are frustrated because they can’t get their child to change, they need to remind themselves of how difficult it is to change, especially when there is no internal motivation, as is the case for children. As a reminder, they can ask themselves, “How eager am I to start exercising when my spouse pushes me to?”
7. Parents will be most effective when they can take a step back, trust the process and focus on connecting with their child instead of controlling his or her behavior.
Dr. Kate Roberts is a psychologist and parent coach on the North Shore. She can be reached at www.drkateroberts.com, www.twitter.com/DrKateParenting, www.facebook.com/Dr.KateRobertsParenting or www.pinterest.com/DrKateParenting.