Is parenting stress a challenge for you and your family? Let’s face it… sometimes raising kids can be highly stressful for both the parents and the children. Oftentimes, it’s all about parenting strategy, so let me ask you, “Have you ever thought about the strategies you use to motivate your kids to behave or cooperate?”
I, for one, am really interested in the topic of parenting stress and how to solve it. I get really excited when I think about how parents can be much more positive and use their children’s natural brain chemicals such as Dopamine to help their own children grow up to be stress hardy and resilient.
If you follow my work at all, then you already know that I am all about stress hardiness and resilience. These are two of the most amazing ideas going when it comes to dealing with parenting stress. Basically, if your kids are taught in childhood how to be stress hardy and resilient, then they have the best chance at a life filled with health, happiness, self-motivation and success, no matter what they choose to do once they are all grown up. How cool is that? I, definitely, want that for your kids. In fact, I have a crystal clear vision of all kids being able to pull that off. Plus, if you choose to raise your kids this way, it means your parenting stress will remain very low.
So, let’s get back to discipline. Have you ever noticed that when people talk about parenting, they often talk in the negative? They talk about solutions such as:
If you want parenting stress to be out of control, then you should definitely choose negative discipline strategies. I’m just kidding, of course, but it’s seems to be human nature to use negative responses to problems first and of course, no one is perfect, but what if there was another really simple way to get kids to cooperate and behave? What if a simple change in outlook could end parenting stress?
I am talking about leveraging stress or taking advantage of the brain chemicals that are naturally made by the body to get children to comply with your wishes. Of course, I’m not at all talking about turning kids into Stepford zombies. I know some tiger parents want kids like that, but I prefer kids who are creative and motivated; children who are happy and capable of thinking for themselves. I want my kids to have top level critical thinking skills, to be great problem solvers and to be flexible and adaptable to all the curve balls life throws at them. Basically, I want my children to rise above stress and come out on top. And by managing my family this way, I am able to keep parenting stress very low most of the time.
Now, not to be a Debbie Downer, but the sad thing is that many, if not most parents fall victim to the naturally occurring stress hormones and brain chemicals produced by the body without actually realizing it and this is when parenting stress rises through the roof. These stress hormones and brain chemicals are almost always a big part of bad behavior and bad choices rather than good behavior and good choices. By this, I mean addictions. When your child becomes addicted to the influence of friends (peer pressure is a major cause of parenting stress), to smoking, drinking, drugs and partying, to gambling and shopping, to eating carbs and highly processed foods, it’s all because of the Dopamine reward center in the brain. Dopamine is like naturally occurring Cocaine and whatever gives a kid that natural high will be the behavior the child wants to repeat.
If your children can get that Dopamine high from an awesome adventure such as a really cool and exciting camping trip, then your children will want to go camping all the time. If your daughter gets that natural high from doing volunteer work in the community, then she will want to do volunteer work all the time and if your son gets that natural high from playing board games and card games with family because it is so much fun, then he will want to do those types of activities all the time and parenting stress will be a thing of the past. In a perfect world, your child will be getting that natural Dopamine high from doing all these constructive activities and many more. By the way, the same goes for parents. The activities that are fun and give a natural high are all activities the brain wants to do again and again no matter how old you are.
However, the exact same body chemistry can be applied to destructive behaviors, such as those I mentioned earlier. When Dopamine makes kids want to engage in destructive behaviors, there is really no worse kind of parenting stress, in my opinion. Whatever gives the high, the brain will want to repeat.
So what about behaving, doing chores and learning about values such as consideration, cooperation and thankfulness? Is it possible to make use of the Dopamine reward center in the brain to get your child to want to do all those good things, too?
Whatever gives the natural high, the child will want to do again and again and to make it happen, all you have to do is use well-defined positive re-enforcement strategies or reward systems, which are much simpler than using negative behavior management tools such as the ones listed above that lead to untold parenting stress.
This parenting model is great for your kids and it is also great for the parents.
If you are a yeller, you won’t need to deal with laryngitis anymore; if you are a spanker, you won’t have sore hands or broken wooden spoons anymore; if you have a timeout corner, you will have new space in your home for some exciting new furniture; if you are a grounder, you won’t have to worry about staying home to enforce that punishment. I think you get the idea. All kinds of parenting stress, childhood stress and relationship stress with hit the road forever.
So just how do you implement a positive re-enforcement or reward system in your home?
Well, the key is to start simple and use trial and error to get in a groove. Don’t draw any attention to it and don’t involve others in your plan at first; just be inconspicuous and keep at it. Consistency and predictability are the most important aspects of this strategy for ending parenting stress.
To get started, just give your children little rewards that seem unplanned when they do good things. Focus on doing this when other adults are not around so you don’t have to try to explain what you are doing. You don’t want to replace parenting stress with relationship stress between you and your significant other by demanding immediate changes in the family parenting strategy. Besides, talk is cheap and actions speak much louder than words. It’s far better to have some real demonstrated results under your belt before you start calling for massive change in the home. For example, if your child puts dishes in the dishwasher, give a quarter or a small candy (things they want), but don't make a big deal out of it. And be sure NOT to call it a reward system or program.
If you do this in a nonchalant way, but you are VERY consistent and predictable about it, your children will seek out the rewards even if they are not directly called rewards. There will be less need for negative consequences and any parenting stress will start to lessen. After a while, you will be able to just ignore the annoying behaviors all together because there will be few of them and your children will be focused on the rewards.
A very important piece of the parenting stress puzzle is that you must handle this strategy in such a way that your child does not realize you are using a reward plan or system, so there won't be any sudden announcements during a moment of frustration that this system is better that the other parent’s system because you may, at least for a while, still need to use the other systems as fall backs. It will take some time for you to get good at using this technique. If your child doesn't know about it, there won’t be an opportunity for unreasonable demands and manipulation.
Remember, you are trying to learn how to use naturally-occurring brain chemicals and stress hormones to your advantage and to the advantage of your children’s futures, but these are powerful forces. That’s why addiction becomes such a problem for so many people. The reward system in the brain gets out of balance and once this happens, it is very difficult to rebalance the system to eliminate the addiction. It is very easy to become a stress victim rather than a stress hero and when this happens, it becomes stress city as far as parenting stress is concerned.
The same is true of positive re-enforcement, if the child gets the natural high from doing the good behavior, then that is what the brain will want to repeat; however, if the child gets the natural high from manipulating the system, then that is the behavior that will be repeated. Being manipulated by your own kids is a whole other world of parenting stress and we definitely don’t want to go there.
Just in case you are wondering, the rewards don't have to be money, candy or things, they can be special time with you or an extra privilege not usually given. Make a list of special rewards and keep it tucked away so you always have lots of ideas for rewards close by. The first list in the link is for younger kids, but if you scroll down, there are other lists for older children and teens.
To solve parenting stress, each time you give a reward, do/say the four reward steps:
Eventually the need for negative reinforcement systems will fall by the wayside because your children will be reward driven instead of punishment reactive as we all are in society with our paychecks at our jobs. Your children may even learn to take the initiative to do things without being asked, which is a highly sought after skill in the world of work.