How to make a happy, well-adjusted child

What joy there is in children! 

NEW ARTICLES ARTWORK

 

Want your children to grow up well adjusted and intelligent? It’s all down to good parenting (obviously) but that doesn’t just mean spending time with them – it’s how you spend the time that really counts!

Play is more than just fun and games – play establishes relationships and teaches children about boundaries. It’s only relatively recently that the real importance of play in children’s lives has been recognised – children’s moral, social and intelligent development is directly linked to how they play.

Play presents unique opportunities for children and parents alike. Play provides young minds with the opportunity to explore thoughts and imagination and bring them to life! Play gives children the opportunity to learn and hone new skills. What joy there is in being young and alive… for youngsters, it’s the most important time to freely explore divergent thinking and creativity.

Asking children questions about what they’re doing while they play and why they’re doing it helps them play with purpose.

Parents should join in their offspring’s play – and enjoy it as much as they do! Laughter is extremely important – after all, children are supposed to be having fun when they play. Remembering how you felt as a child and the joy play brought you will help you understand the happiness your child feels when playing.

Sometimes parents are so busy they do things for their children that could be taught to themselves, or made into a game. Instead of helping children when they ask ‘can you do this for me?’ it’s better to say ‘let’s do it together.’ Children are far less likely to become helpless or dependent if you follow this simple rule.

Encouraging anything your child is excited about helps them to see the world in new ways. Sometimes you might have to pretend everything they do is interesting, but that is a fundamental part of good parenting. You can encourage your child by talking about their ideas and even offering suggestions.

A child might say ‘look… a train.’ Instead of just saying ‘yes,’ you could ask ‘I wonder where it’s going? I wonder where the people are going?’

One of the most important things is to identify play and celebrate it. It’s not always possible to be excited about play, after all, adutls are busy too, but when you can be, it makes a huge difference to your child. The experimenting and trial and error that children experience is a hugely important part of their development.

Play is part of nurture and there is plenty of research that proves it helps children’s brains grow at twice the rate of children who don’t have the opportunity to play or interract with caring, interested parents.

Both mothers and fathers experience the same increase in levels of oxytocin when they interract with their children – particularly when it involves play. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the more time parents spend with their children, the stronger the bonds between them will become. Further research has found that hormone levels in fathers increase if they hear their child cry, and that increase affects the way fathers respond.

Key brain structures grow twice as quickly in youngsters whose mothers were affectionate and supportive than those with cold and distant parents. Brain scans showed that nurturing provided the most benefit to children under six. Even if a mother became more caring when a child was a bit older, those neglected when very young failed to catch up, which represents a lost opportunity for the child.

Researcher Joan Luby, a child psychiatrist at Washington University has studied the effects of nurture and claims there’s a sensitive period when the brain responds more to maternal support.

Dr. Luby’s study included 127 children who underwent periodic brain scans starting when they began school and ending when they reached their teens. To assess their mothers, the women were videoed as they tried to carry out stressful tasks in the presence of their child, who was given an attractive gift to open, but wasn’t allowed to open it right away.

The experiment represents the sort of stressful situation that occurs several times a day in any family, similar to when you’re cooking dinner and your child wants attention. The child needs something, but you’re busy, so it challenges your parenting skills.

Even small changes in parental support caused big changes in the growth of the hippocampus, one of the parts of the brain key to memory, learning and the regulation of emotion.

This research has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It must be blindingly obvious that early parental support affects a child’s development, but this is the first study that proves the same kind of support as a definite correllation to the development of the brain.

For the sake of completeness, further research carried out by the University of Texas concluded that physical punishment such as smacking, does nothing to make a child compliant. The more a child is smacked, the more likely they are to become aggressive and suffer mental health problems later on. This finding is based on 50 years of meticulous research.

So much for smacking – but what about shouting? Perhaps unsurprisingly, shouting doesn’t work either. Fathers who shout at their children can make a child’s behaviour worse!

A study carried out by researchers at Brigham Young University of how 500 children interacted with their parents examined how the children reacted when shouted at by their mothers and fathers. Fathers who disciplined their teenage children by shouting at them made their behaviour toward parents, siblings and even non-family members worse. Conversely, mothers shouting at their children had no impact whatsoever on the child’s behaviour.

The researchers believe the way in which fathers interact with their children when disciplining them has links to aggressive and delinquent behaviour in later life. Why? Fathers tend to shout louder and more forcefully than mothers and the shouting would be more likely associated with anger and aggression. The danger is the child will interpret shouting as a normal or acceptable way to behave. The solution is that fathers should adopt a more gentle parenting style and engage in the sort of conversation that stresses love and caring rather than threats or punishment.

An earlier [2013] study also suggested that middle-class parents who shout at their teenage children increase the risk of later depression and troubled behaviour. Even if parents enjoyed a close relationship with their children, harsh verbal discipline was found to have a dramatic impact on teen’s emotional development.

One of the major factors affecting the development of children is that over the last two decades, children have lost eight hours per week of free, unstructured, and spontaneous play. This dramatic reduction in unstructured playtime is in part responsible for slowing children’s cognitive and emotional development.

The University of Berkley, California, is held to be one of the world’s top universities. In among the lecture rooms, laboratories and libraries is a unique children’s playground. It is built out of salvaged wood, rubber tyres and sheets of canvas. When children enter this old-fashioned wonderland, they are handed a hammer and a bag of nails. There are children sawing wood and building things – all totally unstructured and unsupervised. There are no protective goggles or hard-hats or yellow fluorescent vests, just families having fun and being creative… and then leaving with a sense of having done something interesting. Hard to believe in the land of the million-dollar lawsuit, but it’s a bastion of commonsense and normality.

In addition to helping children learn to self-regulate, child-led unstructured play (with or without adults) promotes intellectual, physical, social, and emotional wellbeing. Unstructured play helps children learn how to work in groups, to share, negotiate, resolve conflicts, regulate their emotions and behavior, and speak up for themselves. Just get them outside and let them play!

Climbing trees and running around in open spaces is what children really need – what they don’t need is to become wrapped in so much cotton-wool they become virtual prisoners! They need the freedoms that play brings and to be able to interact with the world – in short, to discover themselves. Freedom to roam the Internet on the other hand is no freedom at all.

All in all, how happy parents are dramatically affects how happy and successful their children are. Extensive research has established a significant link between mothers that feel depressed and behavioural problems in their children. Depression in mothers also makes parenting less effective.

Teaching children how to build relationships also boils down to spending time teaching them how to relate to others. Research shows that encouraging children to perform small acts of kindness in order to build empathy not only develops essential skills, but also helps children become better people. It also makes them happier.

The search for perfection is more important than actually achieving perfection. Relentlessly banging the achievement drum will nearly always have the opposite effect . The research is very consistent: praise effort, not natural ability.

Parents who over-emphasise achievement are more likely to see that ideal backfire. Children who only receive praise for achievement may later be more susceptible to high levels of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

The majority of children praised for their intelligence when they were very young go on to develop a tendency to look for easier options in the future. Those children are less likely to risk making mistakes that in turn could result in a loss of status. On the other hand, more than 90% of children who are used to trying harder continue to choose a more challenging direction. When we praise children for the effort and hard work that leads to achievement, they are much more likely to want to keep engaging in that process.

Parents should take every opportunity to teach optimism. It’s better for children if they’re taught to look on the bright side. Ten-year-olds taught how to think and interpret the world optimistically turn out half as prone to depression when they later go through puberty. It appears that optimism and happiness go hand in hand.

Fact: optimists are more successful at school, work, music, drama and athletics. More often than not they are healthier, live longer and end up more satisfied in their marriages. They are also less likely to become depressed or anxious in later life.

Parents should understand that emotional intelligence is a skill, not an inborn trait, so just presuming your children will eventually and naturally come to understand their own emotions, and those of others, doesn’t set them up for success. Parents should relate to their child, help them identify what they’re feeling, and let them know that negative feelings are OK, but bad behavior isn’t.

Establishing positive behavioural habits opens another avenue to success, and made easier once distractions and temptations have been put aside, but be warned, setting too many goals can overwhelm children. The trick is to establish one positive habit before adding another and don’t expect perfection immediately. Perfection takes time – there will be relapses, but that’s normal! Just keep at it, but remember, not too much pressure! One step at a time is always the best way.

Believe it – self-discipline in children is more predictive of future success than intelligence! Yes, it’s the famous marshmallow test! Kids who better resisted temptation went on to enjoy much more happier and fulfilled lives. The ability to delay gratification – to wait for that second marshmallow – is a predictor of intelligence, success in school and social skills in adolescence. This is at least in part because self-discipline helps with and facilitates learning and information processing.

One way to distract children from temptation is to obscure the temptation – in other words, physically cover up the tempting marshmallow. In one study, the marshmallow was hidden, and 75% of children were able to wait the full fifteen minutes for the second marshmallow – none of the children were able to wait this long when the reward was visible.

In addition, children who mastered self-disciplined cope better with frustration and stress and tend to have a greater sense of social responsibility. In other words, self-discipline leads not just to school success and sitting nicely at the dinner table but to greater happiness, more friends and increased community engagement.

Research has repeatedly demonstrated a strong link between happiness and an absence of TV. Happier people tend to watch considerably less television than unhappy people. We don’t know whether it’s TV that makes people unhappy, or if already unhappy people just watch more TV, but there are an unlimited number of non-TV related activities that will help children develop into happy, well-adjusted individuals. If children are watching too much TV, they aren’t doing things that could be making them happier in the long run, like learning to have a conversation. Children who are glued to TV sets or their smart phones will be missing out on this most important and constructive social activity.

Studies have also shown that children who eat dinner with their families on a regular basis are more emotionally stable and less prone to abuse drugs and alcohol when they grow up. Those children get better grades and have fewer incidences of depression. This is particularly true of adolescent girls. These children are also less likely to become obese or develop eating disorders. Family dinners even trump reading to your kids in terms of preparing them for school.

Giving in to children’s demands – or spoiling them – is a flawed ideology. Allowing them to overuse technology can be damaging to their development and, as we have seen, future mental health. Sometimes mum and dad have to say no! The problem is, children’s overuse of technology is a major cause of boredom and poor performance socially, and at school.

It’s all very well letting the electric nanny keep the kids occupied while you catch up with Game of Thrones, but it’s not in their best interests. A lot of parents are being unwittingly selfish if they think their children are happy and ‘occupied’ when they’re playing with their tablet just because they’re quiet!

In the West, there has been a measureable decline in children’s social, emotional, academic functioning and learning ability. All the positive things parent can do to produce happy, well-adjusted children are being ignored. And without sounding snobbish or ‘classist,’ this decline is most prevalent in lower income families, especially among children whose parents have criminal records or problems with drugs and alcohol.

Of course there are many factors in modern life that lead children to perform less well in school, but second only to bad parenting is the overuse of technology. Virtual reality gets the brain used to high levels of stimulation – in contrast, classroom learning can be boring.

The pleasure centres in children’s brains are too much stimulated by computer games and the joy of communication via social media. This makes it more difficult for parents to say no because no is a word the computer never says!

The modern fringe-wisdom that children should be allowed to set their own rules (from deciding what they want to eat to what time they finally go to bed) is deeply flawed. Making children happy in the moment can make them miserable in the long run. Giving your child unlimited choices means they’ll only want to eat chips and chocolate, and never go to bed, or worse, allow them free-range access to the internet.

A world of endless fun does not prepare infants for a lifetime of responsibility. Children simply must learn to put things away, to tidy their rooms, to contribute to the household, and be in by a certain time. I have seen too many feral kids in my life to know that this is the right way! Children must know where the boundaries are.

The sooner children learn these basic rules, the better adults they will turn out to be.

Confidence and happiness in childhood has a significant impact on future life chances and children whose parents are married possess significantly higher self-esteem. Teenagers brought up in stable marital relationships turned out to be more confident than those in single-parent families or those whose parents merely live together. At an unconscious level, having parents who are married is something of a status symbol to teenagers.

Overall, boys with married parents had the highest self-esteem, while girls with co-habiting parents had the lowest. Teenagers living with parents who were not married were no better off than children who live with a single parent.

The surprise is that family income makes no difference – rich or poor, the pattern is the same. Marriage alone provides the sense of security needed by children. Self-esteem is closely related to how secure a child feels, and a stable home where parents are married provides this security.

It is the positivity in married parents’ relationships that is the key to security. These children are more likely to see their parents as a solid and secure unit and their self-esteem benefits accordingly. Marriage is the most important predictor of a child’s future life chances – it’s more likely to save a child from the trauma of family breakdown, and parents’ public declaration of commitment significantly affects a child’s self-perception and self-esteem.

Divorce and family breakdown, especially where there is conflict between parents is directly linked to poor academic performance and mental health issues including depression and anxiety.

Doing things together as a family is an age-old, tried and tested way of ensuring unity and instilling a sense of belonging in children. Parents who take their children for short walks in the park, or better still, in the wide-open spaces of the countryside end up with more well-adjusted offspring. Doing things together does more to ensure family harmony.

For instance, children who are given the opportunity to get away from Facebook and enjoy fresh air and natural green spaces are less irritable. Likewise, taking the dog for a walk, although I am not in any way suggesting getting a dog unless you are truly a dog lover, because they also demand constant attention, smell, and eat you out of house and home.

But regular visits to green places help to create a sense of family identity, which is shared down through the generations, thus creating stability. It not only reduces irritability, it also improves children’s self-control. Green spaces and green things, trees, plants, grass, all help to restore the brains natural balance. At an unconscious level, we miss these things when we live in cities.

Researchers have looked at previous studies of how natural open spaces relate to family relations and improve attention restoration. Interaction with nature and natural environments can reduce mental fatigue and restore and improve attention. A change to a natural open environment gives the brain a rest – just getting away from the humdrum of day-to-day existence is therapeutic in itself. The effect is enhanced when families take part in these activities together, and it’s especially good for children.

It’s important to understand that experience of wide-open spaces is better for children than visits to theme parks or football matches. These activities require ‘hard attention’ whereas the natural world requires ‘soft attention’ and gives the brain a chance to relax and recharge. The idea that watching live games, TV programmes or movies is relaxing is mistaken, because they all involve concentration and stress.

This advice is pertinent to parents as well – enjoying watching your children run around and explore is not only extremely therapeutic, but also fulfilling. Even if it rains, the experience still binds the family together. Watching TV as a family is not nearly as rewarding, unless it then stimulates conversation.

Apart from that, children need healthy doses of UV light that sunlight provides. Spending time outdoors provides a source of vitamin D, and getting used to looking into the distance helps improve vision. This benefit continues even into higher education, which is known to increase the risk of short-sightedness because of the effect of ‘near-work’ such as reading textbooks. Two hours a day outside could provide the antidote.

A study headed by Dr Katie Williams at Kings College London and with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has confirmed that that staying indoors, rather than getting outdoors and soaking up the sun’s rays, could mean your kids end up myopic. The condition is most likely to strike between 6 and 14, traditionally the age children spend most time playing outside and not inside glued to their phones.

Spending a lot of time focusing on nearby objects, particularly tablets and smartphones, can make children more likely to need glasses, even though the long term effects may not become apparent until adulthood.

Families that play together stay together. So rather than taking the tribe to Disneyland, spending time at home enjoying familiar activities can be more satisfying. Good news for families with little time or limited resources. But while research suggests that quality time spent together contributes to more satisfactory family life, not all family activities are equal.

Visiting new places and interacting with new people can leave families exhausted, leaving less opportunity to strengthen relationships. When the brain is focused on processing new information, such as taking part in unfamiliar activities, with unfamiliar people, in an unfamiliar location, less brain storage is left available for the family.

The best predictor of family happiness may be the amount of quality time spent together engaging in familiar activities inside the home. Quality family time is having dinner together, playing games, sharing hobbies or better still, playing music. Humans are social beings who crave a sense of belonging and connectivity, and families provide this.

Bedtime is important! Children who stay up too late are more likely to suffer depression, anxiety and emotional problems in later life. Those lost hours of sleep could have a crucial – and potentially devastating impact – on their later life.

To identify cognitive, behavioural and physiological patterns of emotional risk, University of Houston clinical psychologist Candice Alfano temporarily restricted sleep in 50 children between the ages of seven and 11.

The results of the tests, funded by the National Institute of Health, revealed that lack of sleep resulted not only in more negative emotions but also distorted positive emotional experiences. For example, children found less enjoyment in positive things after just two nights of inadequate sleep. They were also less reactive to positive things and less likely to remember the details of a fun experience. Unsurprisingly, these tendencies disappeared when they were given enough sleep.

In the long term, there is a danger that children who have less sleep would not have a strong bank of positive memories to draw from. According to Dr Alfano’s research, sleep and emotional development are inextricably linked.

There is another danger – sleep-deprived children are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol when they reach adolescence.

Over a period of 10 years, researchers led by Dr Brant Hasler, assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, monitored the sleep habits of 186 boys starting at age 11.

The boys were selected for the survey after their mothers filled out the university’s Child Sleep Questionnaire. The research formed part of a larger study of low-income boys examining factors associated with vulnerability and resilience. The study also took into consideration race, socioeconomic problems, neighbourhood danger, the ability to self-regulate, and internalizing and externalizing problems.

Based on the results of the questionnaires from when the boys were 11 years old, their sleep time and sleep quality were calculated. When the boys reached 21, the researches interviewed them again about any experiences they’d had with drugs or alcohol, and the results were astonishing.

Boys who had experienced more sleep disruption were the first to start drinking alcohol and smoking cannabis. Every missed hour of sleep per night at age 11 was associated with a 20% acceleration to the first use of alcohol and cannabis.

Preventing problems with drugs and alcohol before they exist is obviously better than cure, and establishing proper quality sleep patterns in youth is an important factor in reducing substance abuse later in life. It is obvious that insufficient sleep was associated with earlier alcohol use, intoxication and repeated use. It was also associated with earlier cannabis use, repeated use, although not first use.

After considering all possible influences, the team determined that sleep problems are the precursor of substance abuse. Addressing sleep could be something that can be added to substance abuse prevention and treatment programmes. This study was published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

Parents need to think of sleep and the child’s emotional future as seriously as they do dental hygiene or nutrition – so critical is sleep to children’s psychological well-being.

Setting a strict bedtime – something that seems to have fallen out of fashion with some modern parents – is something that should not be open to negotiation. Children will be happier when they are told what time they must go to bed. This is the best way for parents to make sure their children get enough sleep. Tried and tested, it’s really all about setting clear boundaries.

While ‘encouraging’ youngsters to go to bed might lead to fewer tantrums, a new study from Public Health Ontario in Canada has found it does not work. In fact children encouraged, rather than told, to go to sleep are less likely to get the amount of sleep they really need.

Researchers surveyed more than 1,600 parents and discovered that their use of bedtimes fell sharply as soon as their children became teenagers. As parents became less involved in their schoolchildren’s bedtimes, their sleep deprivation appeared to rise, with 15-year-olds the worst affected.

In the study, children ‘encouraged’ to go to bed were 71% less likely to get enough sleep, while those with actual bedtimes were 59% more likely to get adequate sleep. These findings are based on recommendations of nine to 11 hours of sleep per night for five to 13-year-olds – similar to British advice of eight to 10 hours for 14 to 17-year-olds.

Dr Heather Manson, senior author of the study, said that encouragement was less effective for both weekend and weekday sleep whereas enforcement of rules around bedtimes had a significant impact, although only on weekdays. Parents enforcing bedtimes on weekdays help their children get sufficient sleep.

Children who are sleep-deprived are more likely to be obese, perform poorly at school and struggle to control their emotions. They are at greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure if they don’t meet sleep guidelines and also more likely to cause parenting stress and marital conflict between their parents.

The Canadian study, based on questionnaires filled out by parents, found that around 94% encouraged their children to go to bed at a set time. Just over 84% enforced that bedtime, giving their child no option but to go to sleep. Their 59% increased likelihood of having well-rested children was maintained when education and household income were taken into account.

Sleep is increasingly recognised as an important and integral component of healthy living for children, together with other behaviours such as physical activity and sedentary time.

At weekends parents are less strict and give their children more discretionary time.

In addition, smartphones and tablets have been proved to affect children’s sleep. It is entirely possible that parents who set bedtimes during the week may be successful in getting their children to sleep because they provide more structure in the day. Fixed mealtimes and structured evenings have also been shown to improve children’s sleep.

A happy childhood will set children up for life because children who have the security of a good home environment and loving caring parents are far more likely to have stronger, long lasting marriages and better, more secure relationships in old age.

Research carried out by Harvard Medical School found that men who grew up in caring homes were better at managing stressful emotions in middle-age, which in turn improved their chances of maintaining relationships, not only with their spouses but also with their own children and grandchildren. Warmer childhoods engender better emotion management and interpersonal skills.

The Harvard study followed 81 male participants from adolescence to old age. 51 of the participants studied at Harvard anyway and would have come from secure loving families. The other 30 were recruited from inner city Boston and were not so likely to have enjoyed the same sort of upbringing. All participants underwent regular interviews and questionnaires through the course of the study.

To measure the participants’ early home environment, the researchers looked at reports about their home life as well as developmental histories recorded by a social worker, and conducted interviews with the parents. When the participants reached 45 to 50, they were again interviewed and discussed the challenges they had encountered in various aspects of their lives, including their relationships, their physical health, and their work.

Using the original interview notes, the researchers then rated the participants’ ability to manage their emotions in response to these challenges. Finally, when the participants reached their late 70s/early 80s, they completed an interview that focused on their relationship with their current partner.

The results showed that participants who had a nurturing family environment early in life were more likely to have secure relationships in old age.

My mother and father lived through the war – my father was a fighter pilot in the RAF and my mother in the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service. They lived through a time of food shortages and ration books that continued even after the war was over and Britain slowly got back on its feet. It was the early 1950’s when many of the foods we now take for granted, such as fresh eggs, fruit and meat were again readily available. Old habits die hard, and so as children, we were expected to always clean our plates.

Fast forward 60 years to a time where food is in plentiful supply, conveniently available and parents still tell their children to do the same… after all, in some parts of the world children are starving, so wasting food is a sin. But this practice could be a mistake. Forcing children to eat when they are no longer hungry could drive them to overeat later in life.

More working mothers are putting their children into day-care, where the people they entrust their offspring’s welfare to also encourage the little darlings to eat everything on their plate because it’s always been thought this will stop fussy eating early on. But a study carried out by the University of Nebraska in Lincoln warns this ‘clean plate’ policy can also be dangerous, potentially fuelling overeating later on.

Some day care workers mistakenly believe a clean plate approach encourages children to develop a healthy appetite and some childcare providers use controlled feeding practices because of a fear of parent’s negative reaction if they find their child didn’t eat.

But, there is plenty of research suggesting that when kids are subject to controlled feeding, they lose their ability to follow their own hunger cues to stop eating when they’re full. (Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, September 17 2016.)

Both parents and carers should encourage children to eat, but avoid pressuring them to do so. Ideally, they should also avoid praising them for cleaning their plates.

Food, or worse, sweets should not be offered as rewards for tasks like using the toilet, even though some carers say that toilet training would be harder without rewards.

It’s better to get children to learn to regulate their own food intake. In certain circumstances, it might be better to encourage kids to sample different foods, thus turning eating into an exploration that they can enjoy.

Finally, you can give your children a massive head start – and an advantage over other children – by giving them the opportunity to take part in extra-curricular activities, thereby guaranteeing them better skills and wider knowledge. Many parents manage to give their children 2,500 more hours of education outside school. Over a 10 year period, that‘s just 5 hours a week.

This is not as difficult as it sounds because it includes reading time [I find it shocking that one in ten children never read with their parents] joining after-school clubs, visiting museums and art galleries and taking children to the theatre. Music lessons are even more valuable than you can imagine – music teaches children coordination, it teaches them a sense of history, it encourages them to work as a team, it encourages them to be creative and bestows upon them a sense of responsibility.

Even holidaying in other countries contributes to children’s knowledge of the world, so long as the whole time isn’t spent on the beach or in amusement parks! Better-informed children achieve better academic results and eventually get the best jobs.

Sometimes all science does is validate the values our grandparents knew to be the truth all along. Well-adjusted children aren’t born well-adjusted, they learn to be happy and well-adjusted because they had good, loving, caring and responsible parents.

Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.