Happy kids begin with happy parents

Children don’t come with an owner’s manual, instruction book or extended warranty, so parents aren’t expected to know every solution for every challenge.

“Parenting is not a formula,” says Emily McBean, a certified parent coach from Lake Bluff."The right solution might be a combination of your friend’s tip, one paragraph from a book and your gut instinct.”

However, Chicago-area experts such as McBean agree all parents share common issues, obstacles and challenges while attempting to raise a happy, healthy child. And learning how to troubleshoot daily dilemmas would be page-one material for any parenting guide, they say.

Here is a battle-ready outline of practical

advice and hands-on suggestions from the front lines of parenting, according to coaches in the 21st-century trenches. But keep in mind, they say, there is no cookie-cutter, paint-by-number, one-size-fits-all solution for every situation. And every plan of attack begins with you.

Babying the parent

Whether you’re feeling overwhelmed, overloaded or overmatched, the best plan begins with you and ends with your child, not the other way around, parent coaches say.

“Making yourself a priority is not only necessary for your well being, it is also the greatest gift you can give your children,” says Cathy Cassani Adams, a certified parent coach from Elmhurst."Taking care of yourself is not selfish. It is essential if you want to be a patient and compassionate parent.”

Adams says too many parents she coaches forget about self-care while raising their children."If you constantly give away your energy and time without refueling, you will not have enough energy for your family,” she says.

This is especially true for new mothers who feel guilty for"abandoning” their babies or toddlers, the coaches agree."It can be a lot more challenging to get out of the house if you have an infant, but it makes it that much more important to recharge,” Adams says."Even getting out of the house for 30 minutes can give the extra energy you need to get through the day.”

Dwayne Thomas, executive director and chief learning officer at the A.T. Davis Foundation in Gurnee, says many of the parents he coaches are seeking an"edge” in child-rearing. But parents often forget this edge needs nurturing.

Real-life examples of this self-care edge include:

n A few minutes of"you time,” alone and quiet in the morning.

n Daily exercise, yoga or Pilates.

n A weekly"date” with your spouse

n A"girls night” with friends

“One of my clients simply wanted more time to read fiction, while another of my clients realized she missed seeing live music,” Adams says.

The whole idea is to find what brings you joy, make it an essential part of your life and then share the joy with your children. McBean sums it up best:"You simply cannot give what you do not have.”

Pint-sized stalkers

Children, by nature, grow up to be pint-sized stalkers and ever-absorbent sponges when it comes to watching and mimicking their parents. It’s not simply monkey-see, monkey-do. It’s children see what parents do, and they feel instinctively compelled to copy their parent’s language, their lifestyle, even their limitations.

“Parents are always wondering what they can do to ensure that their child feels good about him or herself,” Thomas says."I think the most important lesson for the parent is to feel good about him or herself. This positive example of self-worth and self-esteem will transfer to their child.”

Adams, who credits her three daughters as her greatest teachers, says children learn by watching how their parents live, not by listening to what they say."As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words,” she says.

If parents truly want to make an impact on their kids—regardless of age, from toddler to teenager—they need to live what they want to teach, experts say. This includes being aware of not only what they say to their kids, but what they say to themselves.

“I once had a client who was consistently dieting, always worried about how she looked in her clothes and constantly calling herself fat,” Adams recalls."Her daughter was 12 years old and already showing signs of poor body image. This is when my client began to realize that to teach self-love she had to practice self-love.”

Focus on strengths, not weaknesses

Some parents need to recognize that their child is not simply a younger version of themselves. Because of this common problem, too many parents believe it’s OK to push their children into the same activities or lifestyle that they missed in their youth.

“This is almost always a prescription for failure,” Thomas insists.

Other parents seek coaching because they want to discuss their child’s challenges instead of their strengths, another common problem. Acknowledging a child’s difficulties in life is one thing. Ignoring a child’s accomplishments is another thing.

“Yes, the concerns may be valid, but… if we spend all of our time on problems, we are going to continue to see problems,” Adams says."If we can put our energy toward the positive, we are going to see more positive.”

Too many parents seem to focus on what’s wrong rather than what’s right, not realizing what they focus on is what tends to intensify in their kids. As the old adage goes, the grass is always greener on the side that gets more water. A parent’s focus can be the water, or it can be a scorching flame-thrower of blame, anger and disappointment.

“If we don’t point out all of their strengths, who will?” asks Adams.

Do your homework, not theirs

McBean says one of the more common challenges parents face today is how to effectively monitor their child’s use of technology, such as television, the computer, video games, cell phones and text messaging.

She recommends her clients develop a comprehensive understanding of the technologies being used in their home. For example, be just as knowledgeable about the latest iPod as your preteen daughter and be just as savvy about that new video game as your teenage son.

Otherwise they could quickly gain the upper hand and, as any parent knows, it’s tough to keep up with ever-developing technology and ever-learning youngsters. This can easily become a slippery slope, especially for parents who are already feeling disconnected from their children, Adams says.

As for the decades-old dilemma of watching too much TV, McBean says to understand your family’s screen time habits and decide if what you’re watching is aligned with your family values. If not, make changes, but also involve your older children in the process of setting boundaries and developing your family’s"media literacy.”

If you face resistance, try to find a consequence—not always a punishment—that is most effective with each child and use it consistently. On the other hand, also be sure to carefully observe your child when he or she is behaving correctly and then provide them with a specific compliment.

“Remember that children feel good about themselves when they are able to express themselves through an activity or function they are comfortable with,” Thomas says.

Find the joy again

Most parents seek coaching because they feel overwhelmed, out of balance or disconnected from their children, experts say.

“They are simply not finding the joy in parenting,” Adams says.

But it’s never too late to get a handle on your household or to reconnect with your children, Thomas says.

“One of the ways to break a cycle of failure is to pay attention to your child,” Thomas says."Find out who they are and who they think they want to be.”

Adams says communication is crucial. Sometimes, when a child is sad or angry, parents may try to suppress their emotion by saying,"You are fine,” or"It’s no big deal.”

“But the child is trying to communicate that they are not fine and it is a big deal,” she says."It’s important to allow the child to release what they are feeling and then talk with them about how to appropriately express emotion.”

Helpful parent-child tools include taking a walk together, taking a short break to calm down or bringing in the other parent to help mediate.

Whether parents employ a coach or not, for meaningful, long-term changes all the directives and suggestions to a child must come from a parent, not a coach, a nanny or a relative, McBean says.

Thomas agrees."It falls to the parent to help steer their child in the right direction.”

What is a certified parent coach?

Parent coaches certified through the Parent Coaching Institute have completed a one-year graduate level certification training program that includes four graduate courses and 100 hours of practice coaching.

Coaches in the program learn how to support parents with any parenting challenge by emphasizing the mom and dad’s strengths, according to Gloria DeGaetano, founder and CEO of the Parent Coaching Institute. They are equipped to handle issues ranging from helping children struggling academically, supporting parents in transition and such topics as discipline and sibling rivalry.

For information on Chicago-area parent coaches certified through the Parent Coaching Institute, go online at www.thepci.org/findcoach/regions/illinois.htm.

Common concerns

The following are common questions parents ask themselves and parent coaches. How do these compare to your concerns?

•What can I do to help my child be all he/she can be?

•Will my child be safe and secure in our home, community and nation?

•Can I provide the lessons, connections and interactions my child needs to be socially accepted?

•What should I do to help my child feel good about him/herself?

Jerry Davich is a Chicago-area freelance writer and dad of two.

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