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Why You Can't Scold Your Kids Into Better Behavior

A mom of five young children reached out to me for help not long ago. She was exhausted, stretched thin and at a loss for strategies to help one of her children. Sleep was almost non-existent for this particular mom, as the stress of school caused sleep disruption for her child. Nothing worked. She read everything her friends suggested and spent hours each night lost in articles, but she continued to feel helpless and overwhelmed. She needed help.

There is no shortage of parenting theories these days, and it can be difficult for parents to figure out what really works. The truth is that every family is different, and every child is an individual, which makes it difficult to apply broad theories to specific parenting situations.

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After talking with the mom for a while, it was obvious that this particular child needed to learn coping skills to target stress. The transition to a new classroom was difficult, and the child often internalized his stress instead of seeking help or finding ways to cope with it.

I've worked with children and adolescents for many, many years, and stress combined with a lack of coping skills is often to blame for behavioral changes in children (including sleep disruption). In fact, according to the Stress in America Survey, 83 percent of teens report that school is a somewhat or significant source of stress, and 42 percent say that they are either not doing enough to manage their stress or are not sure if they are doing enough to manage their stress.

Fear not, weary parents—there is some good news here.

Shifting your parenting style requires time and patience, and there is no one 'right' way to parent your children.

A new study published in the journal Psychology shows that children are more likely to use their strengths to cope with stressors in their lives if their parents implement a strength-based approach to parenting. The study, authored by Professor Lea Waters, concludes that putting a positive filter to the way children react to stress decreases the possibility of children using avoidance or aggressive responses to stress while increasing essential life skills such as adaptive coping skills.

What does this really mean for parents? It means that positive parenting, specifically building strengths, works. By choosing to focus on individual strengths, parents can teach their children how to cope with stress in meaningful ways.

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Shifting your parenting style requires time and patience, and there is no one "right" way to parent your children. There are ways to empower children and guide children toward positive choices, however, and that begins with focusing on strengths.

1. Get to know your child

Sounds simple, right? You know what your child likes to eat, how much sleep your child needs and what he prefers to do in his free time, correct? But do you truly know what makes your child tick? Do you understand his personality and how he approaches problems?

The fist step to implementing strength-based parenting is getting to know your child. To understand your child's strengths, you need to understand the nuances of his personality. You need to know how he expresses emotions and how he receives input from others. I spend a lot of time teaching my kids about how brains work to help them figure out what makes them tick. As important as it is for me to understand their personalities, they also have to understand. They need to talk about what works for them.

Stress can trigger negative thinking, and negative self-talk ("I'll never solve this math problem!") can lead to negative core beliefs.

2. Identify your child's strengths

Kids should be able to verbalize and discuss their strengths. A great way to help kids understand their strengths is to create a strengths list for the whole family. List the personal strengths of each family member on a large poster and keep it somewhere visible.

While there might be some overlap (my kids would both list empathic, for example), each list should be unique to the individual. Talk about how each strength can be used to solve a problem. Act out skits to practice putting those strengths into action. Review the list often and remind your children of their strengths when they face challenges.

3. Practice positive self-talk

Stress can trigger negative thinking, and negative self-talk ("I'll never solve this math problem!") can lead to negative core beliefs. Kids need to understand that they are capable of coping with stressful situations, and positive self-talk can empower kids to stay positive under stressful conditions.

The best time practice positive self-talk is when kids are calm and happy. In a state of calm, kids are better able to process information and practice skills for future use. Role-play the differences between positive self-talk and negative self-talk and have your kids identify the positive statements. Together, as a family, generate a list of positive self-statements and mantras to use when life becomes stressful.

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Stress is an inevitable part of life, and it isn't always bad. Kids can learn a lot by working through stressful situations. When parents focus on strengths and rely on positive parenting strategies, kids are better equipped to handle the ups and downs of childhood. Even during those turbulent teenage years.

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