Tessa and Julian are having trouble with their three children. "I feel constantly exhausted," says Tessa. "I've been trying to get my children to listen to me, but everything is a battle and I end up giving in."
Rules are essential in any family. Often when two individuals come from different backgrounds problems arise in parenting because the relationship is different to what they experienced in their family.
Parents can be afraid of asserting themselves, especially if they felt unloved in their families. Julian is reluctant to do what he sees as "controlling" his children. "I fear a loss of love and affection, even that they might reject me if I don't give them what they want," he says. The problem here is that if there are no clear rules for children then they can fail to regulate themselves. Julian says that their eldest son, Bryan, 13, refuses to do his homework when he gets home, instead he watches television until dinner and so when he gets around to doing it he is tired.
Bad habits are often acquired in childhood. Knowing what to eat, how to take care of oneself, relationships, study, work and money are all learned, and parents are the gatekeepers in shaping a child's approach. Parenting can seem like a lot of work with plenty of room for error, but if there are clear rules it can actually be a lot less exhausting and more rewarding. Rules and interaction with children and taking the time to direct them is a way of showing children you care.
Rules need to be spoken about openly and children either rewarded or punished depending on whether they follow them. Punishments should neither be physical or verbal. For example, if Bryan does not do his homework when he is told, his allowance can be withheld or he can be forbidden to go out with friends on the weekend. Don't overuse timeouts or other forms of punishment as they will lose their effectiveness and this can be damaging for your relationship. Children need guidelines, but they must not be scared of their parents.
Rules need to be age appropriate. Small children need rules right from the start. But teenagers need guidelines rather than rules, and these can negotiated. When you use rules with teenagers it can impede their growth into independence and invite power struggles.
A good rule of thumb is that a rule is working if it helps a child's growth and development and results in healthy patterns of behaviour. If rules diminish self esteem there may be an imbalance of love versus rules.
Setting a good example with your own rules of healthy behaviour is the best way for children to adopt them. If you don't commit to implementing rules in your parenting when you are tired or cannot be bothered, your children will also adopt the same attitude about commitment when you tell them they need to do things such as eating vegetables.
Rules and carrying them out help children to learn about responsibility.
Rules need to be realistic. Telling siblings they can't fight is unrealistic as it is a natural part of their development. Prohibiting talk about sex, drugs or any taboo subjects with adolescents is also unhelpful, unhealthy and can result in sneaking behaviour. Everything should be open to discussion with discretion and good sense.
Let children know it is OK to rock the boat, life is not all about rules and there needs to be plenty of time for play. Limits are for children's protection and to nurture their growth and development. Hayley Thomas is a child, adolescent and family therapist who specialises in eating disorders. For more information, visit her website at relatehk.com