25 Scientific Tips For Raising Happy (& Healthy) Kids
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Being a Good ParentThere are many ways to raise happy, well-adjusted kids, but science has a few tips for making sure they turn out okay. From keeping it fun to letting them leave the nest, here are 10 research-based tips for good parenting.
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Don't be fooled by their heightNo matter how tall they get or how grown-up they look, your kids are still just that … kids. And parents of older children especially need to remember this fact, according to Sara Johnson, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The developmental period known as adolescence lasts about 10 years — from ages 11 to 19 — and it's regarded as a critical time for brain development. So it's important to keep in mind that, even as kids grow into young adults, "they are still in a developmental period that will affect the rest of their life," Johnson told Live Science in March 2016.
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Support the shy ones
A little bashfulness is one thing, but kids with behavioral inhibition — a trait that refers to shyness and also extreme caution in the face of new situations — may be at higher risk of developing anxiety disorders, according to researchers. And parents who shelter kids demonstrating behavioral inhibition (in effect, encouraging this inhibition) may actually make the situation worse.
So how do you support shy kids? The key is to get them out of their comfort zones without trying to change their nature, said Sandee McClowry, a psychologist at New York University. Why not just break them of their shy habbits? Research has shown that shyness is a part of some children's character and a very difficult trait to change. In other words, it's better to work with shyness than against it.
"That acceptance of the child is a huge, huge thing," McClowry told Live Science in September 2016.
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Live in the moment
Adults tend to constantly think about the future, but kids — especially preschool-age kids (ages 2 to 5) — live in the here and now, scientists say. To get on a kid's level, parents need to learn how to live in the moment, too, said Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development in New York City.
This is especially true when it comes to communicating verbally with a young child, said Klein, who is also the author of "How Toddlers Thrive" (Touchstone, 2014).
Instead of telling a 3 year old that it's time to get ready for some future action, like going to school, parents should give their child a set of instructions, Klein told Live Science in August 2016. Replace ambiguous statements like "it's almost time for school" with clear, simple explanations and directions, such as, "We need to leave for school. It's time to get your coat."
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Tell them how they feel
While older kids are widely regarded as the kings and queens of self-expression, young children often lack the vocabulary to properly label their own emotions, according to researchers who study child development.
Kids ages 2 to 5 are just starting to understand emotions like fear, frustration or disappointment, according to Klein.
You can help your kid express herself by calling out such emotions when you see them. For example, a parent might say, "It's disappointing that it's raining outside, and you can't go out to play," Klein said.
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The hectic schedule of adulthood doesn't always vibe with the relaxed pace of childhood, according to Klein.
"Children move at a slower rate," and parents should try to match that pace, Klein said. By scheduling extra time for the little things, like a bedtime routine or a trip to the grocery store, parents can turn hectic chores into more meaningful time with their children, she said.
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Do you check emails or scroll through your social media feeds while spending quality time with your kids? Because you shouldn't, Klein said.
It's hard to be really engaged with your kids if you're distracted by a bunch of other things. And this distracted presence can take a toll on children, who might feel like you're not really there for them when you're attention is divided, Klein said
"Children don't need their parents’ attention 24/7 and 100 percent of the time," she said. But when your kids do need your full attention, you should give it to them without any caveats.
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Be politeWant to raise polite children? Try adding the words "please" and "thank you" to your own vocabulary. Kids learn how to interact with others mainly by observing how grown-ups do it and then modeling that behavior themselves, according to Klein. So if you treat everyone — from cashiers and bus drivers to teachers and family members — with respect and politeness, chances are your kids will, as well.
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Remember, teenage tantrums are realJust when the tantrums of your child's toddler years seem like ancient history, you can expect such emotional outbursts to make another appearance.
Adolescent kids (ages 11 to 19) deal with a lot of social, emotional and mental stress that they don't yet have the ability to process or cope with, according to Johns Hopkins' Sara Johnson. This can result in some serious tantrums, which might surprise the unwary parent.
In such situations, parents should stay calm and listen to their children, said Sheryl Feinstein, author of "Inside the Teenage Brain: Parenting a Work in Progress" (Rowman and Littlefield, 2009.) Modeling levelheaded behavior is a good way to teach your teen the proper way to deal with all that stress.
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The golden ruleWe'll keep this one short and simple: Thou shalt not yell at your teenager. Seriously, just don't do it. The more you yell at a teen, the worse they're likely to behave, according to a study published in 2013 in the journal Child Development.
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Stick to the basics"There are a lot of different ways to raise kids, and there's not one formula that works for every kid," said Amy Bohnert, a psychologist who researches child development at Loyola University Chicago. But surely there's some kind of recipe for success when it comes to parenting, right?
Kind of: Bonhert said the first basic rule of being a good parent is fostering a secure and warm attachment with your kids. That way they know their needs will be met and that they'll have a place to go when they need comfort. And as they get older, kids need freedom to explore their own identities and make mistakes, but in a safe and age-appropriate way, Bonhert told Live Science in 2011.
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Strictness has weighty consequencesPlaying the part of the strict or controlling parent can have long-term negative consequences on your children's physical health, according to research published in 2014. Specifically, kids of strict parents are more likely to be obese.
The researchers found that kids ages 2 to 5 who had parents who set strict limits on activities, didn't communicate much with their children and didn't show them much affection were 30 percent more likely to be obese than their peers whose parents were affectionate and openly communicated with their children.
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Dads: Get involved
Forget the stereotype of the bumbling dad who doesn't know how to change a diaper. Research consistently shows that dads are just as good at this whole parenting thing as moms. Furthermore, dads bring a lot of valuable parenting skills to the table.
Fathers strongly influence their kids' lives in several ways, according to W. Brad Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia who studies marriage and families. Firstly, dads tend to play rougher with kids than moms do, which helps kids learn to control their bodies and emotions. Dad's hands-on style of play also encourages healthy risk-taking, which can influence a child's ambitions in the long-term, Wilcox told Live Science in 2013. A strong paternal relationship also brings with it a certain level of protection, as research has found that children with involved fathers are less likely to become the victims of sexual abuse or assault, he said.
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Want to keep your teen from experimenting with drugs and alcohol? The most effective way to do that is to be authoritative, according to researchers. A study published in the journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine in 2012 found that teens whose parents were authoritative (the study defined this as being in control, but with a warm attitude) were significantly less likely to drink, smoke cigarettes or use pot than teens whose parents were neglectful (i.e. not in control and lacking warmth).
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Don't overexplainIt's important to communicate with your kids, but children don't need a full-blown explanation for every decision you make, said Klein, who encourages parents to discuss important decisions with kids and let the little choices, like what's for dinner, go unexplained.
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Encourage friendshipsPreteen and teenage friendships might sometimes seem a little baffling to parents (why would anyone want to walk around the mall for hours on end?), but these relationships are very important for the development of a child's social skills.
"They are practicing adult social skills in a safe setting, and they are really not good at it at first," said Sheryl Feinstein. Friends help adolescents learn skills like negotiating, compromising and group planning.
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LOL! Joking Helps
Lighten up! Joking with your toddler helps set them up for social success, according to research presented at the Economic and Social Research Councils’ Festival of Social Science 2011. When parents joke and pretend, it gives young kids the tools to think creatively, make friends and manage stress. So feel free to play court jester — your kids will thank you later. [Top 5 Benefits of Play]
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No surprise here: Parents who express negative emotions toward their infants or handle them roughly are likely to find themselves with aggressive kindergartners. That’s bad news, because behavioral aggression at age 5 is linked to aggression later in life, even toward future romantic partners. So if you find yourself in a cycle of angry parent, angry baby, angrier parent, try to break free. It will ease your problems in the long run.
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Parental guilt is its own industry, but avoid the undertow! Research suggests that self-compassion is a very important life skill, helping people stay resilient in the face of challenges. Self-compassion is made up of mindfulness, the ability to manage thoughts and emotions without being carried away or repressing them, common humanity, or empathy with the suffering of others, and self-kindness, a recognition of your own suffering and a commitment to solving the problem. Parents can use self-compassion when coping with difficulties in child-rearing. In doing so, they can set an example for their kids. [5 Ways to Foster Self-Compassion In Your Child]
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When the kids fly the nest, research suggests it’s best to let them go. College freshmen with hovering, interfering "helicopter" parents are more likely to be anxious, self-conscious and less open to new experiences than their counterparts with more relaxed moms and dads. That doesn’t mean you should kick your offspring to the curb at 18, but if you find yourself calling your child’s professors to argue about his grades, it may be time to step back.
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Nurture Your Marriage
If you’re a parent with a significant other, don’t let your relationship with your spouse or partner fall by the wayside when baby is born. Parents who suffer from marital instability, such as contemplating divorce, may set their infants up for sleep troubles in toddlerhood, according to research published in May 2011 in the journal Child Development. The study found that a troubled marriage when a baby is 9 months old contributes to trouble sleeping when the child is 18 months of age. It may be that troubled houses are stressful houses, and that stress is the cause of the sleep problems. [6 Scientific Tips for a Successful Marriage]
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Tend to Your Mental Health
If you suspect you might be depressed, get help — for your own sake and your child’s. Research suggests that depressed moms struggle with parenting and even show muted responses to their babies’ cries compared with healthy moms. Depressed moms with negative parenting styles may also contribute to their children’s stress, according to 2011 research finding that kids raised by these mothers are more easily stressed out by the preschool years. The findings seem glum, but researchers say they’re hopeful, because positive parenting can be taught even when mom or dad are struggling with their own mental health.
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Mamas, Be Good to Your Sons
A close relationship with their mothers can help keep boys from acting out, according to a 2010 study. A warm, attached relationship with mom seems important in preventing behavior problems in sons, even more so than in girls, the research found. The findings, published in the journal Child Development, highlight the need for "secure attachment" between kids and their parents, a style in which kids can go to mom and dad as a comforting "secure base" before venturing into the wider world.
The mommy bond may also make for better romance later in life, as another study reported in 2010 showed that a close relationship with one's mother in early adolescence (by age 14) was associated with better-quality romantic relationships as young adults. "Parents' relationships with their children are extremely important and that's how we develop our ability to have successful relationships as adults, our parents are our models," study researcher Constance Gager, of Montclair State University in New Jersey, said at the time. "So if kids are not feeling close with their parents then they're probably not going to model the positive aspects of that relationship when they reach adulthood."
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Don't Sweat a Little Sassing
Teens who talk back to their parents may be exasperating, but their argumentativeness is linked to a stronger rejection of peer pressure outside the home. In other words, autonomy at home fosters autonomy among friends.Don’t worry, though: The study doesn’t suggest that kids should have adversarial relationships with their parents. In fact, a secure bond between teens and mothers is also linked to less bowing to peer pressure. Teens need to practice standing up for themselves, the researchers reported, but they also need support from their parents.
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Don't Aim For Perfection
Nobody’s perfect, so don’t torture yourself with an impossibly high bar for parenting success. According to a study published in 2011 in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, new parents who believe society expects perfection from them are more stressed and less confident in their parenting skills. And no wonder! Make an effort to ignore the pressure, and you may find yourself a more relaxed parent.
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Last But Not Least, Know Your Kids
Everyone thinks they know the best way to raise a child. But it turns out that parenting is not one-size-fits-all. In fact, kids whose parents tailor their parenting style to the child’s personality have half the anxiety and depression of their peers with more rigid parents, according to a study published in August 2011 in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. It turns out that some kids, especially those with trouble regulating their emotions, might need a little extra help from Mom or Dad. But parents can inadvertently hurt well-adjusted kids with too much hovering. The key, said lead researcher Liliana Lengua of the University of Washington, is stepping in with support based on a child’s cues.