The U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory on youth mental health, as well as research showing rising rates of depression, hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts among young people, can make any parent or caregiver feel hopeless. Fortunately, there are effective, research-based strategies that caregivers can use within their own families to raise healthy children and reduce the risk of mental health and substance use problems.
There’s certainly plenty of parenting advice out there: how to talk with your kids, help them manage stress, or get them to be more friendly, caring, giving, thankful, driven, healthy, daring, hard-working, and sensitive. The list goes on and on.
Although we know that parents have a great deal of influence over children’s attitudes and behaviors, even well into their early adult years, there is no magic bullet. Still, among all the recommended strategies out there for “effective parenting,” there are 10 key strategies that can really move the needle and one key strategy that can either increase or decrease the effectiveness of the other nine: parental modeling or how parents and caregivers act.
While it makes sense, it can feel so difficult to achieve. The last thing most adults want to hear is that they should be perfect models for their children. But, good modeling doesn’t have to mean being perfect. In fact, the best modeling is the kind that shows children that mistakes, flaws and, at times, poor judgement are normal. What is most important is not whether or not these imperfections happen (they will!), but how one responds to them.
Most parents already know to model healthy physical behaviors like healthy eating well and exercising. Less understood are the many ways that parents’ words and actions affect and influence their children.
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10 Key Protective Parenting Strategies
When parents prioritize giving attention and respect to their own family members (including their children), they demonstrate the importance of family. This is especially true for older children who increasingly look to peers for friendship and support. When caregivers model commitment and care for their community, they show children the importance of making social connections, being engaged in their communities, and living a life of purpose. They learn that their actions matter to others. When they talk positively about work, family, and friends, they show children the value of focusing on the positive and to be kind, forgiving, and not harsh or judgmental.
Being a good model also means maintaining a healthy balance between work and play. Making time and space for humor and light-heartedness is important for children to learn the value of fun and relaxation. Modeling also means seeking help when needed, not only to stay healthy to better care for children, but also to help children understand that it’s okay to ask for help rather than struggle in silence.
Flaws and slip-ups are great opportunities to teach children coping and social skills. This may include how to apologize, forgive, be honest and humble, and how to bounce back from challenges. None of this is easy, especially when so many parents feel helpless given the growing influence of social media and the constant reminders that “the kids are not alright.” But focusing on the many different ways – big and small – that parents’ words and actions can help put a child on a healthy path for overall well-being is actually a source of hope and strength for parents.