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Marriage and Parenting Self-Help Advice from an Expert

Written by Harville Hendrix

Marriage Expert and top-selling author Harville Hendrix gives us advice on helping our kids one day to have a successful marriage. It all starts with your marriage.


We all know that children are directly affected by the quality of their parents' marriage.

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But what is it about that marriage that helps kids become healthy adults and create a happy marriage of their own?

It's quite simple: children need an environment infused with reliable warmth, open communication and protection from injury.

So say developmental psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, who for 30 years studied children interacting with their parents both at home and in laboratory settings. Based on their studies, Bowlby and Ainsworth identified three basic types of children: "secure," "insecure," and "avoidant."

The secure children, who had reliable warmth and protection during the first two years of life, evolved through childhood with a positive self-image, confidence in themselves, a positive attitude toward the outside world and good relationships with others.

Follow-up studies found that the secure children learned well in school, made friends, had few illnesses, were liked by their teachers, expressed their feelings freely, knew how to get comfort when they needed it, and were involved in many activities.

The parents of these children all shared a common trait: they had good marriages. They expressed affection toward each other, solved problems well, showed respect for their children, and considered each other their "best friend."

These marriages were also distinguished by healthy communication between partners. Everything was open to discussion. The researchers concluded that parents who are not distracted by unexpressed anger, tension and distrust are available emotionally to their offspring.

Such relationships provide children with good role models that they can internalize and take with them into their adult lives.

However, most children are not so fortunate. Their parents, stressed by life circumstances as well as tensions in their relationship, and lacking good role models themselves, are less apt to provide reliable warmth and protection, or, as I call it, "consistent availability."
 
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Some parents, while physically present, are insensitive to their children's signals of distress.listening to your children Their responses may be delayed or inappropriate to the situation, or they may initially ignore their children and then become excessively indulgent.

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According to Bowlby and Ainsworth, such children become "anxious and insecure." Uncertain that their parents will be available if called upon, they turn into "clingy and whiny" children who are uncomfortable about going to school, and often do not do well in class.

Some are prone to tics or frequent stomach aches; others get more than their fair share of colds and flus. Some are impulsive and easily frustrated; others are tense and constantly seeking attention, either by crying or by entertaining their parents.

These children share another striking feature: the absence of communication. They do not readily share their feelings or experiences with their parents. And when they do talk, they change subjects frequently, too anxious to concentrate on any topic for a significant period of time.

When these children are away from their parents, they constantly ask about them; when they are with their parents, they frequently check to see if they are accessible.

If you've recognized some of the latter signs in your children, you may be wondering if you can reverse what's already been started. Yes, but the earlier you get started the better.

During a child's first six years, the images of world and self are flexible and can be changed. Between ages 7 and 10, a child will respond to improved conditions in the environment.

Once adolescence begins, however, change is more difficult because the child is well accustomed to a stressful environment and the child's behavior is more rigid. Changes in adolescence require radical alterations at home, an endeavor that may call for professional help, yet is certainly worth the effort.

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Photographer: Dennis Cox