6 Psychological Principles for More Effective and Loving Parenting

Even though I’m a psychologist, a writer, and a dad, I’ve never written anything about parenting. Which is funny since it is by far the most requested topic I get from my readers.

Here’s why, I think: parenting is an almost overwhelmingly-complex and difficult task. And frankly, I’m more than a little intimidated to give my own thoughts and suggestions about it because I know first-hand how difficult it is and how different every parent’s unique situation is. So, I’m not all that confident that I have any good answers to give.

Raising a human being is just hard.

That being said, I think I finally figured out how to write about parenting in a way I’m (mostly) comfortable with…

In this article, I’m going to take 6 general principles of psychology and mental health and show how they apply in a special way to parenting and raising kids.

These are the principles that guide my own work as a clinical psychologist and therapist in my work with clients. But they’re also principles I try to follow in my own parenting challenges.

For each principle, I’ll give a brief introduction to what it is, use an example from my own experience (either personal and professional) to illustrate why it’s important, and then offer a few resources for learning more or improving in that area.

Please Note: These are principles, not prescriptions. I don’t have all the answers by a long-shot, and everyone’s parenting situation and needs are unique. Use as applicable.

Table of Contents

You can use the links below to jump to a specific section:

  1. Validation — Letting our kids know that how they feel is okay and valid before we rush in to fix things and give reassurance.
  2. Functional Analysis — Learning to see our children’s behavior mechanically, not morally.
  3. Differential Reinforcement — Systematically reinforcing constructive behavior and discouraging undesired behavior.
  4. Emotional Tolerance — The idea that how we manage our own emotions is the most effective way to help our kids manage their own.
  5. Assertiveness — When we as parents model for our kids that it’s good to acknowledge our own wants and needs.
  6. Guided Discovery — The confidence-building art of letting our kids struggle and learn how to learn for themselves.
  7. Summary + The Final Principle

1. Validation

Validation means communicating to another person that their concerns are valid and understandable.

Most of us tend to respond to other people’s difficulties—including our kids—with some form of advice or suggestion about what to do:

  • After our toddler scrapes her knee playing outside, we reassuringly say things like: It’s okay. Let’s dry those tears. You’ll be fine. There’s nothing to be afraid of—it’s just a scrape.
  • When our teenage son comes home despondent one day after school explaining that he just got broken up with, we say encouraging things like: You’re better off without her. There are plenty of fish in the sea. You just need to move on and find someone else. Staying busy and active is the best way to get over heartbreak.

All of these responses are well-intentioned and perfectly natural; after all, none of us likes to see our children suffering.

But here’s the problem: When we immediately jump to advice giving and fixing, we’re subtly communicating the message that the way our kids feel is bad and that they shouldn’t be feeling that way.

This is a problem because, no matter how painful they are, emotions are not problems—they’re not dangerous and they don’t mean something is wrong with you. It’s incredibly normal to feel sad when we experience a loss, just like it’s incredibly normal for a toddler to cry and feel afraid when she scrapes her knee and sees blood.

But when we treat negative emotions like problems by implying that our kids shouldn’t feel a certain way anymore or that they need to stop feeling that way, we teach them that it’s bad to feel bad.

In fact, a common denominator for folks with mental health issues who show up in my therapy practice is that they learned early on that it’s not okay to feel bad. As a result, they developed all sorts of strategies and habits from worry to alcohol abuse to help them not feel bad.

My whole job as a therapist, then, is to teach them what I wish their parents had taught them decades okay: Just because an emotion feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.

It’s an incredibly liberating and healthy thing to realize that whatever we feel is okay. And no matter how badly I feel, there’s nothing wrong with me because I feel that way.

Take it from a psychologist: The best way to help your child develop genuine confidence, self-esteem, and positive feelings about themselves, is to show them through validation that whatever they’re feeling is okay.

Example of Validation

To give you a concrete idea for what validating parenting might look like, let’s go back to the two examples from earlier:

Our toddler comes limping into the house crying having just scraped their knee playing outside:

  • Invalidating: It’s okay. Let’s dry those tears. You’ll be fine. There’s nothing to be afraid of—it’s just a scrape.
  • Validating: Gosh, that looks like it hurts. Tell me what happened. That must have been scary when you saw the blood.

Our teenage son comes home despondent one day after school explaining that he just got broken up with:

  • Invalidating: You’re better off without her. There are plenty of fish in the sea. You just need to move on and find someone else. Staying busy and active is the best way to get over heartbreak.
  • Validating: I’m sorry, honey—I know you really cared about her. Ben, you seem sad… what’s going on? I remember how bad I felt after my first breakup… I felt so sad I couldn’t imagine ever feeling that way about someone again.

Quick Clarification: Validation doesn’t mean that problem-solving and making a plan for what to do in response to difficulty isn’t important. It is! If your kid nicks an artery and is bleeding profusely, that is a problem and should be addressed immediately. The point is, when the difficulty is a painful emotion primarily, it’s important to initially be validating of that emotion and how the child feels before moving on to reassurance and a plan if that would be helpful.

Validate first, fix second.

How to Practice

The best way to improve your ability to be validating with your kid’s emotions and feelings is to practice the art of Reflective Listening, which means learning to mirror back what our kids have said as a way of signaling empathy and understanding.

By far the best resource for learning to improve your Reflective Listening skills and validating communication is the excellent book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. In some ways, it’s I think this book is the most important guide to parenting I’ve ever read.

Also, this article on Emotional Clarity can be helpful.

2. Functional Analysis

Functional Analysis means choosing to take a mechanical, rather than moral, perspective on behavior.

All too often we see our children’s behavior through the lens of what they should be doing. And while this isn’t a bad thing, per se, it can become problematic for both our kids and ourselves if that’s the only perspective we take on their behavior.

Specifically, we as parents end up chronically stressed and frustrated because our expectations aren’t being met, and our kids end up confused, afraid, and resentful because they can never seem to live up to what their parents want.

Example of Functional Analysis

Here’s a recent example of Functional Analysis in parenting from my own life:

The other night—3:15 AM, to be exact—my 3-year-old daughter came into our room. My wife got out of bed and brought her back to her bedroom, but was noticeably frustrated and exhausted, in part because our 2-year-old had also woken up earlier in the night and kept us up for an hour.

We continued to hear my daughter rustling around in her room, so I got up and angrily marched into her room. My frustration peaked when I saw that she had turned the light on and was playing instead of listening to her mom and getting back into bed and going to sleep.

I was on the verge of saying something about how she was “supposed” to be in bed, when I caught myself and asked myself a simple question: Is there a reason she didn’t listen and stayed up playing?

Almost immediately, I remembered back to my own childhood and being afraid of the dark, especially when I got woken up in the middle of the night by strange noises. I vividly recalled how scary and helpless that situation felt. And then I instantly felt empathy and compassion for my daughter.

I realized she was probably just scared and doing her best to manage her fear by turning on the lights and distracting herself with her toys (Don’t we adults basically do the same thing when we’re anxious?!)

So I calmed down, picked her up, and said: What’s going on, bug?

She hesitated, then looked at me sheepishly and said: I heard thunder and got scared

Of course, my heart melted and I thought to myself: Of course you did. It’s terrifying being a kid. By coming into our room and then playing in your room with the lights on your little 3-year-old brain was just doing its best to deal with a big, scary emotion.

That’s Functional Analysis. Instead of thinking about what should have happened (she should have stayed in bed and not woken us up) or what needs to happen (she should go back to bed and fall asleep), I was able to think about what was actually happening and how it made sense, especially from her little 3-year-old perspective.

Seeing my daughter’s behavior mechanically (what function did it serve?) helped me to be more empathetic and understanding. Which is important because it helped me validate my daughter’s experience and feelings rather than dismiss it and get angry at her. As a result, she learned (I hope) that it’s okay and normal to be afraid, instead of it’s bad to be afraid.

How to Practice

Functional Analysis is more of a mindset than a skill. Practically speaking, the best way to apply it to your parenting style and start seeing your kid’s behavior functionally is to notice your own tendency to interpret their behavior with lots of shoulds in your self-talk.

When you get better at observing your self-talk and identifying those moralistic interpretations, you’ll be much more able to shift into a pragmatic and functional mindset.

I recently put together a guide to becoming aware of and modifying our self-talk, which you can read here.

3. Differential Reinforcement

Differential Reinforcement is another technical-sounding psychology term for something that’s actually quite simple: It means systematically encouraging positive behavior and discouraging negative behavior.

Differential Reinforcement Example

Here’s an example of applying differential reinforcement to parenting challenges from a client of mine who was struggling to get her 10-year-old daughter to clean up her belongings around the house.

Like most of us, my client’s default strategy to changing her daughter’s bad behavior of leaving a trail of clutter anywhere she played was to tell her that she needed to clean up after herself. She spent God knows how many hours of time and units of energy trying to convince her daughter that putting away her stuff when she was done was the right thing to do and that it wasn’t very considerate to leave a mess.

And when this intellectual strategy inevitably failed, she’d then shift to threats like No iPad time tonight or the classic extra chores this weekend. Unfortunately, my client was typically so exhausted and over-worked—in part because of the constant effort to change her daughter’s behavior—that she often forgot to follow through on her threats or was simply too exhausted to implement them.

Unsurprisingly, her daughter’s behavior had not improved, and actually, it had been getting worse.

As my client was explaining the situation, I realized this was a perfect use case for Differential Reinforcement.

For my client, it looked like this:

  • Staying vigilant for any example—no matter how small—of her daughter performing any kind of clean up behavior. Taking her dishes to the sink after dinner, for example. And then consistently praising her daughter for it in a genuine way by saying something like, Thanks, honey. I really appreciate it when you put your dishes away.
  • Having a non-emotional conversation with her daughter about the behavior of leaving a mess and what she expects instead (cleaning stuff up immediately after she’s done) and what will happen if that doesn’t happen (no iPad use for the rest of the day).
  • Consistently applying the new rules (with the help of her husband), no matter how difficult and how much of a battle her daughter makes it into.

Now, in some ways, my client was trying to do this herself (using no iPad as a punishment for the bad behavior, for example). But there were a few crucial mistakes that were preventing her strategy from working:

First, while she was trying to eliminate the bad behavior, she didn’t give a clear enough example of the good behavior she wanted along with reinforcement for achieving it.

Another problem was that my client was inconsistent in her application of consequences and reward. Because she only occasionally followed-through on her threat of no iPad tonight she was essentially teaching her daughter that her consequences weren’t all that important or worthy of being followed. And unsurprisingly, the daughter acted accordingly.

Finally, my client was expecting her 10-year-old daughter to do the right thing because it was the right thing. But when this didn’t happen, she couldn’t let go of the idea that it should be happening because her daughter was “old enough to understand.” Right or wrong, this strategy simply wasn’t working.

Differential Reinforcement is about learning to parent pragmatically rather than idealistically. It’s about learning to see your children as they are and act accordingly. Instead of trying to convince our children to act well, it means teaching them to.

Of course, it’s easier to talk at our kids. Teaching is hard. It takes time, energy, persistence, and creativity. But in the long run, both you and your kids will be much happier and more effective if you can lay aside all the shoulds and musts, and instead, focus your energy on pragmatically shaping the behavior you want.

How to Practice

Sadly, most parents don’t have to complete a course in the fundamentals of human behavior and learning before they have kids. Which is really too bad because there are a handful of really basic, straightforward principles that would take a lot of the stress out of managing bad behavior if only we had a basic understanding of them.

Conveniently, you can find most of them in a quirky little book called Don’t Shoot the Dog, which is all about applying basic behavioral principles to effectively modify behavior in others (including our kids).

Also, in terms of Differential Reinforcement specifically, I recently wrote a full guide on the subject which you can read here.

4. Emotional Tolerance

Emotional tolerance means the ability and willingness to feel a difficult emotion without trying to make it go away.

As parents, the last thing we want is for our kids to suffer and be in pain. In fact, we’re biologically wired to instinctively react whenever we think our kids might be in even the slightest bit of danger.

And while this hypersensitivity to our children’s distress may have been a really useful feature when we were all cavemen and cavewomen rambling around the dangerous savanna, it’s less useful these days. Because despite what we hear in the media, kids these days are actually safer than they’ve ever been.

Many of the signs and signals we get from our children that something’s wrong—crying, yelling, whining, whimpering, thrashing around on the ground, etc.—make us feel like danger is imminent. But just because our kids send us signals that make us feel like they’re in danger doesn’t mean they actually are in danger.

Here’s an example from my own parenting battles:

My daughters are quick eaters. They often finish their dinners well before my wife and I do. But we have a rule that no one gets to leave the table until everybody is finished. And when my wife or I enforce this rule, my daughters don’t like it.

They see a room full of toys just waiting to played with and an excruciatingly slow-eating set of parents doing more talking than eating, which drives them a little crazy.

So what do they do? They cry, they whine, they beg, and they plead. And when we come back with the same answer of No, they ratchet up their entreaties—crying, jostling around in their seats, even the occasional meltdown or tantrum.

At this point, the temptation for my wife and I to give in and make an exception to the rule just this once is strong. We’ve both had long days and just want to chat and catch up.

But even more than that, after just a few minutes of two toddlers ganging up on us with an alternating strategy of tearful whining and carving up the new dinner table with their forks, my wife and I are both getting pretty emotional ourselves.

Obviously, there’s lots of frustration. But more subtle and powerful, I think, is that whispering little voice from our evolutionary past saying, Look how upset they are. It’s not good for them to be so upset and angry. You’re probably damaging their fragile little psyches somehow. Just relax and let them get down. Now, all of a sudden, there’s anxiety in the mix about being a bad parent (one of the most pernicious forms of anxiety out there).

This is where it gets really tempting to give in and just let them down. But the thing that usually helps us stay the course is to realize what we would be teaching our kids if we did give in and make the exception.

They would quickly learn a powerful lesson: If we do things that make mom and dad uncomfortable, mom and dad tend to give us what we want.

In other words, if my wife and I can’t tolerate the emotional discomfort that comes from seeing our kids upset, we end up teaching our kids a lesson which is going to lead to a lot more stress, frustration, and grief in the long-run.

Sticking to our values and principles for raising our kids is hard because difficult emotions get in the way. And while it’s often a relief to temporarily make exceptions to these values and principles, this only makes it harder to stick to them in the future.

This is why the secret to cultivating good behavior in our kids is to increase our emotional tolerance for upsetting but not genuinely dangerous scenarios.

How to Practice

As parents, most of our best-intentions get left behind because we have a hard time managing our own emotional responses to our kids. Which is understandable since we do have a strong duty to protect them and keep them safe. But learning to distinguish genuine danger from things that simply feel dangerous is key.

The best resource I know of for helping parents build emotional tolerance is a little book called Scream Free Parenting. It’s all about how the most important lessons we can teach our kids is to manage our own emotions effectively.

5. Assertiveness

Assertiveness means acting in a way that is simultaneously true to our own values and respectful of others.

Assertiveness isn’t an idea thrown around much in the parenting world, which is a shame because I believe it’s one of the most valuable and important lessons we can impart to our children—the strength to stand up for and act on what they believe to be right in way that’s calm and confident.

Like most lessons we hope to impart to our children, talking about them doesn’t do a whole lot of good. You can try to convince your kids that it’s okay for them to ask for what they want even if they feel nervous or to say no confidently when they feel like they’re boundaries are being violated. But ultimately, if you really want the lesson to sink in, you need to model it for them yourself—you need to show, not tell.

Which means that if we want to raise confident, assertive kids, we need to start acting assertively ourselves.

Now, assertiveness is a huge topic and there are a million and one examples of situations where assertiveness is important—everything from asking for help even if you’re embarrassed to saying no to unwanted sexual advances.

But here’s a very basic situation that I think gets the idea across:

Example of Assertiveness and Parenting

I had a client who was a stay-at-home mom who faced a dilemma: While she loved being able to stay at home with her two young kids, it felt confining and overwhelming at times. She described how some days, by late afternoon she was so exhausted and emotionally spent that she felt like just walking out the front door and not coming back.

She was quick to explain that she would never actually abandon her kids; just that it got so hard at times that that’s how she felt.

After working with her for a few weeks I discovered something interesting: She didn’t do much for herself even when she had the opportunity, choosing instead to spend almost every waking minute with her son and daughter.

I asked her, for example, if she ever went out with friends in the evening after her husband got home from work. She responded sheepishly that she had thought about it—and really would love to—but once or twice in the past she had tried and it didn’t go well.

When I asked her to elaborate, she described how twice she had made plans to go meet up with friends in the evenings and her kids had basically thrown tantrums because they didn’t want her to go. They got super upset as soon as she mentioned that she was leaving and she felt awful. On top of that, her husband seemed daunted by the idea of taking care of two sobbing young kids for an evening. And so she abandoned her plans and stayed home.

As my client and I explored this situation, we settled on two important implications of her unwillingness to assertively take time for herself:

The first was fairly obvious: Not being able to take time for herself was exacerbating her own already high stress levels and exhaustion, to the point, she worried, that it was affecting her relationships with both her spouse and her kids (not to mention her own mental health!).

But the second implication was more subtle: What kind of example was she setting for her kids? She was modeling for them through her own behavior that you need to sacrifice your own perfectly valid needs and wants in order to accommodate the wishes of others.

As soon as she realized this, it was like a lightbulb went off. She realized how, especially for her daughter, this was the exact opposite lesson she wanted to be teaching.

She wanted both her kids (but especially her daughter given the pressures women face) to be confident enough to speak up for themselves and take care of their needs and wants even if there’s pressure from others to “fall in line.”

So we worked out a plan where she would gradually start acting more assertively: taking time to herself on the evenings, scheduling meetups with friends… she even started exploring the idea of hiring a nanny and doing some part-time work for her old company.

Of course, it wasn’t easy. There was a lot of emotional discomfort she had to be willing to tolerate. But once she became clear on what was really at stake, it was a challenge she was more than up to facing.

How to Practice

The best way to raise confident, assertive children is to model assertive behavior yourself as a parent. Which partly means taking time for yourself or doing things with your partner even if it means your kids might have to (God forbid) spend a few hours away from you.

There’s a great resource for building assertiveness called The Assertiveness Workbook that I highly recommend.

I also wrote a beginner’s guide to assertiveness that might be useful.

6. Guided Discovery

Guided discover means giving people just enough guidance that they can discover things on their own.

Talk to any effective teacher, coach, mentor, or therapist, and they’ll tell you that trying to tell people how to do things is a terrible strategy for fostering true learning. Instead, the most effective way to help people learn is to help them discover things on their own.

There’s something special that happens when we struggle through a problem, persist, and eventually find the answer ourselves. These are the lessons and skills we truly internalize and are able to put into practice most effectively.

And I think this principle is an important one for parenting as well: While it’s tempting to try and impart advice and wisdom onto our kids, it’s usually far more effective if we can help them discover things on their own.

Of course, it’s easier to simply give the answer or to do it for them. But in the long-run, I think we all aspire to raise our kids to be independent, competent human beings, capable of learning new things, adapting to novel situations, and rising to meet difficult challenges.

I think the best way to do this is to apply the principle of Guided Discovery as a parent.

Example of Guided Discovery

Here’s an example of guided discovery in parenting from my own life:

We’re on our way to a dinner party and running a few minutes behind. My wife’s dressing my 2-year-old daughter and I’m trying to pack the car and make sure my 3-year-old daughter is ready to go.

As we’re rushing down the hall and into the garage, I see that my daughter is still trying to put on her sandals. I can see that she’s struggling, but she’s got this determined look on her face that she’s not going to give up even if it takes the rest of the evening.

In the heat of the moment, I’m just trying to get everyone out the door and to our destination without being late. So I can feel the impulse inside me crop up to go over and just put her sandals on for her. In fact, I literally find myself moving toward her, sometimes even saying something like, Here, I’ll do it.

Luckily, I can usually catch myself and take a broader perspective on what’s going on. Sure I don’t want to be late. But in the grand scheme of things, if we’re 5 minutes late to my nephew’s birthday party, meh…

On the other hand, there’s something vital going on with my daughter right now. Her natural curiosity, budding analytical abilities, and perseverance are being engaged to solve a difficult problem. She’s literally learning how to be creative, stick with her goals, and solve difficult problems! And I’m two seconds away from short-circuiting that process simply because I’m neurotically obsessed with not being two minutes late to a birthday party!

Thankfully, I catch myself, take a breath, and watch her, allowing her to continue to struggle and work through her problem.

But after another 30 seconds, I can see she’s getting really frustrated, and actually, close to giving up. So I decide to step in, but in the most minimal way possible: I say, What if you tried holding the buckle with your other hand so it doesn’t move so much?

She thought about it, decided to give it a shot, struggled for another 10 seconds, and then got it. And man, the look of pride and joy on her face was one of those moments I absolutely live for as a dad.

Still, it’s crazy to think that I don’t always succeed here and deprive my kids of the opportunity to learn for themselves because my own stuff (usually, impatience) gets in the way.

The principle of Guided Discovery makes me a better parent because it reminds me, whenever possible, to help my kids learn to help themselves.

And it’s hard imagine something I want more for my kids than the confidence and faith in themselves to work through and stick with difficult problems even in the face of adversity.

How to Practice

There’s a great little book called The Coaching Habit that I highly recommend if you want to get better at the art of Guided Discovery. While it’s not written for parents specifically, the principles and techniques in it apply every bit as much to parenting and raising kids as they do coaching, mentoring, or any other form of teacher-student relationship.


Summary & The Final Principle

We’ve talked about six general principles of psychology and how we can apply them to the difficult job of raising our children:

  1. Validation — Letting our kids know that how they feel is okay and valid before we rush in to fix things and give reassurance.
  2. Functional Analysis — Learning to see our children’s behavior mechanically, not morally.
  3. Differential Reinforcement — Systematically reinforcing constructive behavior and discouraging undesired behavior.
  4. Emotional Tolerance — The idea that how we manage our own emotions is the most effective way to help our kids manage their own.
  5. Assertiveness — When we as parents model for our kids that it’s good to acknowledge our own wants and needs.
  6. Guided Discovery — The confidence-building art of letting our kids struggle and learn how to learn for themselves.

Please remember that no parent is perfect (or even close to it). It’s normal to struggle, second-guess yourself, and worry about how well you’re doing in the terribly difficult job of parenting.

It’s also good to remember that kids are inherently resilient. They don’t need perfect parents to turn out healthy, happy, and well-adjusted. Good-enough parenting is just fine.

I believe one of the most important things we can do as parents is to continue to try and grow and learn. Parenting isn’t something any of us are born knowing how to do. And understanding the psychological and emotional aspects of parenting is something almost none of us are ever taught. But we can all strive in small ways to keep learning and experimenting and doing our best.

The Final Principle

I’ll leave you with a 7th and final principle for more psychologically-informed parenting: What’s your why?

Why are you a parent in the first place? What are your highest parenting goals and aspiration? What are your most important parenting values?

All the tips, techniques, and good advice in the world don’t matter much if you’re not clear on what kind of parent you want to be.

So make sure to find a little time every once in a while to reflect on your parenting values. Because the clearer you are where you want to go, the more likely you are to arrive.

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