I am writing this because of three families I heard about this week – all struggling with being young parents and how to deal with the multiple changes and challenges this brings.

All these couples love each other, knew each other well before they got married, have the good income that goes with a professional job and chose to have children. If they are getting into hot water, how much more so for others in less favourable circumstances? Incidentally they all have two children under five and things seem to have become worse after the second was born.

This is only a blog so I am going to write just briefly about some things that might help – then if anyone is interested I might write the book!

Here are some thoughts about do’s and don’t for young parents:

Say and show that you value each other and have empathy with each other’s situation

There is often a battle going on for who is having it toughest – the mum who has given up her role in the workforce and is up to her neck in damp, screaming infants all day or the dad who comes home after a day’s work to chaos and an expectation that he will take over. Even in the most secure couples, hurtful words can fly. Although everyone is focused on the practical tasks that need doing, the emotional needs of parents themselves often take a back seat. Each partner needs to acknowledge that the other is having it tough in different ways. Try saying the following on a regular basis. It is amazing the difference this can make. Choose your own versions of:

  • You are doing such a great job as a mum / dad
  • This must be really hard on you
  • I don’t know what I’d do without your support
  • We’ll get through this – it will make us stronger together.
  • We’ll be OK.

Decide how are you going to be as parents

Decide what you are going to do about issues such as going to bed, demanding attention, refusing food etc. in a calm place away from the children and especially not at the time this is happening. If, as a couple, you talk through these issues and come to some sort of agreement about how you will try and handle things with each other’s support, your children will not learn to play you off against each other. Although it can be temporarily rewarding to be the favoured parent it does little for you as a strong, united family.

There is no easy formula for specific situations as things change with age. Small babies need quick responses when they cry, older children can wait a while. There is no doubt, however, that a facilitative (sometimes called authoritative) parenting style has the best long-term outcomes for children. This means being loving but also supporting high expectations for behaviour.

Permissive parenting provides children with lots of warmth but no clear boundaries so parents give into demands all the time, leaving the children feeling insecure about who is in charge here. I will never forget a friend of mine saying she spent three hours one evening persuading her four year old to go to bed. I nearly fell through the floor! This child learnt that being demanding was an ideal way to get his mother’s undivided attention so it was likely he would be doing the same thing the next day – and the next.

Authoritarian parents have high demands for obedience but low warmth or flexibility. Children in such families are often anxious when young and angry when they get older.

Facilitative parenting means making it clear that bedtime happens at a certain time – that there is a winding down and loving ritual that goes with this and an expectation that your child stays in bed once there. If they get up they receive minimal attention, no eye contact, smiling or conversation. If they say they want a drink, teddy, go to the toilet etc this is given to them but briefly with no further interaction. If they say they are scared then say you will go up and check on them every few minutes to see if they are OK until they are fast asleep. The only difference is if they are clearly ill or in pain. Once daylight arrives welcome them with open arms (a bit tough on parents in high summer but you can’t expect little ones to tell the time!) A similar approach can be used for healthy eating. You can’t force feed a child who refuses what is in front of them – but you can try to give them a diet of good foods they do enjoy, stop giving snacks between meals and calmly take away an untouched plate without running round finding something else they say they want. A friend carries around some raw vegetables and offers them to her children if they say they are hungry between meals! And being a bit hungry won’t hurt once in a while. It is dispiriting how many parents use sweet or fatty snacks to bribe or reward their children. Apart from anything else there is a connection between sugar and frenetic energy often accompanied by irritability when the sugar high wears off. I saw a notice in a café recently which said ‘unaccompanied children will be given an espresso with two sugars’. Be good to yourself and give your children water to drink.

Be imperfect

At birth, the baby is handed over along with a big package of guilt! Guilt about not doing the right thing, worry about whether you are giving your child the best chance, are you ensuring they have every opportunity (for what?) – guilt about not being the perfect parent. Here’s news for you – no-one is! Allow yourself to make mistakes – and as partners allow each other to do so. Forgiveness is a rich and wonderful gift in a relationship. Bearing grudges and resentment is a killer. It helps foster forgiveness if you are both prepared to admit when you could have done something a bit differently.

Children cry

And that is distressing for parents. But not every cry means the same thing. Learn to discriminate between a cry that indicates hunger from those that are borne out of frustration, tiredness, discomfort, pain or a need for stimulation. You do not want to stimulate a tired baby or feed one with a tummy-ache. Sometimes there is little you can do except try and comfort the child but this is important for their psychological health so again don’t feel guilty – you are doing your best in the circumstances.

Address stress

Stress becomes a problem when demands exceed resources so explore how you might increase your resources (energy, time, emotional) or decrease demands (housework, paperwork). You cannot do everything to the high level you might have done before children; the house won’t look as elegant, meals will not be gourmet. What can you delete or just not do as well? When you cook, double the quantity and freeze half for another day, tidy up once a day (once a week?), don’t volunteer extra things for the sake of your career. Sleep whenever you get the chance – if this means sometimes going to bed when your children do that’s OK. Put your phone on silent so communications are more in your control. You will know what you need for your wellbeing – and what demands you might limit. Remind yourselves that this stage in life is temporary – and your children are only young once. Talk about this together so you are in agreement about how you can limit stress. One thing you can do to boost resources is to ensure that each of you has a regular day or evening out away from the children – going to a match, having a massage, meeting friends. For the sake of your relationship this must be on an even basis – the dad who drinks with his friends three nights a week is likely to be heading for trouble. Time together it also important – bringing us to the next section…

It takes a village to raise a child

Where do your support systems lie and how much can you access these? Some lucky new parents have grandparents around the corner but in this world of high mobility many don’t. In this case you need to create some sharing circles, especially with those in the same position as you. These can range from baby-sitting groups to play-dates. Would you have an extra two children for a couple of hours if you could have two hours to yourself next week? Who else might be able to lend a hand, aunts, uncles, siblings or neighbours? Most people don’t mind being asked to help out on an occasional basis – it is when it is too often that resentment sets in. Obviously this has to be with people you trust. Often overlooked are the children themselves. As soon as you can, expect children to help you with basic things – it might take a bit longer in the first place but will pay dividends later. Don’t put them on a pedestal with low expectations – its uncomfortable for them and results in unbalanced kids! Children can get a great sense of achievement, connection and pride by participating fully in family life,

Have fun

New parents sometimes get so caught up in doing it right that they forget to do it with a light heart and enjoy themselves. Small children are learning at a rate of knots and parents are their first and most important teachers. Talk with them about everything (right from the very moment they are born – don’t wait until they start speaking themselves). Look at the world through their eyes as a fresh, new, exciting place. Everything is magical when you see or hear it for the first time. You will get a new lease of life yourselves when you do this. Help children learn to play. They do not need toys so much as to be able to develop their imagination and creativity. My favourite plaything as a pre-schooler was my great-aunt’s big box of coloured buttons. I could sort and make patterns for hours. Try covering the family table with a huge blanket making it a den, cave, magic castle or secret hideout. Join your children in this pretend play. Put on some favourite music and dance with the baby on your hip – it will lift your spirits and your child will love it – and love you for it. Do fun things as a whole family and you are on the way to rising to the challenge. You will be great parents – together.

For more on couple and parenting relationships see the relevant chapters in Roffey. S. (ed) (2012). Positive Relationships, Evidence Based Practice Across the World. Springer