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Game Plan to Be a Better Parent: Raising Brain-Healthy Children

By David Jahr

Besides being a best-selling author, brain-health expert and advisor to The Daniel Plan, Dr. Daniel Amen is a two-time board certified psychiatrist who has treated thousands of patients, many of which ask for ways to become better parents. With 4 children of his own (Antony-34, Breanne-29, Kaitlyn-23, Chloe-8), Dr. Amen’s advice is seasoned with personal experience.

Here is Dr. Amen’s game plan to becoming a better parent, much of which can be found in his book, “New Skills for Frazzled Parents.”

Set Goals

“The most successful people in life set goals and act in ways that are consistent with achieving them,” Dr. Amen said. “It’s also true in your family life. Start with your goal. Write it down. What kind of children do you want to raise? What kind of adults do you want them to be?  What kind of parents do you want to be? It may be something like, ‘to raise healthy children who are caring, loving, with a high sense of morals who believe in God and follow Him.’”

Once the goals are set, Amen says then whatever you do or say to your children, must be consistent with how you want to achieve your goals. “You have to have a clear message and be congruent with your message,” he said. All the other parts of parenting will ‘default’ to these goals and consistent actions.

Create Bonding Time

“The most important thing a parent can do is create bonding time with their children,” Dr. Amen said. “Be intentional about spending actual physical time together doing something they like to do, without giving any commands or directions. Then, listen to them. Use ‘active listening’ by repeating what you hear them say so they know you are listening and want to understand them.”

Dr. Amen also said if your children love you and feel appreciated, they will be more likely to want your goals and values. And, the opposite is true as well. If they don’t feel loved or appreciated, or if the parent acts erratic or inconsistent, then the child will not accept your goals and values.

Have Clear Rules

“I think families should have posted rules, but no more than eight in total,” Dr. Amen said. “Like the 10 Commandments or the guidelines in an employee manual, it’s important to have clear expectations for behavior.”

A few rules Dr. Amen and his wife Tana have at their home are:

  • We treat each other with respect.
  • Do what mom and dad say the first time.
  • Put things away you take out.
  • Look for ways to be kind and helpful to each other.

Notice What You Like A Lot More Than What You Don’t

Then, when they follow the rules, Dr. Amen suggests rewarding them somehow. Perhaps with simply smiling and acknowledging them, or affirming the behavior that you like more often than what you don’t like.

Dr. Amen collects penguins. He now has over 2,000 penguins. He has penguin anything that you can imagine, from penguin pens, cups, dolls, puppets, hats, ties, shirts, sewing kits, a penguin vacuum, and even a penguin weathervane. Many people ask him how this obsession started.

“When my son was 7 years old I took him to a place called Sea Life Park in Hawaii. It is a sea animal park. At the end of the day I took Antony to see the Fat Freddy show.

Freddy was an amazing short, fat penguin. On cue, he dove from a high diving board, bowled with his nose, counted with his flippers and jumped through a hoop of fire. Toward the end of the show the trainer asked Freddy to go get something. Freddy went and got it and brought it right back. Wow, I thought to myself, ‘I ask this kid to get me something and he wants to have a discussion with me for 20 minutes and then he doesn't want to do it. I knew my son was smarter than the penguin.’

“So, after the show I went up to the trainer and asked her how she got Freddy to do all of those really cool things. The trainer looked at my son and then she looked at me and said, ‘Unlike parents, whenever Freddy does anything like what I want him to do, I notice him. I give him a hug and I give him a fish.’  Even though my son didn’t like raw fish, the light turned on in my head that whenever he did things that I liked, I paid no attention to him at all because I was a busy guy. But when he didn’t do what I wanted him to do, I gave him a ton of attention because I didn't want to raise bad children. I was inadvertently teaching him to be a little monster in order to get my attention. So I collect penguins as a way to remind myself to notice the good things about the people in my life a lot more than the bad things. Penguins might also help you.”

Establish Clear, Quick Consequences

“If you have clear goals, rules, bonding time and rewards, then consequences for bad behavior is actually the easy part,” Dr. Amen said. “I encourage parents to have unemotional, thought-out ahead of time consequences. This creates an expectation, so should the child choose to misbehave, they know there will be consequences.”

Dr. Amen also said to make the consequences logical and natural so they learn from it, rather than rebel against it. One example is to use a “time-out.” For kids ages 2-12 years-old, have them sit in a chair quietly for as many minutes as they are old. But do not send them to their room.

Provide Supervision

“Children’s brains are not fully developed until 25 years old, and every child is different,” Dr. Amen said. “So parents have to be the child’s frontal lobe, which is the part of the brain that provides forethought, controls impulses and forward planning.” Parents should know where their kids are and what they are doing, and who they are spending time with.

“The quality of their friends, may be more important than their parents,” he said. “So supervising their friendships is very important. Although you can’t pick their friends, you can pick their activities.”

Finally, Dr. Amen says the key to becoming a better parent is to model brain-healthy behavior. “Your children notice everything and if you are living a healthy life, abiding by the rules, acting consistently with rewards and consequences, then they will follow your guidance.”