How to Set New Year’s Resolutions: A Guide for Parents and their Children
Michele Southworth, JD, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a licensed attorney. When working with divorcing and divorced families, she uniquely combines her two professions to serve as therapist, co-parenting counselor, mediator, or parenting coordinator.
New Year’s resolutions for children ages 5 to 12, when thoughtfully made, can be an affirming and empowering experience. However, in other circumstances, they can set up a child to feel ineffective and inadequate, unable to muster the persistence to do something they thought they wanted to do.
As many adults know, New Year’s resolutions are hard enough for adults to stick to. Unkept New Year’s resolutions can be even more demoralizing for children. Let’s not set up our children to have the experience of making a promise to themselves to change something that, by February 1st, they’ve forgotten or failed to follow through on.
Resolutions can Help Teach your Children about Setting Goals and the Decision-Making Process
Resolutions can be looked at as laying the groundwork to help children learn about setting goals, making decisions, and following through. When a goal is achieved, this often builds confidence and an appreciation of how to be effective and to make things happen.
Conversations between parent and child about resolutions can provide an opportunity to help children learn how to set realistic goals, and can open up a discussion about thinking realistically. Parents and children can have a very fruitful conversation – how to go about making choices for yourself, being responsible for your own success, and how having goals can be helpful in life.
Achieving a New Year’s resolution can help children develop a sense of themselves as being a capable person. It can help them learn to make a decision, to evaluate it, and then to make it happen. These are life skills that can have a lot of value over time, but they are most effective when the resolution is not the result of parental pressure, and when the goals are realistic and internally-driven.
Concerns to Watch for When Setting New Year’s Resolutions with Kids
It can be very helpful for parents to guide children in a reality-based discussion that is supportive in helping a child develop the skills to make decisions. There needs to be a balance between setting realistic, achievable goals and perhaps pushing themselves a bit to reach them, rather than feeling parental pressure to do so.
Resolutions Need to Come from the Child, not the Parents
One thing for parents to avoid is suggesting or setting goals for their kids, rather than the child selecting a goal for him or herself. For example, if a child says, “I don’t know what I should pick as a resolution,” a parent suggesting, “Wouldn’t it be great if your New Year’s resolution was to lose some weight?” is loaded with problems.
Adults need to be clear whose goal it is; parents and children both are best served when parents do not try to sell their own ideas of a resolution to their kids. Externally-motivated resolutions can set up self-defeating and confusing patterns of pleasing others at the expense of one’s own needs, and a feeling of failure, even though the goal was not something they really wanted.
If parents wish the child would pick a resolution like, “I will get my homework done on time,” the parent will benefit from thinking through more clearly what role they can play in supporting this desired outcome. Perhaps a parent in this position will consider making their OWN resolution instead, along the lines of, “I will find ways to support my child to get his/her homework done on time this year,” and let the child select something of his/her own desires. Alternatively, the parent can communicate to the child that this is a goal that is important for them to work towards, for various reasons, and do some planning with the child about how they might achieve this. This conversation is best kept separate from the conversation about resolutions, which come from what the child is internally motivated to change.
Resolutions for Children Younger than 10
Developmentally, it is normal for most kids under 10 not to have enough of a sense of time or of managing themselves for resolutions to really work. To increase the potential for success for children under 10, help them to pick very simple and achievable goals. Recognize that for your child to be successful, parental involvement may be required. With young children, you might think about a one-time goal, or something that can be repeated monthly, rather than a more long-term broad goal. One resolution is more than enough for most children.
Resolutions for an Older or more Mature-for-their-Age Child
A potentially fruitful discussion with older children can be to ask them how they will know if they’ve succeeded in carrying out their resolution. How will they measure how well they did? It is important for a parent to bring curiosity about this to the conversation, rather than pressure on the child to be successful.
Parents sometimes consider giving incentives to their child for following through on a resolution. While incentives can “work” in the sense that they increase the reward for doing what the resolution entails and may make it more likely to happen, there is a risk that they muddy the issue: is the child sticking to the resolution because of an internal motivation to do so, or only for the reward? Incentives can sometimes lead to a feeling of parents being supportive of the child’s goals, and sometimes to a feeling of more pressure around the resolution than is good for kids. This is an area that parents will want to approach with sensitivity.
How to Start a Conversation about New Year’s Resolutions
There are various ways to start a conversation about resolutions with your child. A parent may say: “With the New Year coming up, some people like to make a New Year’s resolution to help them make changes in the coming year. Is there anything that you would like to be doing differently this year? Or something you want to learn to do, or to do more of, or less of than you’ve been doing?” The younger the child, the simpler the conversation will be.
If the child picks a wildly unreachable goal, parents can talk them through the decision process without squashing their enthusiasm or being dismissive. “Let’s think how complicated that goal is – what’s going to be involved in your doing that?” Children can be helped to talk through the mechanics of effectuating the resolution by asking, “How hard will it be to do that?” Parents can talk about how aiming very high can help them push their boundaries and achieve more than they thought they could, but that setting a goal too high can leave them frustrated and disappointed if they end up not achieving it.
Ideally, for children interested in challenging themselves and seeing that they can set a goal and take steps to achieve it, a completed New Year’s resolution affirms that they can be effective. And if the resolution is not achieved, we can help kids to see this as an opportunity to evaluate their goal-setting and learn to use unsuccessful experiences as learning opportunities.
Michele Southworth, J.D., LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a licensed attorney. When working with divorcing and divorced families, she uniquely combines her two professions to serve as therapist, co-parenting counselor, mediator, or parenting coordinator. She practices at our University City location. Request an appointment today.