Home All PERMA Parent Part 3: Building Positive Relationships

PERMA Parent Part 3: Building Positive Relationships

written by Elizabeth Elizardi 15 March 2011

Elizabeth Elizardi, MAPP '10, is a parent coach, educational consultant, and founder of Strengths Hub, LLC, an online parenting community. Building on her experience as a parent, educator, MAPP graduate, and online contributor to Psychology Today, Elizabeth hopes to build an international network of flourishing parents who cultivate and exercise strategies for increased well-Being while raising children. Full Bio. Elizabeth's articles for PositivePsychologyNews.com are here.

Moving Beyond Parent Survival Guides



Look at the shelves in the parenting section of any bookstore and you will find a vast array of survival guides with proven tools and strategies for getting through life with kids.

True, being a parent means deploying critical survival skills and strategies to make it through each day. One’s ability to think straight, signal for help, run to safety, and avoid unpleasant interactions allow for refined navigation through obstacles, despite variable circumstances. But in survival mode, the level of happiness and well-being of parents is endangered.

Daniel Kahneman


In 2004, Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winning Economist, conducted research on 909 employed women and their daily lives. Participants were asked to keep a diary of their daily activities and complete a happiness survey of their previous day using the Day Reconstruction Method. Of the sixteen choices on the happiness assessment, “taking care of my children” was ranked twelfth out of sixteen on the happiness scale.



Granted, the use of the term “taking care of” instead of “enjoying” has a negative connotation. Daniel Gilbert, Harvard psychologist and author of Stumbling on Happiness, points out that parents know child-rearing will be laborious, but cognitive dissonance prevails so they believe that children will make them happier. Studies confirm this to be untrue, verifying the fact that happiness among parents declines during the toddler and teenage years and rises again when children leave for college and parents become emptynesters.

That being said, a macro view of parenting over a life span has added happiness value as compared to micro views of ineluctable sleepless nights, tantrums, and mood swings. So, how do we as parents move our partnerships from endangered happiness to flourishing?

How To Flourish as a Partner in Parenting

Positive Psychology propels us toward a more descriptive (flourishing parents do x,y and z) and less of a prescriptive (here is how you can survive) approach to parenting. Thus it nudges parents away from the need to alleviate problems and guides them towards cultivating relationships that enhance well-being.

In the process of raising children, there are many relationships to consider: parent-child, child-child, grandparent-child, but the most important is the one between parents working as partners to raise their children. Flourishing parents not only have the tools for survival, but they know how to thrive. They move from sustainability to thriving and they do so resiliently.

In a Tunnel Together

Going Through a Tunnel Together

In ecology, the concept of resilience comes from the study of why some ecosystems collapse in response to shocks while others adjust and thrive. We have witnessed communities and countries bounce back after a natural disaster and reorganize, learning to change as a result of their experiences. What if we take a lesson from ecology and approach our relationships as parents with an equal amount of neuroplasticity. We can be systems that are weak enough to yield when necessary, but strong and resilient enough not to yield all at once.

Diversify Resources

Dr. Russ Harris, author of Act With Love, writes that disconnection with a partner is a common drain on relationships, as are reactivity, avoidance, staying inside your mind, and neglecting values. Find multiple sources of energy to fortify your relationship, since it is thus less vulnerable if one energy source is lost. Pour energy into your relationship by reconnecting. People with children can connect in various ways.

  1. Enter into a dialogue about your hopes and dreams instead of simply broadcasting your day. Your partner’s life changes through child rearing. Update your love map! What does the landscape look like?
  2. Maintain an individual upward spiral so you can be fully present in the relationship. You can use a combination of interventions, such as journaling, meditation, physical exercise, or counting blessings.
  3. Invest in a Favor Bank. This technique is taken from Quality of Life Therapy. It encourages partners to make deposits into each other’s bank account of good feelings. Make a list of ten things you could do to fill your partner’s favor bank and make your partner feel good. This builds generalized reciprocity, as opposed to specific reciprocity, the “tit for tat” mentality.
  4. Express Gratitude. An upcoming study by C. L. Gordon and colleagues shows that gratitude can help facilitate the development of close relationships. Results indicate that both felt and expressed gratitude significantly relate to marital satisfaction. Compliment and thank your partner often.


Big systems made out of small interchangeable parts are flexible and can be moved around. As parents we are nimble in many ways, but psychological flexibility has the most direct effect on our relationships. Demands are high, which calls for the ability to be fully aware of the here and now experience and adapt to different situations. Put things in perspective by examining the worst case, best case, and most probable case scenarios in any given situation. React deliberately and consciously to relational experiences.

Short feedback loop

John Gottman notes that two thirds of problems between couples are insolvable. But, when you are more in touch with the direct consequences of your actions, they are harder for you to ignore. Remember that conflict in a relationship is a sign of longing for something. Thriving parents communicate with compassion and consideration and do the following:

  • “Fess up” and take responsibility for actions.
  • Use “I” not “you” statements when handling conflict or confronting situations.
  • Present problems as if they are “ours”, kicking the invisible soccer ball back and forth.
  • Give gestures to acknowledge listening, such as head nodding.
  • Turn towards each other and respond with love.
  • Ask themselves what their partner is doing right.br /> 
  • Share and nurture fondness and admiration
  • Build a positive perspective that helps partners give each other the benefit of the doubt.
  • Enjoying the View Together

      Enjoying the View Together

  • Honor transitions with loving gestures, for example, when waking up, saying goodbye, coming home, and going to bed.


Resilient parents thrive by diversifying energy sources, becoming flexible, and giving each other feedback through effective communication. They swing from branch to branch in Tarzan-like fashion, and they reach the summit together day after day, week after week. They realize that they can do more than survive danger. They can also celebrate the lushness that abounds.



Frisch, M. B. (2006) Quality of Life Therapy: Applying a Life Satisfaction Approach to Positive Psychology and Cognitive Therapy. New Jersey: Wiley & Sons.

Gilbert, D. (2007). Stumbling on Happiness. New York: VIntage.

Gordon, C.L., Arnette, R. & Smith, R. (2011) Have you thank your spouse today? Married Couples’ Felt and Expressed Gratitude. Personality and Individual Differences. 50(3).

Gottman, J. & Silver, N. (2000). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Gottman, John and Julie – lecture at the MAPP Summit 2010.

Harris, R. (2009). Act With Love: Stop Struggling, Reconcile Differences, and Strengthen Your Relationship With Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, California. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Kahneman, D., Krueger, A. B., Schkade, D. A., Schwarz, N. & Stone, A. A. (2004). A Survey Method for Characterizing Daily Life Experience: The Day Reconstruction Method. Science: 306 (5702), 1776-1780. [DOI:10.1126/science.1103572]

Van Baal, M. (2010,September). Beyond Sustainability. Ode Magazine, 8, 22-27.

Bookstore courtesy of J. Brew
Daniel Kahneman from Encefalus
Toddlers courtesy of glennmcbethlaw
In a Tunnel Together courtesy of docentjoyce
Looking at the view together courtesy of New Brunswick Tourism

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Oz 16 March 2011 - 11:36 pm

Elizabeth – my piece of advice – acceptance

Elizabeth Elizardi 17 March 2011 - 10:50 am

There are many layers to the word acceptance in parenting. Acceptance in what regard? Accepting one’s partner is realizing he/she is not perfect and overcoming the other myths presented by Russ Harris in his book.

Kathryn Britton 17 March 2011 - 11:34 am

When my kids were small, I went to a presentation by John Rosemond, a child psychologist, that I still remember vividly. One point he made was not to make the children the center of family life — to preserve the centrality of the relationship between the parents. He seemed to believe that children would find that a big relief. He explained that children learn respect in such an environment, and that they have more room to develop their own resourcefulness and responsibility. Does that make sense to you?


oz 17 March 2011 - 12:38 pm

Elizabeth, by acceptance I mean the whole marriage vow thingy “for better or worse”. It’s so much easier if you don’t sweat each others foibles.

This sort of makes sense when as you say two thirds of the problems between couples are unsolvable.

Elizabeth Elizardi 17 March 2011 - 1:52 pm

Your comments echo those of Gary Ezzo, author of the Baby Wise series. I read the books extensively to prepare for motherhood and child-rearing with my spouse. Children need to see their parents interacting, communicating, loving one another and spending time together apart from them. The parenting relationship IS the MOST valuable and important one in a family and should be the centrifugal force promoting family well-being, as opposed to putting children in the center of that universe. From parents children create the memory patterns that are integrated as implicit memories and impact their future relationships with peers, family members, future parenting partners and their own children. Thanks for the comment!


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