The next two weeks’ Art of Potential radio shows are on raising emotionally healthy children. My guests include Nadia Vasu, LCSW, and Melanie Butler-Williams, a current principal and former school counselor. The reason this topic is so near and dear to me is because, as a school counselor, I see the results of children who struggle with emotional health every day in my office.
First, let’s talk about what emotional health is: it is the ability to identify, name and handle our own emotions as well as read, name and understand the emotions of others. “Handling” our emotions can mean doing it on our own, with family, or with the help of a professional. When we can’t handle our emotions, they can hijack our personal responses to neutral situations. For instance, if we are annoyed with how our day is going at work and then come home and snap at a family member, we have not managed our emotions – they have hijacked us and created an undesirable outcome.
As parents, here are four things we can do to raise emotionally healthy children:
1. Teach empathy. Parents normally ask their children what they did at school, but rarely do children ask their parents how their day went. It is important to teach children to think about other people besides themselves, and this lesson should start at home.
Ask your child to describe other people’s emotions including yours. Help them identify and put words around what triggers various emotional responses. Questions like “How did that make your feelings feel?” or “How did Johnny feel when Ben said he was fat?” or “Why do you think Jenny was mean to you? Is there any chance you did something to hurt her feelings?” help them to process emotional reactions and take responsibility for their own part in causing hurt feelings.
2. Be in charge. It is normal and healthy for children to want to be independent. It is not normal for children tell adults what to do past the age of three. Statements like “I don’t want you by me” or “Don’t talk to me” are warnings. If your child is trying to tell you or another adult what to do this is a flag that they are moving into controlling behavior patterns. Trying to control others can result in bullying or lack of friends because people don’t like people who try to control them regardless of their age. Children are smaller versions of their adult selves. Do not make excuses for their behaviors by saying things like “she is only…” By the age of four they have words, mobility and the ability to understand they are not the only person in the world.
As a parent, you are in charge of your children’s technology habits as well. One teenager refused to agree to her parent’s iPhone terms and conditions so they refused to get her the phone. She claimed no one else had phone restrictions. Yes, shockingly children of ALL ages will lie to get their way.
3. Follow through. If you are going to threaten “time out” or any type of consequence for errant behavior, be prepared to deliver it immediately and without malice. I can’t tell you how many parents do not follow through on threats, and kids quickly learn not to pay any attention to their parent’s words. Following through on what you say builds trust. Not following through on words significantly diminishes the respect children have for their parents.
Mother: “If you do that again, you are going into time out for (insert time).”
When delivering a consequence, expect crying, drama, heartache, whining, tummy aches, life threatening illnesses, etc… regardless of age. When the consequence is over, ask your child if they can tell you why they had that consequence and talk about the feelings involved. Talking about it helps them put words around their experience and therefore understand it more clearly.
Mother: “Why are you in time out?”
Daughter: “Because I stuck my tongue out at you after you told me not to.”
Mother: “Was that a nice thing to do?”
Mother: “I always try to be nice to you because that is the way people should treat each other. How do you think it made me feel that you were not being nice to me?”
Mother: “Is there something you can say when you make someone feel bad?”
Daughter: “I’m sorry.”
(Now be prepared, because the moment you are not nice to your offspring, this conversation will come flying back in your face.)
Teenagers need boundaries as much as younger children. Removing electronics is a very effective means of causing immense and immediate pain to any teen.
4. Keep the end in mind. You are raising a soul who is going to go out into the world without you and will be encountering setbacks and successes. They are going to have to get along with all types of people socially and professionally. If you get more than one call a year from the school about your child’s behavior, it is time to take the calls very seriously. Get professional help and get it for the whole family, because children’s behaviors are typically a result of their environment. A few minor tweaks can often put everyone back on track. We aren’t born knowing how to parent and shouldn’t be embarrassed when we need strategies to help us become better at it.
In closing, it is important to remember that your children cue off of you. If they see that you respect yourself, they will learn to respect themselves. If they see you taking care of yourself emotionally, physically, and spiritually they will do the same. To be the best parent you can be, be the best you you can be.