Building Healthier PeopleJan 20, 2023
When we have children, we often hope they are healthy. That they will live long, fulfilling lives and won't have to deal with the pain that we went through. We want them to live better lives than we did, with more opportunities. We can hope for a lot. We make sure they eat all their vegetables, exercise, do their school work, keep them away from drugs, teach them how to act in public, etc. We guide them to make the best choices they can. But, even with all the love and care in the world, we can fall short of raising our children to be mentally healthier. Especially when we are working through our own traumas and unlearning unhealthy behavior, it can be difficult to know WHERE to start. We are not only raising children; we are raising, teaching, and building tiny humans who will grow and have their own feelings, thoughts, issues, and pains.
So what can we do to help our own family, to help our children grow and be healthy? To help our children learn and understand their emotions and the importance of mental health so that they can go into life with the best tools possible?
Remember that each child, like each adult, is different.
They require different needs, different levels of emotional regulation and skills, and different ways of motivation. Part of helping children become healthy adults is meeting their individual needs, what worked for one child might not work for the other, and that is okay. Constantly comparing behavior or skills to a sibling or friend won't change or correct what you consider to be lacking from them.
Kids have strong feelings, and as they get older, they’ll start to have more complicated and bigger feelings. As adults, we know what these feelings are, but we need to remember that these are new for them. They are still learning how to navigate more complicated situations and emotions. Validating their feelings doesn't mean you approve of them or even agree with them. It means you understand why they would feel that way or feel that strongly. Is your young child having a breakdown because they have to put toys away? We can understand feeling frustrated when we have to clean a lot or disappointed when we can't keep having fun doing what we want.
Teach them and help them through their feelings.
It is important to help children understand what it is they are feeling and why. This doesn't necessarily mean telling them but guiding them through their feelings. "What are you feeling? Are there other feelings too? Are you feeling sad? Mad?" Then talk to them about what happened that made them feel that way. If you get the classic “I don’t know,” break down what happened step by step. "Do you have these feelings because I told you to put your toys away?” “Did that make you sad because you wanted to play?" Depending on the child's age, vocabulary, and awareness, guiding them can be more basic or direct.
Then teach them to work through those feelings. Share some information on what you do when you have those feelings, and try out some of those skills with them. Discuss all the things they can do to work through their feelings, distraction techniques, calming techniques, etc.
While working through these feelings, make sure to use healthy self-talk. Even with negative emotions (sadness, anger, etc.), there are times and places for these feelings, and that doesn't necessarily make them bad or wrong. We also don't want to express "good kids" and "bad kids" by whether or not they have these emotions.
Let them have their experiences.
Part of being a parent is wanting to guide our children through life and help them avoid negative experiences. But there are some things that children need to be able to learn on their own, and they need to be allowed to make their mistakes and face their fears.
This also gives our kids a chance to experience discomfort at times. New people, situations, and experiences can be scary and uncomfortable. It will be uncomfortable for them when they are learning or doing something new because they don't know if they will succeed or fail or what the end result will be. It is important to teach children that being in these uncomfortable situations is okay as long as they are safe.
Teach them personal responsibility.
We give our children the tools to learn and grow. We give them the space to have their own experiences and mistakes. This leads us to start teaching them how to take on personal responsibility. We can teach them personal responsibility by giving them household chores so they learn basic skills that they will need when they are older. And they will learn responsibility from natural consequences. They don't want to put on a coat to play outside? Let them get cold. Did they have a tantrum and throw a bowl of goldfish on the ground? No goldfish to eat now. Depending on your child's age, you'll start by giving them clear boundaries or simple instructions and then praise their efforts. If they disobey, they face a natural consequence for their actions.
Teach them about setting boundaries.
Teach them that it is okay to set and enforce boundaries. Then honor the boundaries they set. They don't want to give grandma a kiss goodbye? That's okay; they don't have to kiss anyone they don't want to. Even if it seems silly to you or your family, it is important to show our children that their boundaries will be respected. We are there to offer guidance and step in to help enforce their boundaries when necessary until they learn how to handle pushback.