6 Rules for Raising Emotionally Secure Children

We all have big hopes and dreams for our children.

Get a good job, marry a loving spouse, be kind, etc. We want the world for them and we want them to “one-up” us. We want to raise the change-makers, the leaders of the world, the future Princess Diana’s, Mother Theresa’s, Bill Gates, and Gandhi’s. Ask any parent what they want for their kids, and I’d bet you most would say “happiness” or “fulfillment.” From the moment our tiny humans enter our lives, it becomes our mission to ensure they are given everything within our means. We consistently make attempts at providing this: I’ll feed him “brain food” …avocado here we come, or I’ll rid all of the negative energy and argue with my hubby via evil eyes. There are the attempts at instilling values, teaching kindness and promoting self-worth, self-confidence, positive body image, etc.

If we are getting real, this is where we need to keep our focus.

We can diligently obsess over the brain food, the books, the environment, and all that’s related, but when it comes down to it, we need to raise tiny humans who love and respect themselves, others, and the world around them. 

As a director of a premier preschool, I have the pleasure of meeting new parents on a day to day basis while they tour our school. My “work wife” as I like to call her is the one primarily responsible for showing prospective families what we are all about, but I take part and play a crucial role as I chime in with educational program related questions/concerns because this is my department. More often than not, we hear things like “little, Suzy is really smart for her age. She knows all of her colors” or “I am looking for a more educational atmosphere.”

When I hear things like this, as a mom, I can absolutely relate. For one, we all like to believe our children are geniuses, and two, learning is crucial. However, the early childhood educator in me knows that there is so much more to teaching littles than ABC’s and 123’s.

We need these children to be confident, kind, curious, and comfortable in their own skin.  

In a world filled with violence, hate, discrimination, isolation, poor mental health…the list goes on, why not focus on raising gentle, loving, accepting, welcoming and mindful individuals? Is having the smartest kid in the class truly a mark of excellence these days? 

My son, who is only 3 years old, has shown more natural compassion towards his younger brother than I could have imagined, even in my wildest dreams, which is remarkable. Still, I dream bigger- I hope that he shows this type of love and compassion to complete strangers as he gets older. I hope he recognizes that despite the cruelty that is out there, there is also significant beauty. Everyone has their story, and it is the people who are capable of empathizing with their neighbors, lending a hand, or at least a smile, who really leave their marks. 

We frequently have talks about good choices versus bad choices.

We discuss things like being a leader, being kind, and very importantly in the age of millennials we discuss “who is de captain,” a term coined by a close friend of mine, which ultimately just means respect for authority. I hope to raise children who do the right thing when no one is looking. Tiny humans who know how to have fun, bend the rules, but always respect “de captain” or those in charge. I pray, that they have enough confidence and belief in themselves to accept feedback and make adjustments, yet they are humbled by praise and recognition. 

You see, I haven’t been “parenting” for long at all.

In fact, I have no idea what the heck I am doing and I am fairly convinced I will never know which way is up when it comes to raising tiny people. But there is one thing I am certain about. I choose kindness over intellect (although ideally they’d go hand-in-hand, but we all know this isn’t true). I cannot promise to raise the next Albert Einstein. I cannot promise anything when it comes to motherhood. However, what I can say with certainty, is that I am giving every ounce of my being, my whole heart and soul, to raising tiny humans who care. In a world of unrest and chaos, I vow to do my very best at raising peaceful, and mindful children who turn into caring, genuine and thoughtful individuals. 

But, how do we do this? How do we raise kids who care?

As my three-year-old grits his teeth and growls “I am going to hit you”-yes, yes he’s actually said that- how do I not feel like a complete failure? How do I redirect the behavior without overreacting? And, how do I use this as an opportune parenting moment?

It all starts with strong emotional support and the development of emotional understanding from a young age. There are things that we as parents have to take into consideration when dealing with the emotional development of our children

Rule Number 1:

First, one thing I’ve learned is the importance of accepting your child.

Let me say that again for those in the back… accepting who your child is, NOT who you want them to be. It is so easy for my husband and I to say in shock “where did he learn that?! We would NEVER speak like that?” Or “where did this temper come from?” It is easy to assume that everything our kids do is a direct result of our parenting.

Now, I’m not ignorant enough to assume that there aren’t parents out there who are the total opposite and attribute everything to outside sources (you know, the “not-my-kid” syndrome where everything the kid does was a direct influence of a bad egg?) But for many of us, we feel as if we can mold them into the little specimens that we’ve always assumed we would create.

However, there is a strong underlying nature to these tiny humans, their innate personality, that cannot, and should not be changed. Now, William clearly can’t go around telling people he is going to hit them when he gets angry. But, we can teach him how to handle his emotions and teach him to accept his anger, process it, and react appropriately. 

Rule Number 2:

The second rule to emotional development is to acknowledge your children’s emotions.

When they are sad, mad, angry or scared, acknowledge how they’re feeling. Ask them how they’re feeling or ask them to confirm your assumption. A lot of adults cry when they’re angry. We as society typically assume that tears equal sadness and this isn’t always the case. It is important that while we are trying to decipher the emotions our kids are experiencing that we also confirm them before moving forward. 

Rule Number 3:

Next, Do NOT try to fix their emotions

It is almost second nature to say “aww you’re okay” to a crying or upset child. But to them, in that moment they are not okay, and hearing an adult tell them that they are okay is essentially dismissing their emotions. Reassurance- explaining to them that it is OKAY to feel sad and that you may be able to help them feel better-is a MUCH more effective approach. Take “calm down” or “relax” for example. Never, in the history of telling someone to calm down or relax has the person actually calmed down or relaxed. If anything, this adds fuel to the fire. Encourage and allow them to embrace their emotions. 

Coach them through what they’re feeling and allow them to rest there for a while if needed.

Childhood is the most acceptable phase in life to show your raw, intense emotions. We see it on Monday mornings when our children are crying at the start of a new week; as adults, we probably don’t feel that differently than they do, but there comes a point when it is unacceptable to walk into the office crying that the weekend is over. Again, our goal is to coach our children to experience their emotions so that they are not the adult having a meltdown. Still, it is also crucial to be kind and patient with them as they work through their intense childhood emotions

Rule Number 4:

Right in line with not fixing their emotions, comes rule number 4:

Allow your kids to see you experience different emotions. I’m not sure why in the world society gave us the idea that our kids should never see us cry, get angry, lose our cool, have a meltdown, etc. These things happen and what a sad environment we are creating for our kids in trying to hide these things! Life is hard, life is beautiful, life is chaotic and we as human beings are biologically programmed to feel things to our core. It is an absolute disservice to our children to trick them into thinking that once they become adults, all of those powerful emotions just evaporate.

Let them see you get frustrated and explain that you’re feeling frustrated and let them observe how you work through your feelings. Teaching kids to be kind to themselves, results in their ability to be kind, caring and empathetic with others. How could we expect them to recognize and console a child who is feeling defeated if they haven’t felt and handled that emotion themselves? 

Rule Number 5:

Teach your children about different feelings.

Aside from the standard happy, sad, mad, teach them their deeper emotions and feelings. Emotions come in such a wide variety. A large reason, if not the number one reason for meltdowns or tantrums is when kids are feeling something unfamiliar and they’re not able to express how they’re feeling.

Let me reflect on a personal example to put this into perspective for you.

My younger son was about 7 months old and a friend and I had all four of our children out to Chick-Fil-A on a Saturday. The restaurant was packed as it typically is on Saturday with families and small children galore. Centered in the middle of the restaurant was a group of adults, dressed in all black, not speaking to each other.

Now, far be it for me to jump to conclusions but typically, if a group of adults were out for lunch on a Saturday, a place crawling with ankle biters wouldn’t be their first choice, so this struck me as odd. Then, the fact that they weren’t speaking to one another heightened my awareness and finally, the icing on the cake, was the fact that they were all dressed in all black attire (and I’m not talking about funeral wear) which sent me over the edge and I quickly became extremely panicky.

I’ve been told that this could have been post-partum anxiety resulting in an anxiety attack but that of course wasn’t confirmed. What was confirmed is that I have never, in my life felt this way, nor do I ever intend to feel that way again. I couldn’t put into words what I was feeling and felt absolutely ridiculous trying to explain myself to my friend as I demanded that we leave resulting in us feverishly shuffling out of the restaurant, with 4 confused kids in tow. 

Now, imagine how a small child feels when they are experiencing things that they’ve never felt before, things that they cannot put into words.

Most likely, they would have some sort of meltdown, similar to the adult version of a tantrum I exhibited. If I, as a grown adult, described a new, undesirable emotion that I’d never felt before in the way of “never wanting to feel that way again,” think of how a child, with little experience on this earth is going to exponentially feel that way. We as parents should guide them and give them words or suggestions on how they might be feeling.

Say your child is stacking blocks which keep falling down and you sense that they may be feeling frustrated, explain “Hey, it seems like you’re frustrated and feeling bad that those blocks wont stack. Frustration is hard. Can I help you?” What you’ve done here is given them a concrete label for how they were feeling, let them know that it is an uneasy feeling therefore validating them, and you’ve offered to help them work through their frustration.  After noticing frustration a few times and pointing it out, you’ll start to see the benefits of coaching them through the emotion. Say you’re in the kitchen preparing dinner and your child is attempting a puzzle. Rather than attending to a 15-20 minute meltdown when they’re unable to connect the pieces of the puzzle, they may come to you and ask for help, or ideally even say that they’re feeling frustrated. Other emotions that children experience and cannot label include embarrassment, guilt, jealousy, fear, amongst more.

Keep this in mind when parenting through emotions. Often times the things we feel are second nature to us, but they may be brand new to our children. Work through things with them, offer support, understanding, and encouragement. 

Rule Number 6:

Finally, the 6th rule to parenting emotional development is to teach compassion & respect towards the environment.

That word environment typically strikes the cord in our brain to which we immediately think “outside.” Bam, I’ll teach my kid not to litter. DONE! But the word environment, by definition, means the surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal, or plant lives or operates. This encompasses an abundance of topics including animals, things or belongings, the planet and of course your physical space.

Show children how to use their toys and the appropriate way to play with them. Do not crush their imagination of course, but by showing them the appropriate way to use things, you’ll instill respect for their belongings. Work with your child to clean up and don’t be afraid to give them small responsibilities. My boys have been picking up their laundry from the bathroom floor after baths since my oldest was 18months old, which now results in my amusement as he exclaims to his younger brother “Owen it’s time to do chores.” Believe it or not these small responsibilities are enjoyable to my kids and in turn, teaches them how to help out in ways that work for everyone. 

In addition, you don’t have to be a dog-lover to teach your children that animals are living, breathing things and deserve love as well as space and respect. Compassion towards animals is an excellent way to build character in children and it fosters empathy and respect towards others as well. It is important to note that generally, children are innately drawn towards animals and often their fear or distaste is a learned behavior.

Again, while you don’t have to go out and adopt a homeless cat, take notice in how you behave and react around animals and be sure to teach your child respect towards all living things, remembering that this builds well-rounded, concerned and kind children.

As with all things parenting related, there are some things to keep in mind.

While focusing on emotional coaching and development with your small children, remember that emotions happen on multiple levels. Things are not always as they seem and it is important to recognize that we as humans experience both primary and secondary emotions.

Primary emotions are the immediate reaction we feel to a situation.

Someone says something hurtful and we feel sad. A secondary emotion comes when we feel an emotion about an emotion. For example, your child has an accident and feels embarrassed and they’re suddenly yelling at you and stomping their feet, appearing very angry. They are responding to the feeling of embarrassment. Addressing the anger would be similar to painting over mold. You may not be able to see it but the underlying problem is still there, unaddressed and possibly growing. 

Talk with your child and listen to them, try to get to the root of what they’re feeling but most importantly and above all things show them understanding. As parents, we have to redirect, discipline, and teach our kids. We have to show them appropriate ways to act and we cannot let negative behaviors go unnoticed. However, you can parent while acknowledging and understanding that they are feeling a certain way. We cannot control our emotions. Children cannot turn it off any easier than we as adults can turn it off. Our main responsibility is to teach them how to handle the emotions as they come their way. Embrace your child, love your child and be proud of who they are. We are responsible for the people of tomorrow-let’s change the world one compassionate child at a time. 

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