How to raise emotionally healthy children
Just today afternoon while sitting at a café I saw a child around 7-8 years on the next table coughing. While the parents were eating the child was licking ketchup from their plate. The next moment, I saw the parent talking harshly to the child with a gesture of a slap as a warning and the child continuing to lick it infact more voraciously and the parents again shouting back to the child. Again, later in the day, I saw 4-year-old excitingly jumping in a muddy puddle in the playgorund and the parent running fast behind to push the child to the other side but later to scoff “Oh god! How many times am I supposed to change your clothes!”. Suddenly the child became quiet and started walking with the parent. I have picked up these instances from my daily life and I am sure if we look around us or reflect back on our own, we would find enough instances to ask ourselves, are we equipped enough to respond to our children in an emotionally healthy way?
Before becoming a parent, I would hear stories from parents that would highlight emotions of happiness, excitement, tiredness, frustration and worry. But when I became a parent I also felt the intense vulnerability that at times one would go through of emotions of rage, fear and anxiety pushing us to the farthest of our limits. Infact many a times our emotions/ feelings are a reflection of what the child is going through and vice versa because our emotions and feelings are entwined with those of our kids and these define the longer road to parenting.
Take a pause to reflect back at your own unpleasant emotions that take over the goodness of parenting. It could be a feeling of disappointment when your child did not listen to you, feeling of embarrassment or it could be feeling extremely irritable because of sheer exhaustion (may be because the child is demanding your attention or due to some other ongoing stress). As a parent it is not uncommon to feel overwhelmed by your child’s feelings or circumstances. However, it is important to understand how we respond to our child’s emotions in such situations.
Let’s look at this scenario: 5-year-old Vani is at playground and wants to go on merry-go-round. She sees a bunch of other friends playing together.
“I want to go on merry-go-round”
“Okay Vani let’s request one of the kids to let you do one round”
“No! I want all of them to come down. I want to do it alone, they are not my friends”
“I am not sure if they will agree Vani, but let’s try”
(kids refuse and continue to play and Vani starts crying)
“Are you sad Vani that your friends are not here”
While crying Vani nods her head to say yes. While the mother soothes her alongside having a conversation by rubbing her back gently.
“Would you like to call your friends tomorrow to do merry-go-round together!”
“But I wanted to do it today!”
“I know sweetie, you are feeling sad missing them. How about tomorrow?”
Vani calms down and says “okay!” softly.
This conversation highlights 5 important aspects of an empathetic communication with a child in distress which would help in creating a mechanism for self-regulation within:
- Space for self-expression: we often tend to discard a child’s request depending upon what we feel is feasible or not. One of the common responses to her demand for all kids to come down and let her swing could have been, how can we ask them to do that? Why would they do something like that! Infact why don’t we let them play and we either play with them or we go now and will come later. A concluding remark that as parents we make based on our behaviour patterns can restrict the child’s space to explore possibilities. It is healthy to support a child’s desire for exploration as that provides a sense of freedom for self- growth.
- Help to Identify emotions: Giving the right word to what your child must be feeling helps children in identifying their emotions. Identification of emotions increases emotional awareness and also brings in a sense of control by knowing exactly what they are feeling. With younger children, you can always use certain story or cartoon characters for them to better express how they are feeling. Are you feeling sad like that Mr. Panda?
- Validate: Acknowledging and validating the child’s feelings makes them feel understood. Simple statements like “I understand you feeling sad” rather than “what is there to feel sad about it” shows empathy, acceptance and being non-judgemental about their emotions and situations. Validation deepens the connection between parent and child and brings in a calming effect in conversations.
- Problem- solving: Think with your child what can be done to change the situation he/she is in. Give them possibilities to choose or come up with a solution to the problem. Problem-solving questions helps in creating a probable desirable solution rather than reaching a dead end.
- Self-Regulation: The most important ingredient in an empathetic communication is self-regulation. Children mirror our emotions and if we know how to manage our emotional reactions, they will imbibe similar behaviour patterns. It is important to give ourselves the time and space to calm our emotions down before we communicate with them. In urgent situations, dont forget to breathe slow and steady, keeping your emotions in control.
For a healthy emotional development of our children, we must embrace all emotions and acknowledge their feelings. This would build a stronger self in your child.