The following post is a contribution by an anonymous guest writer.
If you’ve been around long enough, you’re sure to know of at least one tragic story of lost potential. For me, it’s one of my close childhood friends. Today, he’s been in and out of shelters, and on and off substances. It’s always a tragedy to see someone you once knew fall into these destructive patterns, but his story is especially heartbreaking to me, because I know all that he could have been and done. He placed at the national spelling bee when he was in 4th grade. He far exceeded his peers and classmates in virtually every subject. He was highly philosophical and spiritual even at a young age. And more importantly, he was tender hearted and kind. Perhaps he was too tender-hearted for his situation. I didn’t realize as a child that he and his brothers spent so much time at our house because their situation was so difficult at home. I didn’t realize that my parents were offering a place of refuge for them. To me and my siblings, they were just our best friends. This friend was wildly successful at everything he did. He was medicating his pain with achievement, I realize now. Sometime around his sophomore year of high school, he switched from medicating with achievement, to numbing the pain with substance abuse.
I tell this story to show that no matter how much talent, intelligence, and education a child has, emotional health is still going to be the most important factor in determining their success and happiness in life. I sometimes wonder if my friend had been able to heal emotionally, if he would have been able to navigate the pain that marked his life. Even if he had continued on the path of medicating with achievement, would he ever really have been happy? He would have appeared successful on the outside, but would he have had any inner peace?
Although my own children are not suffering a situation like that of my childhood friend, I am now keenly aware of the need for emotional health education in the way I bring up my children. As devoted of a mother as I am, I know that I subconsciously bring my own pain and emotional issues into my parenting. My kids are privileged to have two parents in the home who love each other and love them. A stable and loving family environment is a privilege many children never get to have. However, I know that I can be intentional in doing more to give my children the benefit of knowing how to navigate their emotions, how to heal when pain does come into their lives, and how to have healthy relationships with others.
I personally believe that emotional health is the primary factor in setting up any child for success in life. Any parent can implement emotional health in their parenting style. Here are a few practices that I try to practice in my home. I don’t do this perfectly, by any means, but I am growing. As I grow in emotional health, I can help my children to grow as well. I can teach them as I’m learning.
Practice Self Care
The old saying, “more is caught than taught” couldn’t be more true when it comes to emotional health. We can tell our children how special they are and how they are unique and wonderful and intelligent and talented. We can tell them these things until we are blue in the face, but if we have a low self image ourselves, our children are more likely to have a low self image no matter how much we try to build them up. They watch the way we treat ourselves, and that is the way they will treat themselves as they grow. This is why it’s so important, especially as a mom, to make time for yourself, to value yourself, and to take care of yourself. Your children will watch the way you treat yourself, and they will follow suit. If you curse yourself under your breath, say negative things about yourself, and let people walk all over you, your kids are likely to behave in the same manner no matter how often you build them up with your words. One of the best things you can do for your children is to treat yourself well, take care of yourself, and build yourself up. Forgive yourself quickly and easily when you make mistakes. Be compassionate to yourself. Speak kindly to yourself in your thoughts. Your children will see this, and they will soak this up and learn, almost subconsciously, to treat themselves well.
Teach Boundaries Early and Often
Dr. Henry Cloud has published a number of books about appropriate boundaries. One is specifically geared toward boundaries with kids. If you have no idea where to start when it comes to emotionally healthy parenting, I would highly recommend starting with this book. It is so important to teach our children how to respect other people’s boundaries and how to set their own boundaries. So many arguments between siblings can be solved by teaching boundaries. Boundaries for self and others includes the ability to allow another person to see the world differently from you, and to allow yourself the freedom to see the world differently from another. Young children may not understand this definition, but they can begin to understand it as it plays out in various circumstances. I remember teaching this concept through an incident. My son had just finished a painting that he had worked hard on. He held it up and asked his sister, “Do you like this?” and She looked at it for a while and said, “not really”. He, of course, burst into tears. And while my daughter certainly could be taught some tact, I saw this incident as an opportunity to teach some emotional boundaries. Namely, that one’s emotions should not be dependent on any other person’s opinion. I talked calmly to my son and asked, “Do you like your painting?” He nodded. “Then that’s the most important thing,” I continued. “People have different opinions. Not everyone likes the same kind of painting. Sometimes you will do things or make things and some people will like it and some won’t. But the most important thing is if you like it.” This gave my son emotional freedom from his sister. I was teaching him that he didn’t need her approval in order to feel good about what he had made. He only needed his own approval. And that, he had control over. Boundaries are empowering to kids because once they get the concept, they are free from needing the approval of others to feel good about themselves. They have control over their emotions because their emotions are not dependent on another person’s actions or opinion. This gives them a sense of wholeness apart from anyone else. Teaching emotional boundaries in this way also sets your children up for healthy relationships in their future.
Recognize and Break Negative Cycles
I know that I am a loving mom and a good mom. But that doesn’t mean that I’m a perfect mom. Recognizing and breaking patterns and family cycles is important for promoting emotional health in your children. So often, parents subconsciously perpetuate patterns of behavior they inherited from their parents. Working with a counselor to create a family genogram can help parents recognize and break harmful habits. And every family has them. Looking at a genogram can help you to identify patterns of co-dependency, control, anxiety, low self image, and addictions of all varieties. Addictions are not only related to substances. People can suffer from approval addiction, achievement addiction, among other emotional addictions. Identifying patterns of these in your own family of origin can help you to break those patterns to perpetuate emotional health in your children.
Augsburger, David W. Caring Enough to Hear and Be Heard. Regal Books, 1983.
Cloud, Henry, and John Townsend. Boundaries With Kids: an 8-Sessions Focus on How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Kids. Zondervan, 2008.
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