One of the books I read when I was first pregnant was What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Full of informative tips about taking care of a baby during the first year, I kept the book by my side for each of my pregnancies. It was an invaluable resource of information for a new mom.
Photo by Courtney Kenadyon Unsplash
But the book couldn’t begin to prepare me on how to take care of my kids’ emotional health. My first child was born with a full head of fiery red hair and a temperament to match. She craved being swaddled and held, so much so that she only slept when she was being held.
“Let her cry it out” was the advice I heard. Had I known my precious little one was highly sensitive, I could have saved myself many sleepless nights, wracked with guilt over letting her scream. I caved and never regretted it. Crying it out didn’t help her — being held, swaddled, and loved did.
What were some things I wish I had been told?
What is mindfulness anyway? Think about life before your cell phone.
If you are watching your child play baseball—at that moment, that is what you are doing. Not checking your phone — not thinking about your to-do list — not planning dinner for the week — just watching your child play baseball. If you are having a conversation, you are listening and hearing what the other person is saying. Your mind is not on your to-do list.
This has become more of a challenge since smartphones became appendages of our hands. How can we listen to our kids (or anyone) if we’re looking at the latest feed, playing a game, or answering a text?
Children crave your attention. Speaking to them from an early age and genuinely listening teaches them that they are valued and are being heard.It gives them confidence that the adults who are their primary caretakers are truly listening to them.
With five kids, it’s easy for one of them to get lost. My husband and I try to devote time to each child individually. This is infinitely more important as they get older.
It’s okay to be sad or angry
We teach our kids to walk, run, and ride a bike. They learn geometry and algebra and how to read and write. But do we ever teach them about their feelings and that each and every one of them is normal?
Knowing your emotions — identifying what you are feeling and understanding the function of the emotion — is a gift. For example, sadness tells us we need comfort. Fear tells us we need protection. Guilt may mean something doesn’t feel right inside, and we need to ask for forgiveness or make amends.
If a child believes their emotions are not “normal,” they can keep them locked inside. These pent-up feelings can erupt without warning — and the child will take it out on themselves or others.
My daughter came home one day and started arguing with me. My instant reaction was to scold her for being disrespectful. Instead of reacting, I waited. After she had cooled off, I waited and asked if she was okay. It turns out she was embarrassed about something that had happened at school. By approaching it differently, I avoided an unnecessary fight and let her express the emotion she was truly feeling.
Your child has their own opinion
You and your child will have differing opinions. This will become evident around two (when you don’t want them to wear a red tutu for two weeks) and at a greater scale when they are teenagers.
Guess what? Your child is not a clone of you. They will have different thoughts and opinions.
What does respecting someone else’s opinion mean? It means you can be mad at someone AND still love them. You can agree to disagree. If it’s unreasonable or unhealthy, it needs to be addressed differently.
My eldest daughter and I have vastly different political views. And we can have conversations, speak our opinions, and move on to another conversation. We are able to disagree only because we both feel safe with one another.
Don’t solve their problems. Validate. Often
Validating someone is not merely agreeing with someone — it is empathizing. To empathize is to understand and share the feelings of another individual.
The opposite of validation is invalidation. Invalidation can be as damaging as validation is powerful. Invalidating is usually done with good intentions but can have long-term negative impacts. Continuous invalidation can lead to a person not trusting their own instincts.
Before I learned about validation, I was never taught to accept another person’s feelings or validate them. If my children came to me with their problems, I had a solution before they were even finished talking. But they weren’t looking for an answer.
In times of distress, we may attempt to “reassure” our children in an attempt to reduce their suffering. Attempts to make someone feel better with statements such as “Don’t be sad,” “It’ll be okay,” or “Get over it” can minimize the person’s suffering. While these seem like reasonable responses, they can be incredibly invalidating, as if you are telling the other person that their feelings don’t matter.
When my daughter was six, she came to me upset that she felt fat. If I had said, “that’s ridiculous,” she would have still been upset. She would have thought that her feelings were wrong, and this could have set up a situation where she did not trust her own thoughts. And I would’ve missed an opportunity to discover why she felt that way. So we talked — about what was going on and why she felt that way.
I have learned a lot about parenting five very different children. Most importantly, I have learned to appreciate them and their uniqueness every day and cherish our time together.
Parenting is not easy. Every child is different, and what works for one may not work for another. And while one size does not fit all, being present, listening with care, and validating are skills that every child will benefit from.