Accept the Struggle that is Life

babiesLast month, I wrote about narcissism: how as parents, we have the mistaken idea that we need to focus on making our children happy.  By keeping them always at the center of our attention, we are raising potential narcissists.  Instead, if we focus on helping them build the following traits, we will raise children that develop healthy adult relationships, which in turn lead to the life satisfaction we seek for them.

Empathy

True empathy lies in the ability to step into another person’s shoes and treat them in a respectful and understanding manner that is unique to their circumstances. We can foster this skill in our children in several ways:

  1. Be an emphtic listener with your child and model empathy. Telling your child to be more empathic isn’t effective. Empathy is a difficult concept and children probably won’t even understand the word, but they can learn if we show them how. So the next time your child starts throwing a tantrum, don’t ignore him or start yelling. Instead, try to validate his feelings, and help him work through the emotions. This will not only help him calm down, but it will create a foundation of understanding and trust between you.
  2. Help your child find the words to label the emotion he is experiencing. As author and psychiatrist, Dr. Dan Siegel, has described, “Name it to tame it”. When we can identify an emotion by name, it soothes the nervous system and engages the brain’s center for logic and learning.
  3. Allow your children time to play freely with their peers. In play, children learn how to manage fear and anger.  They have a chance to make their own decisions and solve their own problems, without the fear of being judged.  Tantrums might work with parents, but they never work with playmates.

Responsibility

You can’t teach responsibility—you give it to your child and let him learn to handle it.  Learning through experience is the primary way children (and adults) learn.  There are many things we as parents can do to provide or allow those experiences for our children.

You can start by being conscious of what you are doing for your child that he might be able to do for himself, and then give him the opportunity to do what he’s capable of, even if it’s not up to your standards.

Try this:

First train your child in a task.  Once she has shown she is capable, then we let go and show confidence in her ability to handle it.  When she slips up and makes a mistake, consider it a learning opportunity.  Let’s say your daughter is capable of setting her alarm and getting up in time for school.  When she forgets, you resist the urge to wake her because then you are back in charge.  If she turns off the alarm and is late, you can empathize (we’ve all done that), but show confidence that she will remember the next time.  No rescuing.  This is called using logical or natural consequences…no punishment, no rescuing.  It’s simply what happens to all of us. You want your child to feel that no one is more invested in this problem than she is.

Persistence

Most achievements don’t spring from innate talent, but from hard work and passion, says Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers”.  The problem is that we often value the outcome and not the effort.

We need to focus on practice, effort, and improvement rather than results, especially when children are reaching beyond their comfort zones: when they’re trying a new sport, taking a difficult class, or tackling a challenging puzzle.  We can help them to focus on their own accomplishments, not in proportion to the number of people who might have done better.  No one can expect to be good at something the first time, or even the first fifty times!  Practice isn’t necessarily pleasurable, but the satisfaction that comes from mastery is much more enduring than the temporary pleasure of victory.

Courage

Courage is at the root of the word “encouragement”.    When we encourage our children, we instill courage.

Encouragement means noticing the effort someone puts into a task.  It is focusing on the progress, concentration, initiative and strategies, not the end result.  It requires our attention.  When we give someone encouragement, the other person feels seen, acknowledged and significant.  This builds their internal strength and resilience.

Courage may be the most important characteristic for our future adults.  It is at the heart of everything we do that moves us forward in a world full of challenges and opportunities.

Tory Joseph is a psychotherapist who specializes in parenting and relationship issues.  She runs a group in Chevy Chase for Moms struggling to find a balance in their lives.  Tory is married and has three 20-something children. She is a Relationship Therapist with the Imago Center of DC, and a Parent Educator with the Parent Encouragement Program.

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