“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.”
I heard this quote for the first time, early on in my “peaceful” parenting journey, when my older son was just starting to adjust to sharing his parents with his newly-minted baby brother. At that time, I devoured the articles on www.handinhandparenting.org and www.ahaparenting.com, blazed through books to help me communicate better with my older son, to help him see the positive side of things. I wanted him to not dwell on the negative, but to develop the habit of seeing the good in himself and in his surroundings.
As I thought about the topic of helping children to rewire their brains, I realized that so much lies in my relationship with him. My connection, my bond with my child was the all-important ingredient in determining whether his behavior was being well managed, whether his emotions were being expressed in a healthy way, and if he was seeing himself as a positive, competent, worthy member of our little family.
Stresses are different now, half a decade later. Academic expectations have increased, social engagement is more complex, and free time for play and exploration has dwindled. Yet, the words are no less true, nor any less impactful. The more contact our children have with the outside world, the stronger our influence needs to be. The strength that reaches them isn’t the type designed to toughen them up, and harden their hearts. It is our parental warmth, compassion and affection that has the greater long term impact. It is our ability to see the world through their eyes, and to listen with open hearts and minds.
This is no easy task. Because we are typically over-scheduled, overstressed and, most of all, human, our daily interactions with our children can and do happen without thought or intention:
“Brush your teeth!”
“Clean your room!”
“Why did you hit your brother?!”
The staccato sound of directives and questions that fly out of my mouth, along with a dour tone and energy, towards my most beloved of humans, often sound like something akin to army barracks. This isn’t the way I imagined myself being, when I first became a mom. As I held my sweet baby boy close, in awe of his presence, and already madly, crazily in love, I couldn’t imagine a stern word ever leaving my lips to land with a thud on his heart. Yet, it’s happened countless, countless times.
As a therapist, having worked with children and teens for a decade and a half, I know that the impact of my harsh words isn’t what I’m going for. At all. Not even just a teensy bit. But, now, as a single mom, juggling parenting and work, the overwhelming fact that things need to get done too often takes precedence over gentle, loving, soul-building communication. I know I’m not alone. This seems to be a common theme among the parents whom I encounter through work and in my own community.
Additionally, children who are struggling academically and/or socially at school, have additional challenges that obstruct their access to a positive self esteem and their sense of competence. For example, for those who are on Individual Education Plans, being pulled out of class, or having an aide, can highlight painful differences in ability, even when the Plans are needed to support learning.
How, then, do we help our children maintain that positive self-image, look for the good in themselves? How can we help them maintain a healthy connection with us while we may sometimes stumble in our communication with them? How do we wrap them in love at the end of the day, so that they can see and feel just how treasured they are, both through our eyes, and through their own? And how do we model for them that mistakes and poor choices, as well as efforts that fall short of the goal, can be met with grace and compassion, rather than harsh self-criticism and harmful self talk?
Here are a few ideas that I try to implement in my own home:
1) Ask your child to share a favorite part of their day. At home, we explore what was special about it, why it was important to them. This can help them focus on identifying one aspect of their day that rose above daily challenges and made them feel good.
2) Ask them to list three things they are thankful for, and prompt them to specify at least one of those things that they brought into being, e.g. getting homework done the first time she was asked; showing restraint instead of aggression when little brother knocked over his Lego tower; helping a friend at school.
We make many, many decisions in any single day, as do our children. Many, even most, of these decisions have a neutral or positive outcome. However, adults, and kids alike, especially those with a perfectionist streak, or those experiencing depression or anxiety, will tend to focus on that small percentage of choices that did not end well, and will base their self worth on this highly inaccurate evaluation.
In many ways, depression is a saboteur, minimizing success and positives, enlarging problems or mistakes. By taking this step to identify one of the (many) positive decisions made, we are rewiring their brains to look for the good in themselves, and we can certainly apply this for ourselves too.
3) Share with your child what you are thankful for, and specify what it is about them that makes you feel lucky to be their parent.
4) Share a mistake you made, or a challenge with which you were faced, and how it became a learning opportunity. Share how you felt at first, and how you talked yourself through the mistake or challenge in order to resolve it, and how that work helped you feel good about yourself.
5) Engage your child in a game of “Would you rather….?” e.g. would you rather live in a palace under the sea, or a castle in the clouds? Ask them to share what made them pick one choice over another. This lighthearted game invites imagination and creativity as we take turns to choose the options from which the others will make a selection. It can also allow for gentle attention to an issue that a child struggles with, if presented in playful way, e.g. Would you rather go to school in your pajamas and with shoes on your feet, or with regular clothes but wearing your shoes on your ears? Overall, knowing their opinion and reasoning are valued is a sure-fire way for them to feel positively about themselves.
6) Ask your child to create some art, maybe a family portrait, for your workstation or office. This can help them feel deeply connected, as it assures them that, even when you are apart, they remain firmly in your heart-space (and office space). I tell my boys that, when I’m thinking of them, it’s so good to have their art to look at. This could be a recurring activity, if you like to refresh your work environment with updated art from your artist-in-residence.
7) Ask, “What makes you feel most loved by me?” This, again, allows voices and opinions to be heard, which is very empowering. I find that I benefit immensely too, as my sons can give me clear, concrete instructions on how best to love them. Of course, doing that thing they ask for, within reason, really seals the deal!
8) Try to offer, as often and as best as you possibly can, gentleness and compassion in the face of heightened emotions and off-track behavior. I try to listen to the feelings behind the actions and hear them all the way through, whether expressed through tears or tantrums, limiting only aggressive actions. This helps children build their emotional intelligence, and understand that, while they may experience difficult emotions [and need to move through them, ] they are still deeply loved. Plus, it shows them their most overwhelming emotional moments do not have to be handled alone, but they are trusted to process and get through these feelings in their own healthful way.
By nurturing myself, I can offer the same to my kids
In order to do these activities on a regular basis, to help my sons wire and re-wire their brains to look for the good in themselves, I need to be in a healthy, calm frame of mind. This means self-care becomes all the more important. By nurturing myself, offering myself grace and compassion through the bumps and bruises of parenting, I can offer the same to my kids. Then, helping them see the good in themselves becomes a much more natural act, because I am already doing that for myself. I don’t know who said, “You can’t fill from an empty cup,” but boy, did they have that right!
For more on the amazing tool I use at home called Staylistening:
“Staylistening employs the insight that crying, tantrums, and vigorous, stormy protest are the instinctive ways that our children offload emotional tension and heal from feelings of hurt. Staylistening helps to melt feelings of helplessness, frustration, fear, and many other kinds of upset. Over several decades, I’ve seen that when a parent or caregiver can be a warm emotional anchor as their child dives deep into feelings, the child emerges feeling close to their parent or caregiver, and relieved of his concerns.”~ Patty Wipler, founder Hand in Hand Parenting
Contributing Writer Vinay Gaglani is a Pacific Northwesterner of Indian descent, an aspiring-to-be-peaceful parent to two amazing boys, and a Licensed Professional Counselor by trade. She is a lover of hiking and tea!