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Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child

Submitted by on September 10, 2012 – 12:06 amNo Comment

Author: Shari McEnery

We spend a great deal of time as new parents making sure that we are up to date on the latest medical wonders and vaccines. We make sure that our little ones are at every physical, ensuring that they are reaching their milestones every step of the way. If our child is sick, we don’t hesitate to call the doctor. There are medicines to help soothe the ache or pain, to help cure it or to even prevent it. Chances are your cabinet has at least two of the three in it right now. However, many parents don’t have any information at all about what to do with their child’s emotional health needs.

Parents need to allow their children to work through certain processes that are natural to one’s emotional growth. These are situations parents can’t or shouldn’t keep from happening to a child, but rather be there to help them process the situation and work through it. These things include when a child fights with his/her friends, being left out of a group, people being unfair, etc. These can be very difficult situations to deal with and to handle. It is through some of these tough situations we go through as young people that help to shape and build our character. Kids need the help of an adult to sort through their feelings and thoughts when situations get tough. If a parent is too self-absorbed (involved in a bad relationship, financial difficulties) during these critical times of need, a child is left on their own to navigate their way through the rough waters. It is through their immature and blurry navigation that a child’s emotional growth can become “stunted,” or to go along with our seaworthy example, “drown.”

How can we keep our kids afloat — not allowing them to get lost in life’s rough situations but to come out learning something and having stronger character and self-confidence? I believe there are five key areas that help promote stable emotional growth which leads to a healthy pathway for processing and handling life’s rough situations.

1.The first is to be in check with your child’s “love tank.” Is it full? Or is it empty? Are they running on fumes, hoping to coast through a situation without too many bumps in the road or any downhill runs where they may wind up speeding out of control? Do they have a full tank where it doesn’t matter how hard the bump — the shocks will absorb the impact or how steep the hill — the trip is under control? As parents we need to make sure we know exactly what helps our child to feel loved– not what makes us feel loved. As a counselor, I often have young children or even teenagers sit in my office and say, “I don’t think my mom” or “I don’t think my dad loves me — really loves me.” Upon discussing such a statement with the parents, I usually get answers like, “How can Sarah think that — do you know all that she has? We buy her everything. We take her everywhere and let me tell you about her birthday parties.” Funny thing is — when I mention those things to “Sarah,” I’m told she couldn’t care less about those things. Sure they are nice, but at the end of the day, the cool cell phone doesn’t ask her how she’s doing or spend any real quality time with her. Sarah’s love tank was almost on empty and she was having a really difficult time handling some of life’s situations that were coming her way in jr. high. Mom and Dad — find out how your child feels love. Chances are it is not the same way you do, so you may have to step out of your comfort zone to communicate with them.

2.The second area is to develop clearly defined boundaries in the family. Children need to be aware of their role in the family and what the parents’ role is. Expectations need to be clearly stated and communicated as well as rewards and consequences. A child needs to know their place in their family without having surprises around every corner when the rules suddenly change. A child may say they hate rules (which I like to call boundaries) and they wish they could live with a family where there aren’t any. That child may feel that way, for the moment, because there is probably something they are wanting to do, or something they are wanting to watch on tv, or some place they are wanting to go that their mom and dad has told them no. Truth is, boundaries, or rules, communicate love. They tell a child, “I love you enough to think about what is good for you and what isn’t.” The child who has boundaries may not be able to see it until they are older. The child who grows up without boundaries, or rules, sees it immediately. I have counseled many teenagers who, through tear-filled eyes, have said they just wanted mom or dad to lay down a rule or put up a boundary and say no for once. They constantly tested to see if anyone noticed or if anyone cared. The fact that their mom and dad let them do whatever, whenever, communicated to them that they were not worth protecting or that they were not truly loved. Many of these parents thought they were being “cool” and “a friend to their kid.” First of all, your kids will have enough friends — what they need is a parent, so be one. Second of all, it is sad that the one thing these parents thought they were communicating actually worked against them, leaving their child feeling like they weren’t worth their parents’ time.

3.The third area is once you have clearly defined boundaries in your home, consistently reinforce them. Those of us who work like to know exactly what our bosses expect from us and how they want things done. We wouldn’t want to operate on those notions at our job only to have our boss walk in and tell us we did it all wrong and question what is wrong with us because the company decided to change the rules overnight and didn’t send us the memo. We would probably feel a lot of emotions, one of them being anger and the other one being frustration. The same feelings can be felt by children in a home where the rules or boundaries are not consistent. Children don’t like it either and they deserve to be told what is going on as well. If we have defined boundaries in the home, we need to be consistent with them so that our children know exactly what to expect, how to act, what brings a consequence their way, and what brings a reward. If we are changing these defining lines based on our mood as the parent or how awful our day was, that is not fair to our children. Having clearly defined boundaries that are consistently enforced spells fairness to your children. It provides stability for them. As they grow, life will at times seem so turbulent for them or bumpy– knowing what to expect at home adds a sense of security to their lives. I told you that boundaries communicate “I love you enough to think about what is good for you and what isn’t.” The truth is, boundaries not only communicate that, but boundaries that are consistently enforced communicate “I also love you enough to take the time to enforce these boundaries with you and make sure you are protected.”

4.The fourth area is allowing children to experience different emotions without telling them how they should or should not feel. Many parents ask their children when they see them after school has let out, “how was your day?” The child begins to open up and describes a scenario that happened that has certain emotions or feelings that accompany it. The parent jumps right in telling the child how they should feel or maybe even telling them that they were wrong to feel the way they did. The child immediately identifies in their mind that this is not a safe person to communicate with — this person will judge me or condemn me. As a result, the scenario has been set up for a future of telling the parent that “nothing happened today — just school stuff” and the majorly important things are left out. The parent loses out on really getting to know their child and being welcomed into “their world.” We want our children to be safe — we have alarms on our houses and we make sure that our doors are locked at night. We need to pay attention to their emotional safety as well. If you want your teenager to tell you things, then set the stage when that teenager is little and looking for whom he/she can trust. Watch your language with them, and I am not necessarily talking about using profanity (although that should not be used either). Make sure you are listening and offering advice only if asked. Don’t make judgment statements either– don’t put them down for handling a situation a certain way or for experiencing a certain feeling. Letting a child work these things out while you provide stability by being there for them is very important.

5.This brings us to our fifth area. As the parents, we need to be watching the example of emotional health that we are leading. What messages are we sending about how to relate to others and situations we are going through? Our kids are always watching us. They imitate us. Our emotional stability is not a definite predictor of theirs, but there is a strong correlation between the two. If we were physically sick with a cold or something we would not want our kids to have, we would take necessary steps to protect them starting with getting ourselves well. If we want to make sure that some of our bad experiences or life worries do not taint our child’s world, then we need to make sure that we break the cycle. I have many young ones who sit in my office talking about their anger, depression, feelings of inadequacy, and lack of self confidence; and then I meet mom who talks about her childhood, and all of a sudden I feel like de ja vu. Their stories sound so similar. Sometimes, mom even describes grandma as being the same way. Nobody stopped the cycle. There wasn’t a good picture in the home of emotional health. The child began to own and exhibit the same features as his/her parents. Stop the cycle parents. Pay attention to your own emotional health. This is not to take away from heredity and people having emotional instability that may be resulting in some chemical imbalances. However, if you as the parent has this as well, get help. Be a good example to your child of someone taking care of themselves — wanting to live the best life possible.

Do these five areas promise to make a wonder child — a child who never has any issues or problems? Absolutely not. If you do keep these areas in check in your home, you will find that your child is better prepared to weather the storms of life they will face–having all of their stabilizers in check. You will be keeping their emotional health up front with their physical health as being important. You are helping to prepare them for success — not emotional disaster. If the storms get really rough and you feel the path is getting too dangerous, do what you would do if they were physically sick — seek professional help. Do that at the first signs of danger — not waiting until it is too late.

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About the Author

Shari McEnery, MS, is a therapist who provides therapy & counseling in Tarpon Springs. Shari is available for consultation and can be reached here: Good Therapy and here: Therapist Lakewood

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