I’m a Middle School school counselor and mom of three. Experiencing the highs and lows of life with all of these young people means that my days are full of lots of love, laughs and tears. But it often surprises people to hear that I see the struggles that so many pre-teens face to be issues we can trace back early childhood. As a mom and counselor, I’ve learned that the example we set for young kids when it comes to self-care, team work, dealing with difficult emotions and building resilience profoundly impacts how older children are able to deal with challenges.
We all want to raise children into happy, healthy adults. Here are some ways you can start right now to lay the foundation for your little ones to grow into thriving teens and happily independent adults:
1. Know that self care starts with you!
Self-care is important because those who know how to care for themselves learn how to use those skills to maintain appropriate relationships with others in the future, like middle school, and adulthood. A toddler that learns compassion for him/herself will be able to have compassion for others in the future and will be more likely to have appropriate social skills. Also, children watch everything you do, so it’s important that you practice great self-care, too! Show them you make mistakes and forgive yourself and others. Show them you speak kindly of yourself. Don’t critique your body in the mirror, those gray hairs that have popped up, or the bags under your eyes from lack of sleep, in front of them.
Another great self-care skill to begin teaching your toddler is how to ask for help. Teaching this skill to my children changed our lives! Having children that asked for help instead of having tantrums or acting out is powerful. Being able to express a need at a young age is powerful. “You’re having a tough time with your shoe, mommy will help, help is good!” You’re having a tough time getting onto the couch, would you like Mommy to help?” Model this by asking your toddler for help too. “Mommy has too many books and needs help, can you carry one please? You’re such a great helper!” Keep it simple and remember that toddlers like their independence, too. Don’t engage in power struggles while teaching this skill. I know, easier said than done!
2. Model team work at home
Children that can identify as a member of a larger group begin to realize that connections to other people matter; they know that they impact others and others impact them. This skills branches off into so many other directions as children grow.
For this reason I began to refer to my family as the “A-Team” (A. for our last name and all our girls names begin with A, too), and for years now we have had age-appropriate “family meetings.” From the time they were very young until present if I felt they were not being kind to one another or things were getting out of hand, I would say “FAMILY MEETING!” In our home this means the girls come over to where I am, sit down with me, and we hold hands while I touch base about what I’m seeing. For example, “Mommy is noticing that our team is arguing over toys. How can we solve this using our words and keeping it quiet in here? Mommy’s ears almost just fell off with all that noise!” They giggle and check to see if my ears are still there. In a few minutes or less they share their ideas on how to solve the issue and I agree or give my suggestion and I say “I love our little A-Team! We’re problem solvers!” This is not a lecture. I use very few words and I try to always use humor. They remember it. If (okay, when) it gets out of hand again, I say something about my ears falling off and they laugh and bring it down again.
3. Practice guiding raw emotions into words:
Another common issue I see every day at the middle school level are adolescents that aren’t able to articulate what they’re feeling. This is so difficult to manage for them and can begin a pattern of deep frustration, aggression, and even depression. This is not ideal for the still-developing brain. As the parent of a toddler, your job is to learn your toddler’s language and be an excellent interpreter. Toddlers can make some pretty harsh or angry statements. Never take these statements personally or become overly emotional when this occurs. You are the interpreter. Help them use different words to express the feeling. Keep it simple and age-appropriate.
4. Never encourage a child to “IGNORE” anything:
Children that are told to ignore the many stimuli that may impact them often struggle with how to address very serious matters later in life.
Instead teach your children how to identify how they feel about the issue and what words to use to address it. I’d love to erase the word, ignore, from the vocabulary of all parents and adults! It’s so counterproductive that it’s almost damaging. I get very passionate about this topic because I see how this good-intended, but bad advice has negatively impacted adolescents each day in middle school. How exactly does one ignore someone calling them disgusting names? Or ignore the repeated request for inappropriate photos? How can a young person ignore someone being aggressive or touchy-feely with them? I will typically probe to see if the student has discussed the matter with their parent by asking, “What did your parent say when you spoke with them about this?” When I hear “My parents said I should ignore it/them,” I know it’s time for a new approach.
5. Teach children that it’s okay it feel discomfort…in fact, discomfort is one of the most important teachers in life.
Some of life’s most important lessons come from really difficult moments. Think back to when you were a child and faced difficult times. Mostly we remember how they made us feel. If we solved that problem we felt proud, maybe empowered, and even confident. We were problem solvers! If we tried and still needed help maybe we asked an adult and then solved the problem- feeling supported and encouraged by our “team”. We learned to persevere! But what if your “team” believed you couldn’t do it so they solved your problems before you asked and protected you from the discomfort of being disappointed or feeling frustrated, how would you ever LEARN? How would you ever realize you can do anything you put your mind to? Can you see the difference in the two approaches? Saying things like “You got this!”, “Keep trying”, and “Look at you working hard!”, you’re communicating that you believe in your child. Another impact of this approach is that your child will do this with others. That feeling of empowerment and compassion will be shared with others experiencing discomfort. Natural consequences can be uncomfortable. Try to let your children work through them with as little action from you as possible.