This Tips for Parents article is from a Young Scholar seminar hosted by Patricia Gatto-Walden, in which she discusses how you can strive to establish the foundations of health and well-being in your family.
Author: Gatto-Walden, P.
Organization: Davidson Institute for Talent Development
How can you strive to establish the foundations of health and wellbeing in your family? First and foremost, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of your children knowing and feeling your love and dedication to them. Your love, your caring, your focus and attention—these qualities provide the underpinning from which your children will grow. Your love is fertile soil. It provides security and stability in their lives, and therefore nurtures their Self, to bud and eventually blossom. What is most essential for your children’s health and wellbeing is to be loved and respected by you, and to feel a sense of peaceful belonging in your family.
Since to feel loved is our greatest need throughout life, establish health and wellbeing in your families by focusing on how loving each family member is to one another. How do you talk with one another? Do siblings put one another down or make fun of each other? If so (think this all through before acting), stop that behavior right now. Make sure none of you—including you with your spouse—are saying negative/shaming/or put down things to one another. Is it safe for each family member to be genuinely who they are? Do you allow for individual differences and delight in the uniqueness you each bring to your home? Do you show respect for one another—in words and actions? Do you feel accepted exactly as you are? The world is full of expectations and we live with the need to please others our whole lives— in parent/child relationships, marriage, work, school, sports, performance, etc. It is fine to encourage your children to “do their best”, to try hard, and to be earnest and steadfast. Just make sure that your recognition and appreciation of them is not only a response to accomplishments. Instead, stand in awe of the miracle your child is. Accept the complete package of their personality, temperament and body, as well as their unique perspectives, beliefs, feelings and thoughts. Let them know you delight in who they are during ordinary moments of everyday life.
In addition to creating a home where it is safe to be genuine, where one feels respected and accepted, it is vital for you as a parent to work on your empathy skills in order to truly understand your child. Let me define empathy for you: it basically means “walks a mile in my shoes”. Namely, take off your “shoes”—your thoughts, beliefs, interpretations, values—and put on my shoes. It means attempting with everything in your power (your mind, heart, body and intuitive self) to listen, without judgment, as a loving observer, to what your child is saying. I encourage you to learn to close your mouth, and open instead your mind, eyes, ears and hearts. Then you can listen. You can’t listen and talk at the same time. So, first, close your mouth, and then listen with full attention to your child, or anyone you truly love. For any loving relationship to be a safe haven in which to grow these core conditions must exist: respect, genuineness, acceptance and empathy (Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person).
Thus far we have focused on what creates a family life of security and well-being. Now let’s turn to attaining balance within oneself. Attaining balance within one self means recognizing, valuing and living out of your intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual (which includes ethics and morals) and social self. This assumes more than just intellectual understanding that you have these five parts, but instead you recognize each aspect as an interdependent component of you on a daily basis. When you faction off who you are and either ignore, don’t value, or don’t “exercise” all five domains, it is hard for you to function with vigor and stamina over time. If I could put flashing neon lights on this page to highlight the significance and implications for us to accept that our five domains operate as one, believe me I would. Integrating this truth is life changing. When the five domains work together—each one with the other—they provide a perfect “GPS” system within us.
Following are some practical ideas for creating and maintaining a loving, balanced relationship with children, based on the questions and issues raised by parents in the online discussion.
- Of course children need defined limits, family rules and set expectations on how things are done, as well as dependable family rituals each day, so they can operate easily and successfully within the family. Family structure provides stability and security, and is advantageous when coupled with an abundance of core foundations—unconditional acceptance and love.
- By nature, with our perceptive and precise minds, we tend to be quite judgmental, thinking that we know how something ought to be. Whenever we think in terms of ought and should—regarding ourselves, others, events or level of productivity—we carry the companion emotion guilt, ready to pounce on us when we do not live up to what we ought to do or be. This can apply to very small things and very large things in our lives, of a very short duration or over many years. Often we have an image we wish to fulfill or create, and if we don’t, we can be quite harsh and upset with ourselves.
- Of course everyone makes mistakes. We all have experiences we wished we had handled differently. And, we all know there is no magic eraser to undo the imprint a situation or circumstance has had on those we love. However, given that we do at times make faulty choices, one of the most difficult things we need to learn in life is how to forgive ourselves and move on. We need to learn how to go beyond pondering “what if” and ruminating about what we did or didn’t do, and move into awareness of the good that we have within us, and act in the next moment from that healthy place. That is a tall order, and yet, it is completely possible. We can be so damning, so dooming and so unforgiving of ourselves for our choices. One of the most difficult things we need to learn in life is how to let go and move on. This never-ending process of letting go is much easier to accomplish when we are balanced, and thereby living out of all five domains.
- Please, regardless of how intellectually old your child is—make some choices for your children. They need YOU to be the parent—which means using adult discernment in making decisions (remember—use all five domains in making your decisions and they will become so much easier and clearer). If you let go of one activity you can always pick it up again at another time. For extremely bright people, interests wax and wane. For some of us, when we get “filled up” pursuing one interest, then we get bored and we want a change. Okay, so change. For others, they simply can’t get enough of one passion—okay, so stay with that one thing, and slightly dabble in other things at times. Please, let’s stop feeling that our choices are prisons we make for ourselves.
- Your children mirror your mood and affect, as well as the energy you exude. Notice how when you are stressed out and anxious your child’s energy takes on an edge and they become more agitated. When you are calm and easy, they relax and flow. This mirror effect is amplified if your children are emotionally sensitive; they may be like sponges to your energy. They reflect most strongly the primary parent at home, the parent “in charge” of the family’s coming and going. Whoever is the hub of the family wheel, center stage in the family organization, so to speak, is also the primary family mood maker. Test it out. When you are cranky or irritable, notice how your kids are acting and reacting. Take a break: go into the other room, take a few deep breaths, and consciously release your stress by breathing it out and away from you. Do not go back into the room until you have relaxed your shoulders and your thoughts and your breathing is calm. Go back into the room with your kids and notice how quickly they relax. For highly emotional children, your energy field is related to their well being. That might feel like bad news, but it is also good news. As you learn to relax and release and rejuvenate, you will have a very positive effect on your children.
So, recognize that you, as an adult in your family, not only model behavior, you also create a “set point” climate in your family atmosphere. Hence, take care of yourself first! Remember what they tell you when you are flying in an airplane—put your mask on first, and then help another. The message is the same—if you do not have oxygen (if you are not okay), then you will not be able to help another be okay. It is not selfish to take care of yourself; it is essential for you and for your children.
- Additionally, because your children are wise and observant, and some are like “sponges”, don’t think you can fool them. They have incredible radar systems that can zero into you—with or without you saying a word. Now, even though it is true that they can register an ill-at-ease sentiment within you, this does not mean you need to share with your children what is going on within you. Remember, your child is 5, or 8, or 10, or 15 years old, etc. This is their childhood, even though they talk as if they are 5 or so years older than their physical age. Just the same, they are still their physical age, and a different age emotionally and spiritually age as well. They are a composite of different ages in one package.
Let them be children, dealing with the issues in their life. As an adult, find another adult to support and comfort you through the trials of life. Please do not make your child your confidante, even though they may ask you what is wrong. You can give a general answer, such as, “I am thinking about some decisions I will be making”, or “I am thinking about work and organizing in my mind how I can comfortably get things done”. In essence, you can respond with a general line without dumping the nuts and bolts out on the table. Let them be young. Let them not deal with all you have on your plate.
- Competing personalities within a family are difficult. Whoever talks more, is louder and is more active, tends to get most of the attention. Make sure the quieter child is getting quieter attention too. Send an outgoing child into another room, or better yet, with other people. Someone who is an extrovert thrives with other people and noise all around—even when studying. Activity juices their batteries. Someone who is an introvert is drained in the same atmosphere; instead they need solitude and quiet to rejuvenate. Someone who is naturally competitive will see life through those eyes. That is fine, as long as they can learn that not everyone sees the world this way.
- To those whose child wants to be in sports but you think she might be better served to focus on her studies. Celebrate with her the courage she has to stretch out and risk not being good at something and doing it anyway! This will serve her throughout the rest of her life! Otherwise, we get caught up in fear, only being willing to do what is easy for us to do—regardless of how intellectually challenging it is—and we don’t dare embark on the magnitude of life that is out there waiting for us. I applaud this child. And I am proud that she is also venturing into what is important for her, not just what is important to you for her.
- It isn’t always easy to realize that everyone is different from one another. We so often assume that others like what we like, or want what we want, etc., because that is all we really know. It takes quite a while to realize and accept that others have different wants and desires. Allowing this to be true, without being threatened by differences is a challenge.
For example, one of your children may have a much larger threshold than another. One might thrive with four activities while another is overloaded with three. There is no set magical number. Listen with your eyes, ears, hearts and body—and your intuitive knowing center as well. How is your child responding to the activities? Is she thriving with joy, more energy, enthusiasm, or is she withering away? Please, do not fill up every day after school activities. It is too much for anyone, no matter what age! We need to sit and do nothing, or do whatever we wish to do in idle time. What about instilling a “family vacation” each week for half a day—no pressures, no chores and no expectations. We must learn to relax, release and rejuvenate.
- Some differences in gifted people can take the form of overexcitabilities or intensities. It is vital that you thoroughly understand and accept your overexcitabilities and your children’s overexcitabilities. (See Piechowski’s book, Mellow Out, they say, If I Only Could.) It is crucial with OE’s/intensities that we embrace them, accept them, learn to live with them and create a “goodness of fit” for them in our lives.
One of the greatest gifts I offer clients is my deep appreciation and delight in their intensities. These are the parts of us that we have been told over and over are “too much”. Think of all the ways you have been told you are too much: you are too sensitive; you cry too much; you think too much; you question too much; you talk too much; you move around too much; you are too much of a picky eater; you read too much; you daydream too much; the list goes on and on. When we are told we are too much we do not feel this as a compliment. Instead, we feel, “what is wrong with me”? And we begin to feel badly about all of our “too muches”. I call these our “terrible too’s”! We end up trying to hide them or wishing them away, when in truth our intensities are what make each of us unique.
We must learn to love and appreciate exactly who we are and our children are, with all of our intensities. Stop hoping these intensities will go away, stop fighting against them, and stop trying to correct them. Intensities do not go away; they can not be outgrown. It is time to stop making yourself crazy over your child’s differences from the average kid. Yes, they are different, and probably so are you—AMEN I SAY!
- Living in balance also refers to your relationship with the natural world that surrounds you. Being outside for 30 minutes a day is probably the easiest healing available for stress and anxiety. When you go outside, you experience an expansion to your senses. You automatically (when you focus on nature around you—which is the task at hand) expand your viewpoint from a tunnel vision to one with new sights, smells, sounds, colors, textures, etc. Your senses come alive. Nature is always available, and when you open to what surrounds you, it can bring a sense of calm and order, and provide guidance and instruction in your life.
- In closing, I want to mention an activity that has worked miracles with my own children. At times I felt that I simply could not give enough to four children simultaneously. So I began having a date with each one, one each month in turn. Each child picked (within parameters) what we were going to do, and we had a date. Sometimes it was an evening or part of a Saturday or Sunday, but I always made sure it lasted about 3-4 hours. It shocked me how much they each looked forward to it. They would talk for weeks about whose turn was coming up and where they were going to go. I learned so much about each one of them during these times. It was so natural to talk intimately together when we were alone and out of the house away from everyone else. Each relationship deepened and I could offer such love without stress or pressures. It was wonderful and I recommend it.