A mom asked me on Facebook the other day for recommendations on how to foster a positive self-concept for her kids. I thought it was such a great question that I’m sharing my answer here. I ended up with a long list, but the good thing about that is that you will probably find some strategies that you are already doing, some that surprise you, and some that you’ll be excited to try. So, in no particular order, here are 10 things parents can do to help their children to develop (or strengthen) a positive self-concept.
- The first place that children begin to form their self-concept is within the parent-child relationship. Within that relationship, we teach children that they matter: their needs, opinions, experiences, feelings, and preferences are an important part of the family culture and decision-making. Children aren’t the only voice in the family, but they need to know that they do have a voice.
- Let them have experiences that include: working really hard, succeeding, and failing. All three things are a normal part of a healthy adult life, and for children to feel good about themselves, they need age-appropriate experiences of these things, too.
- Feel good about yourself, and let your words reflect this. When you speak about your actions, your habits, your body, your brain, your hair, your clothes, your life—try to speak to and from your best self. Of course, no one is perfect, which leads to:
- Acknowledge that you are not perfect. We are ALL learning and growing, and we are healthiest when we can acknowledge and learn from our mistakes, and practice self-compassion. (Self-compassion is critical to health, as mistakes are inevitable and frequent, in both childhood and adulthood.)
- Be careful how you word your judgments of others, especially your children. Try to criticize actions, not the people who take those actions. In other words, come from the perspective that for the most part, people do the best they can with what they have. Having compassion for others makes it easier to have compassion for oneself.
- Give your children power and control over age-appropriate decisions. Let them flex their muscles both literally and figuratively.
- Make sure your child gets enough good sleep, healthy foods, and exercise. The mind cannot be healthy when the body is not. (And make sure you do it for you, too, parents are usually deficient in this.)
- Assertiveness. People feel better about themselves when they feel empowered—assertiveness skills are a key component of feeling empowered. Teach good communication, and validate that your child has a right to ask for what they want! (which also then leads to the useful learning opportunities of dealing with it when you don’t get what you wanted.)
- Give your children permission to have their feelings. Even when feelings are uncomfortable, send the message that all feelings are okay. (The expression of feelings is another matter, and another blog post.)
- Cultivate a sense of humor. A sense of humor is another key component of resiliency—the ability to bounce back from problems, setbacks, frustrations, failures.
So there ya go! 10 ways to help a child’s growing positive self-concept. What else would you add to this list?
Parents come to see me for this specific question more than almost any other single question. Although divorce is a very challenging time for families, the silver lining is that there are many choices that parents can make to protect and take care of their children during this time. Below I share 5 of the more important things to do/think about/remember when first sitting down to tell your kids that their parents are divorcing.
Before you meet with the kids:
- Sit down with your spouse and agree on the basics of what you want to say to the kids. You will want to craft a very brief statement, including:
- The core message at its simplest form, and
- A small concrete example of why you are separating/divorcing. The reason should be explained in a brief, neutral, non-blaming, concrete way, using minimal details. Referring to something your children have already been witness to is an ideal choice for an concrete example.
- For example: “For a while now, your father and I have been arguing a lot. You have even seen some of our arguments.” Then dad might plan to say: “We have seen a marriage counselor to help us work things out, but unfortunately we haven’t been able to. So, your mother and I have decided that we are going to live separately for a little while.”
- Still with your spouse, prepare for questions. Different ages and personalities and situations will all respond differently, but here are a few typical examples: “who is moving out?”, “where will I live?”, “will I still get to go to school/karate/music lessons/my friends’ house?” Kids are concrete thinkers, and their typical reactions center around the concrete ways that this change will affect them. Discuss these likely questions, and mutually-agreed upon answers with your spouse.
- Privately, do whatever you can to ready yourself emotionally. You may need to practice saying the words. You may need to cry or yell or throw a fit (privately) prior to this meeting. This conversation is for your children, and it’s a big one–they need you to be emotionally available for them.
During the conversation:
- Deliver your short, prepared statement to the kids.
- Stop talking.
- Sit back and take a deep breath.
- Pay attention to what is going on in your children at that moment. Take another breath. What faces is she making, how tense is his body?
- From this point forward, your primary goal is to be tuned in to your kids and what they need. Don’t talk too much, but don’t hurry the conversation, either. Stay tuned in to what you think your child needs at this point. (Space? Answers? Permission to be sad, or angry, or worried? Try to give it to them.)
A few more notes:
- Both parents should be present and participating in this conversation.
- Pick a time/place that is private, quiet, and unrushed. (more here on WHEN to tell the kids.)
- Parents should primarily talk about themselves, or both parents together, and avoid making too many statements about the other parent (in order to avoid provoking–we want a smooth, peaceful conversation.)
- Your children may want more information and details, or not. It is normal to want them, and it is normal not to want them. Every child is different.
- If they ask specific or inappropriate questions about wrong-doing etc, please remember that the appropriate response is to lovingly but firmly refuse to answer! “I understand that you want to know more about that, but it is a private matter between Mommy and Daddy. “
- If you get an appropriate question that you aren’t sure how to answer, please remember that you can tell your child “That’s a good question. I can’t give you an answer right now, but your father/mother and I will talk about it and get back with you soon.”
Separation and divorce are hard on everyone involved. At a time when parents are themselves taxed, their child’s needs increase, and it is difficult not to get bogged down in the stress. Here are 7 reminders from a child’s perspective about what is important to them.
- I want to be loyal, at some level, to both parents.
- It’s incredibly hard to be equally loyal to both parents, especially when they are separated. If I try to do this, it will take a huge chunk of my mental and physical energy. If I don’t do this, it will hurt my heart because it feels like I am rejecting one parent (and therefore rejecting a bit of myself, too.)
- When you speak negatively of my other parent (or even just roll your eyes) it’s hard on me. I know that half of me comes from each parent—so if one parent is a jerk or a loser or crazy—that means I am, too. It makes me feel badly about myself.
- Some of my behaviors are related to the separation/divorce. I may act angrier, more anxious, more sad, more clingy, or more rejecting.
- If I have a lot of somatic/physical complaints (headaches, stomach aches) it may be that I am feeling worried or unhappy.
- With time, I can heal from the separation and/or divorce if you handle yourselves with respect, cooperation, and good boundaries. When disrespect and anger are present, it is tremendously harder for me to be healthy.
- I feel safer and happier when the two of you are friendly and cooperative with each other.
Head over to Southwest Parents to see a short (4 minutes!) video covering some basic information about talking with your children about sex. FYI, this video is kindof funny, because I say “use the correct terminology for body parts” without actually saying the correct terminology for body parts. Silly, I know, but the folks paying the bills really wanted things to be G-rated. (*) So other than the phrase “talking to kids about sex,” it is safe for work, even! :^)
If you’d like a refresher on what words I would have used, check out my article called “What are the correct names for private parts, anyway?”
(*) For the record, I think using the correct words for our anatomy is appropriate for all ages.
Once parents are certain that they are separating or getting a divorce, they begin to think through when/what/how they should tell their children. Regarding WHEN to tell children about a divorce or separation, here are some tips.
A few concrete suggestions:
- Avoid major holidays and birthdays, etc.
- Consider the child’s school or extracurricular schedule (major tests or events, etc.)
- Don’t tell them right before bed/school/playdate. Plan to have plenty of free, unscheduled time after you tell them in case they need a break or to be alone or whatever reaction they have. (If they need to be distracted after the conversation, that can be done impromptu.)
- Think about your own energy level and make sure to schedule this conversation at a time when you aren’t tired or stressed or otherwise taxed.
- Try to tell them enough in advance that they will continue to see you and your spouse co-parenting and running the house as you always have just a little longer. The idea is to show the kids that while the marriage is ending, the co-parenting and cooperative, cordial adult relationship is not ending.
But my most important piece of guidance about scheduling this conversation:
There is no “perfect time” for this conversation. Of course, as a loving parent you are trying to manage every detail in order to minimize their upset feelings, but even with all that they will still have those feelings. If they are going to feel agony, they will feel agony no matter what day you tell them. And, you want them to feel 110% permission to feel their feelings about this very big change, so the best thing I can tell you might be to just worry a little less about the scheduling and instead do what you can to be prepared to listen and watch and breathe and love them whenever you do tell them.
As part of my work with SWParents.org, we produced a video for parents on how to talk to your kids about death. I also share a few basic tips for understanding and responding to the various ways that children can express grief. Please take a look if you think this topic might be helpful to you or a loved one. Non-members can watch up to 10 videos or read 10 articles per month for free. The link below will take you directly to the video.
I don’t spend much time advising parents on how to punish more effectively. In fact, I tend to tell parents that I am not a big fan of punishment at all. So, a parent rightfully asked me the other day: “Well then, if not punishment, what DO we do?
What a good question! Most parents punish because they believe that’s how to get kids to behave appropriately. (But actually research has proven that more punishments do NOT equal long-term improved behaviors, and can sometimes make things worse.) So here are 3 things that help achieve the goal of cooperative, positive, appropriate behavior more effectively, while helping to maintain a positive and long-lasting parent-child relationship.
- Show kids what you DO want them to do, and support them, encourage them, catch them doing it, praise them. Give them positive options!
- Change the child’s environment so that it supports positive behaviors. Simple example: don’t keep the jar of cookies where your 3 year old can reach them. More complex example: figure out how long of a playdate your kid can handle before falling apart. Keep playdates within that time frame until you’re both ready to experiment with incremental increases.
- Figure out what’s behind the unwanted/negative behaviors. Behavior is a communication, I like to say… what is your child’s behavior saying to you? Hint: it’s usually something along the lines of: “I’m tired and over stimulated” or “I can’t handle this much freedom,” or “I really need more time with you/attention from you,” or “Something’s not right with me,” or “I am not getting enough opportunities to feel powerful and in charge of my life.” When parents understand what the child’s behavior is communicating, they can better meet the underlying need… which generally has a positive effect on the unwanted behavior!
There are many, many more ways of shaping behavior, but these are some favorites, especially the last one. A little understanding goes a long way. :^)
Conflicts can erupt between siblings or friends easily—about who sits where, whose turn was longest, who started it, or a million other reasons.
Parents often wonder what role they should play in these conflicts, and there’s a wide range of opinions—from “Stay out of it and let kids resolve things for themselves,” to “Step in and be the referee.” But what parent wouldn’t be excited to know that how they handled these squabbles might make a long-term positive difference for their child by helping them learn how to resolve conflict for themselves?! Well, you can! This method does just that.
I read a great article by Elaine Shpungin, Phd a year or so ago about a method of conflict resolution for kids. As I was reading it, my lightbulb went off because although she credits Dominic Barter’s “Restorative Circles” as her source, it immediately reminded me the Imago Dialogue, a conflict resolution model typically seen in couples counseling. I think this is because there is a common wisdom underlying many different kinds of conflict resolution: people need to be heard.
Here’s how it works.
- Kid A comes to you and complains about Kid B.
- You and both kids get together to talk for a moment. You encourage and support Kid A in telling Kid B “What I want you to know.” I also like to have the child add a feeling statement like “and this makes me feel…” The listener is just listening—no arguing or even having to agree—just listen. This step works best if the statement is fairly brief.
- After Kid A says her thing, then Kid B is asked to repeat it back so that Kid A knows she was heard.
- Kids switch roles, and Kid B gets to tell Kid A what he wants her to know, and Kid A repeats it back.
- Steps 3 & 4 can be repeated if necessary, but be careful to stay on one topic.
- After both kids have been heard, they work together to brainstorm a mutually satisfying compromise. That’s it!
Here’s a recent real-life example:
Michael finds me and complains that Jenny and Alexa are excluding him from their play. I go with Michael to find the girls. I ask the kids to hang out for a moment to talk. I ask Michael what he wants them to know.
Michael says: “You aren’t letting me play and I want to.” (“And how does that make you feel?”) “I feel sad when I get left out.”
Me: Jenny, Alexa, what did you hear Michael say?
Jenny & Alexa: You want to play and we aren’t letting you. You felt sad.
Me: Michael, did they get it? Michael: Yes.
Me: Okay, girls, what is it that you want Michael to know?
Jenny: You were grabbing all of our checkers and you weren’t supposed to. You were only supposed to take the red ones.
Michael: You want didn’t want me to grab all the checkers.
Me: Girls, did he get that right? (yes.) Okay, What is a compromise that you could all agree on from here?
They kick around a couple of ideas and come up with a modified game where he can play with them but in a calmer way. Peacefulness reigns until the end of the playdate—which was actually only about 15 minutes, but still, I was pleased.
Consider trying this with your kids. Don’t worry too much about the details (although, thankfully, there aren’t that many!) but just concentrate on helping both sides feel heard. You can read the original article linked above for more information. I’ve also found that the more I do it, the more confident and comfortable everyone is with the process–which makes sense because they are learning a new skill. And this skill, one which many adults struggle with, will help them throughout their lives.
Calling all Austin families!
Would you like to improve your children’s behavior? Stop arguing with your spouse about discipline? Improve your parent/child relationship? Help get your kids to go to bed on time and eat their veggies? Katie and Kate can help!
Kate Raidt, author of The Million-Dollar Parent, and Katie Malinski, licensed clinical social worker and parenting coach, are looking for an Austin family to cast for an upcoming reality show and parent coaching course.
As part of creating course content for their online parent coaching course called the “Five Factor Advantage,” Southwestern Parents is going to film at least 1 episode of a reality show here in Austin. With a camera crew in tow, myself and Kate will come to your house, observe and film parent and child, and then give parents real-time coaching and support in being more peaceful, connected, and effective in managing their kid’s behaviors. This reality show is different from what you might normally think of, because our goal is truly to help the family we work with, and to use the resulting video to educate and help other families, too. (This video is not for entertainment!) More info below.
Get professional, customized parent coaching for your family, and feel good about helping other families, too.
The family we are looking for will have most/all of these characteristics:
- 2-3 kids ages 1-10
- Having a hard time with discipline
- You feel like your kids don’t “listen”
- Parents are motivated to learn about more effective ways of responding to misbehavior
- You and your spouse don’t agree on responding to misbehavior
- Parents who want to do things a little (or a lot!) differently from the way they themselves were raised.
- Parents who are interested in understanding misbehavior in children
- Parents who are want feedback on what THEY can do differently to improve overall family harmony and to foster a better parent-child relationship.
- Live in the Austin area
- Available in early March 2012 for filming at your home
Interested? We’d LOVE to hear from you.
Please visit this webpage to apply: www.KatieMalinski.com/casting
Or email us at FiveFactorAdvantage@gmail.com with any questions.
Here’s another question I received from a friend, reprinted with her permission.
Our daughter is 2.5. She naps really well at school, but only gets a nap about 40% of the time on weekends. At home, she hummssssss with energy, and she doesn’t calm down. We have tried:
- Recreating the day care environment with nap mat, music and dark curtain
- Recreating our night time routine that works great – books, songs, etc.
- Holding her and rocking her, this helps some
- Consequences for not napping, mostly time-outs
- We have tried desperately to not lay down with her, sleep with her or drive her around to get her to fall asleep, but we have done all of these things in emergency situations.
She is a cranky, unhappy child when she doesn’t get her nap. I get sad too.
My questions: 1) Is there something else we can do to calm her down? 2) What is the consequence for getting out of bed? For #2, we use time-out for other things and it works, but the time out area is her bed in her room, so that doesn’t work so much at nap time. Later consequences (you will have to go to bed early if you don’t take a nap) don’t work.
Do you have any parent coaching tricks?
From a child’s perspective, school and home are as different as apples and giraffes. Plus, different relationships = different behaviors, so I encourage you to give up on the idea that since she does something at school, she can be expected to do it at home, too.
Your comment about how she hums with energy strikes me as a spot-on Mommy intuition. I think you’re tuned in to the source of the problem already–weekends are soooo exciting! You and Daddy are there! All Day Long! And sister, too! WOWWW! Asking her to stop being with you, and to calm down enough to let her body relax into a sleep state–well, that’s a pretty challenging task for such a little girl. Sure, her body needs it, but learning to listen to our bodies and make good choices in how we care for them is a lifelong process–challenging even for most adults. So, cut her a little slack. (by which I mean, remind yourself that this problem is soooo normal and age appropriate!)
A word about consequences. Decades of research into behavior modification has unequivocally proven that a purely consequence-based system for shaping behavior is NOT effective. In other words, we have to do something other than punish unwanted behavior, if we want that behavior to actually stop. I go even further, because I believe that consequences and punishments can sometimes escalate into bigger problems, like an endless loop of frustrated parents and children who experience the bulk of their parents’ attention via punishment, which often leads to a damaged parent-child relationship. Also, using consequences (delivered later) to a small child where the problem is her not settling in to sleep is almost guaranteed not to work. It’s really, really, really hard to force someone to sleep… try as we might, a person kindof needs to accept sleep–to allow sleep to entice them in to settling down.
You mentioned that you have tried “desperately” not to lie down with her for naps, but you also said that you have had success with holding her and rocking her. That, by the way, strengthens the argument that her weekend time with you is just much more valuable than sleep… so consider that one solution would be to help her combine the two. She will stop napping in a year or so anyway, and I promise that you won’t be lying down with her when she’s 16–a little naptime snuggle for the next year is really about as painless a solution as I can imagine. You don’t have to stay in there the whole time (unless you fall asleep yourself, which of course happens all the time to tired parents!) but lying with her will help her body relax, and plus it gets the two of you some sweet snuggle time.
When she gets a little older, and she is able to control herself a little bit more effectively (2 year olds are wild monkeys!), you can start giving her an option at nap times: lie down and sleep or stay in your room for X minutes. Then you just redirect her back to her room if she forgets and tries to come out, and you make sure to set a timer, and plan to put her to bed a little earlier to make up for lost sleep, but without making a big deal of it. Plan to repeat the redirection back to her room about 1000 times.
One more thought: She may be giving up her nap. It’s a very difficult and sometimes extended period of time that parents hate. When kids transition out of a nap, ya just try to make the best of things. Help her nap every other day, maybe. Run her ragged in the mornings on the days when you think you can get her a nap. Put her to bed early when she doesn’t. Try some Benadryl. I’m kidding about the Benadryl. :^) Good luck!