Growing Emotionally Healthy Children
It is the responsibility of adults to foster good emotional health in their children. Issues of trust, competency, self-image and integrity are addressed here.
It's been said too often and with great truth that parents really do not know what they are doing when they raise their children. Parenting is far too often a learn-as-you-go job. This article addresses some of the key issues for parents who wish to raise emotionally healthy kids.
The first developmental task of childhood is labeled by Erikson as "trust v. mistrust." This means that the first two years of a child's life she is learning whether her world is one that she can trust. Primarily, it is the adults who inhabit her world who will teach her whether her world is a safe one, whether she will be protected yet challenged, whether she can trust the adults responsible for her care. Parents have a large responsibility to behave in ways that teach the young child that they are trustworthy. This involves keeping their word, setting appropriate boundaries, protecting the child from physical and emotional harm.
Later on, at approximately ages seven to eleven, the youngster is trying to learn competency. Parents need to allow the child to attempt new things, to try to master tasks, to give praise in a sincere manner for a job done well-enough, and to introduce new opportunities for growth into their child's world. Children need to be allowed to try new things, to "dabble" in anything that interests them until it is known that a genuine and lasting interest is there as is the wish to pursue this interest further. Parents need to compliment their children on small taks and to remember that the smallest thing is a building block in a sense of mastery and competency desperately needed by the child who will go on to have healthy self-esteem.
One of the most common but least discussed injuries that parents inflict on their kids is to teach them to not trust their own perceptions. It is important for adults to realize that all any of us has is his/her perceptions. The child who feels sad must not be told, "Cheer up" or "You'll get over it." The youngster who is happy over a B on a report and is showing his joy must not be told anything that diminishes his feeling. When a teenage girl breaks up with her boyfriend, she doesn't need to be told, "You'll find that there are plenty of other fish in the sea." When Daddy repeatedly doesn't go to work because of hangovers due to excessive drinking, it is important that the child not be told that Daddy has the flu. When parents extol the virtues of honesty verbally, then lie to others on the phone or lie about the age of their child at the ticket window at the movie, the child's perceptions about the value of honesty are at best blurred.
The above ties in strongly with the necessity of allowing children to "have" their feelings. Optimally, a healthy home is one where all those who live there, children included, are allowed to have, identify, and then appropriately express their feelings. To diminish the child's right to know and express her feelings is a disservice that will cause irreparable harm and follow her into childhood.
It is often difficult to teach children that the adults in their lives are to be respected and still respect the children. Parents and children are not peers, but all are human beings worthy of respect. When parents disrespect their children by not allowing them their feelings and/or their perceptions, children learn that they are not important, not worthy of respect, and not valued as they are. These negative experiences will follow them into adulthood and seriously hamper their functioning as healthy adults.
Children need to be treated as individuals, distinctly unique, different from their siblings or any other child. Communicating to a child that she is unlike any other person and is valued as such is a strong message of respect which goes far in building her self-esteem. Children need to be shown that they are respected for who they are. Avoid giving your kids the impression that what matters to you is their performance, particularly in a specific field. The athletic father of what turns out to be a violin-playing son needs to learn to put aside his own wishes and fantasies for the child and become one who appreciates violin playing. The mother who wishes for her child to shine academically may need to learn that her daughter is an athlete and love her for who she is. It is not appropriate for parents to try to get their children to live out their own unfulfilled dreams. Nor is it healthy to try to squeeze a child into a mold that the parents desire but that does not communicate value for who that particular child is.
In summary, parents who desire to produce emotionally healthy children would do well to focus on making their child's world physically and emotionally safe, to learn who their child is and then do all they can to help that unique child BE that person and thrive doing so, to allow children their feelings and perceptions, and to create situations in which the child can develop a sense of competency and mastery over different things. Doing these things is not easy for the parents, but the results of an emotionally healthy child will make all the parents' efforts worthwhile. Later on, these emotionally healthy children will go on to function as emotionally healthy adults. What happens in the developmental years spent in the home is of VITAL importance.