Recently, through blogs, communication with other parents and discussion with my own family, I have heard myself talk about helping a child to learn to trust herself. I have become aware that for me this issue is at the heart of raising healthy, resilient children. A child who trusts herself is able to experience the world through her own eyes and heart rather than relying on an adult’s interpretation of things for her. A child who trusts herself can confidently take risks and try new things and also know when she needs a helping hand. A child who trusts herself knows when something doesn’t feel right and can ask for help. On the other hand, she can fully enjoy when something is right and feel empowered, taking ownership over her experience.
I have come to realize that so many of the childhood, adolescent and even adult issues that our children face boil down to trusting and knowing themselves. Three specific topics come directly to mind.
1) Sexual Health. – In order to be sexually resilient, stand up to abuse and make sexual decisions that are healthy for them, children need to be able to trust their inner instincts. So often abusers use grooming techniques to blur the lines and confuse the child so that the line between fun and abuse is cloudy, grey and easily missed. Sometimes, the only thing that may signal that a playful behavior has turned abusive is an internal red flag. A child has to be able to trust that tiny voice in the back of their head that says, “I don’t like this.” And often, it means saying something bad about someone who is respected within the family. What a huge burden! In order to do this, the child has to trust that tiny voice, they have to trust themself, and they have to know that we trust them.
2) Food. – Eating disorders and food issues are rampant in our society. We want our children to have a healthy relationship with food and a healthy relationship with their own body. In order to do this, in the face of overwhelming media and peer messages about food and bodies, our children have to trust themselves. They have to know when they are hungry and when they are not. They have to trust that when they feel hungry they really are and that food is a nurturing part of life.
3) Bullying. – In order for our children to resist bullying (either being a bully or being bullied) and stand up for others and for themselves, they have to trust their own feelings about themselves and others. They need to have confidence that they are powerful, healthy, strong individuals and that others are as well. They need to have confidence in their own feelings and empathy for the feelings of others. But how can we expect them to understand or even consider what others are feeling if they don’t know or trust their own feelings?
I could go on and on. But you get the point. If I could only give my children one thing, it would be this: Trust in themselves.
Of course we all want this. We want our children to have a deep and profound understanding and connection to themselves. It is easy to see how verbal, physical, emotional or sexual abuse would undermine and destroy children’s ability to trust themselves. But it may be harder to recognize the subtle and tiny ways that we, with all the best intentions, whittle away at children’s ability to trust themselves. How often do we tell a child how they feel or don’t feel. Most of us have responded like this on at least one occasion:
“My leg hurts.” “I don’t see anything, you’re okay.”
Or, “I’m done eating.” “Take one more bite, I know you’re still hungry.”
Or, “I don’t want to kiss grandma.” “Go on, kiss her, you love her so much!”
In each of these scenarios, our best intentions give an unintended, yet pretty clear, message: “You don’t know how you feel. I do.”
The examples are endless. Statements like, “There is no reason to be scared.” “Don’t be angry at me, this is a natural consequence.” “I know you have to pee.” “She is your friend, you like playing with her.” “This is your favorite color.” “Stop crying, this is not something to cry about” all send the same message. “You don’t know how you feel. I do.” A child who hears this message repeatedly learns that they can’t really trust their own emotional or physical sensations, they don’t know how to interpret internal cues, they can’t communicate these internal cues to others and if they do, someone will tell them they are wrong.
Of course none of us actually wish to transmit this message to our children. Rather, we respond this way for a variety of reasons:
1) We don’t know what to do. – Children often have unexplained emotions. They have aches and pains and heartaches and struggles and frustrations that we can’t see and can’t fix. When a child is complaining that his leg hurts, and there’s no blood or scratch or bruise, we can’t diagnosis it. Maybe he is having growing pains. Maybe he needs a hug and doesn’t know how to ask. Maybe he needs an adult to come close because he feels anxious. Maybe he saw a sibling with a hurt leg and is expressing sympathy. Who knows! It can be overwhelming and frustrating to a parent, so we respond with, “It doesn’t hurt. There is nothing there.”
2) We think it’s in the child’s best interest. – Parents worry that their child isn’t eating enough. Parents worry that their child will be cold. Parents worry that their child isn’t playing well with other children. So we tell them to do something because we feel it is best for them. “Eat all your food.” “I know you’re cold, put on a jacket.” “You like Jane, play nice with her.” But the problem is that we are negating and overriding a child’s experience of their own body or feelings. It doesn’t actually help them in the end.
3) We think we are teaching them something. – Mind your manners. Be polite. Say hi to the stranger. Kiss Grandma. Don’t embarrass me. What we are actually teaching them is how to comply with parental or adult demands to make us happy and ignore their own internal cues. That’s great if we are training show dogs. Not so great if we are trying to raise emotionally intelligent and resilient adults.
Rather, our goal should be to help our children identify their own emotional states and trust that they can get their needs met by communicating this in some way. In order to do this, we have to be willing to let them own their own feelings, experience the world in their own way and explore possible outcomes. We also need to let them know that we trust them to do this.
Rather than directing or telling a child how they feel or what they should do about it, we can strive to support a child through their own process. We can do this by reflecting, sharing and asking.
Reflect what you see: We can help a child understand social context and cues by reflecting back to him what is happening.
Share how you feel: Reflecting our own feelings models a pattern of communication which is genuine and trusting.
Ask what they think: Asking them what they think or feel tells them that you trust and value their thoughts and feelings.
Through doing this, we can help them negotiate the outcome, rather than dictating one. Let them know that you are there to support them through it and that you will be there to help. Finding realistic and healthy solutions is part of the process. So instead of, “I don’t see anything, your leg is okay,” it may sound like this:
I notice you are very sad and hurt right now. You’re really holding onto your leg. (Parent reflects what is happening in the moment.)
I feel really worried and confused because I can’t see the owie, I don’t know how to help you! (Parent shares how they feel.)
What does it feel like? What do you think you need? (Parent asks what the child thinks and feels.)
It feels pokey and I think I need to go to Disneyland! (Child identifies a feeling and a solution.)
Oh, I love Disneyland, and I wish we could go there, too! That would probably distract you from the pokey feeling. But since we can’t, is there anything else I can do for you? (Parent validates child’s feeling. And asks to problem solve.)
A kiss. (Child is empowered to find his own solution.)
Absolutely. (Parent sends message that they are there to support their child.)
Reflect, Share and Ask. It works for any situation. What if a child refuses dinner?
-I notice you didn’t eat any dinner. And I’m worried that you’re going to be really hungry later. What do you think? How does your tummy feel?
– My tummy feels bubbly and I don’t want to eat.
– Is there anything else you need?
-Oh man, ice cream is yummy, but it isn’t available for dinner. Anything else?
-No, I’m just not hungry.
-Okay, snack will be ready at 7 if you’re hungry then.
This process encourages a child to self-identify and communicate emotions. It sets a stage for a pattern of communication in which each person is responsible for their own emotions and is part of the solution. It tells children that they can be responsible for themselves and ask for what they need. All of these are things that many of us struggle with as adults. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we learned how to do it when we were toddlers? When we encourage a child to explore their emotions and physical sensations, and we believe and support them when they do tell us, we are giving the message that we trust them. And if we trust them, they can trust themselves. And if they trust themselves, they can experience the world on their own, instead of needing others to do it for them. And that is the basis for authentic genuine living.