Here in the San Ramon Valley, we are exposed to messages about how we should be. Messages like “we should be prettier, we should be thinner, we should be working harder, we should be more successful... are increasingly encroaching into our lives and our family’s lives.
I touched upon this topic in my previous blog post: Encountering Our Whole Selves, Putting the Puzzle Back Together, but in this blog posts series, I want to focus more on the pressures that these messages put on children and teens, and more importantly how parents and families can support their sons and daughters in standing strong against these negative messages.
Children and teens are especially vulnerable to these messages; I’m sure a lot of you can think back to adolescence and remember what a crazy, confusing time that was. Now add to that experiencing messages like I mentioned above in multiple forms including, TV, social media, and Internet on the daily with just a touch of a button. And if our children and teens begin to believe these messages, that they must meet a certain (and nearly impossible) beauty standard or meet a certain (and nearly impossible) academic or career standard in order to be worth something as a human being, then they are at risk for experiencing low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and underperformance.
The good news is that parents possess a key role helping their kids stand strong against believing these messages and experiencing their effects. The main way parents can do this is by communicating to their kids that “I love you for who you are,” directly negating society’s “You are loved for how your look and what you do.” In this blog series, I will propose 3 practical, everyday ways that you can do this.
The first way is through parents' verbal communication during tough conversations. Here are some tips to balance acceptance with discipline and communicate this idea that although they made a mistake, they are loved for who they are. Of course mistakes incur consequences, but if your child makes a mistake, instead of jumping straight to the mistake and the consequence:
1. Start off the conversation by acknowledging your child’s current emotional/mental state. For example, if your child is upset about getting a low grade, acknowledge this saying something like “Wow honey I see that you are upset about this how can I support you?” Starting off the conversation this way communicates to your child that you are approachable and willing to offer support. You also reinforce that you see them as capable to communicate what they need, which relays to them that they can trust themselves, and makes it more likely that they come to you the next time they are upset or in a tough situation.
2. Normalize that mistakes happen and they are part of life. Saying something like “It’s okay honey we all struggle sometimes” communicates to them that making a mistake is to be expected and there is nothing inherently wrong with them for doing so.
3. Try to thank your child for being open-for example say something like “I really appreciate you coming to me with this; I know it could not have been easy.” Your ability to take the time to praise their opening up to you actually drives up the likelihood that they will come to you in the future. Finally, I would encourage you to end conversation with something you admire about your son or daughter; for example “I admire your being willing to talk to me about it, that can’t be easy,” “I admire that you tried your hardest,” or “I admire that you were honest.” This way you are communicating to your son/daughter that while they made a mistake, it doesn’t mean that their identity is failure.
If on the other hand, your child does not want to talk about it or is not open at this time, which at one point or another will happen-it is very difficult to talk about our mistakes and struggles- acknowledge that when they are ready, they can still talk about it. “I can see that you are not ready to talk about this, but when you are, I want you to know that I am here for you.” This way it is implied that just because they were in a place where they couldn’t talk about it, it doesn’t mean that they never can talk about it, which works to reduce some of their guilt and shame about talking about their mistakes.
Addressing mistakes in your children's lives is not easy, and it can feel like you have to approach these conversations perfectly or risk either internalizing that they are a failure or not learning from their mistakes, but implementing some of the tips mentioned above can help you to master the staying present part of these conversations, and in result helping to guard your children against believing society's negative messages and instead developing a more solid and secure internal identity.
Stay tuned for my next post where I propose another practical way that parents can help their kids and teens stand strong against our appearance and performance focused culture.