How we’re helping parents help their children manage emotions
“Mental health is not about feeling good. It’s about having the feelings that fit their context and being able to manage those emotions effectively.”
On January 9, parents from the Little and the Lower Schools gathered for the first time on the Main Campus for a Positive Parenting Discussion with Dr. Erica Shapiro and Dena Hoenig Valdez, Head of the Little School, and Mallory Matthews, Head of the Lower and Middle Schools. There were so many parents in attendance that we ran out of chairs. The conversation was rich with insights and great advice, and there were many humorous moments as fellow parents shared their own experiences so others could learn and realize that they are not alone. It was an extraordinary dialogue, and much thanks to Dr. Shapiro, Ms. Dena, and Ms. Matthews for organizing the coffee and conversation.
A few of the topics stood out. It seemed that some parents had an “aha” moment when Dr. Shapiro explained that the five primary emotions are joy, fear, sadness, disgust, and anger. (You may recall these emotions as characters from the wonderful Pixar movie “Inside Out.”) Some psychological researchers, such as Paul Ekman, identify six universal emotions: anger, surprise, disgust, enjoyment, fear, and sadness. Additionally, newer research from him suggests the existence of a seventh universal emotion: contempt.
As Dr. Shapiro pointed out that morning, if the overwhelming number of emotions deal with difficult situations, it’s a pretty tall order, if not impossible, to wish for our children to be happy all the time. She says, “When we consider these emotions, it is evident that unpleasant emotions are foundational to the experience of being human. As parents, if we make happiness our goal for our children, we may begin to believe their unpleasant feelings are a “problem” that needs “fixing.” We end up communicating the message that unpleasant feelings are “bad” and should be avoided. However, when we help our children learn healthy strategies to manage these unpleasant emotions, we are actually equipping them with the tools for true mental health.”
It’s understandable when parents say they want their children to be happy all the time. Unfortunately, that proves neither possible nor desirable, because it inhibits their ability to develop resilience and self-confidence. For example, if the first time a young person experiences rejection is as a senior who’s not accepted to their first choice college, the experience could be devastating. If they have never learned how to deal with disappointment, they may become paralyzed with self-doubt or even self-loathing. Part of our goal as educators and parents is to help children learn how to handle difficult situations as well as uplifting moments.
Perhaps one way to teach children to bounce back from adversity also came up in the parent coffee when we discussed the concept of natural consequences. Parents and administrators stressed the importance of not always rushing to rescue our children when they “mess up.” For example, if a child leaves a homework assignment at home, parents should resist the temptation to drop what they are doing and bring their child’s work to school. Particularly in Lower and Middle School when the stakes may be low and the impact may be high, children can learn that they will experience the natural consequence of perhaps a lower grade, that life will go on, and they will be more diligent about putting their homework or book in their backpack before leaving home.
When parents continually bail their children out, they inadvertently send the message that they don’t believe their children can handle the ramifications. One of the most painful comments following the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal came when a daughter told her mother how devastated she was that her mother lacked faith in her to the point that she felt the need to cheat and break the law. As difficult as it may be, when we allow our children to fall down, we also let them know that we believe in their inner strength and their ability to pick themselves up. Psychologist and writer Wendy Mogel’s book “The Blessings of A Skinned Knee” teaches this point extraordinarily well.
One of the other lessons that emerged from our parent conversation a few weeks ago may sound obvious but it too can be hard to remember in the heat of the moment. As parents, we need to remember to choose our battles. If all issues seem to be equally important, then all topics can become equally trivial. We need to give our children some choice and some autonomy while stressing that there are certain topics that are non-negotiable. These will differ from house to house, and that’s ok. We can say to our children that our family differs from others and in our house, there is no deviating on a specific rule. However, there may be some flexibility on another issue.
As Dr. Shapiro mentioned, one way to help children grow and become more independent while learning that they are part of a family is to do chores around the house. While this may seem old fashioned, there is research showing that children contributing to the functioning of the household teaches them that they matter and builds belief in themselves. During the coffee, parents shared personal anecdotes about their children doing chores around the house; their performance may not be perfect, but the importance of helping out transcends the quality with which they do the task at hand.
Many parents reached out after the parent coffee to express their gratitude and appreciation for the dialogue. Parenting is never easy. Nevertheless, there are unique challenges like social media that make bringing up children today particularly difficult. If parents can share ideas and learn from each other, all our children will benefit and they have a better chance of growing into well-adjusted and successful young adults.