There are many unspoken biases in our society – gender, race, religion, sexuality, etc. One common bias, almost socially accepted, is age. How many times were you told “You are too young to understand.”, “You don’t know anything at your age.”, “Why would I listen to you, you are a kid.” We discount our youth even though they are the best truth tellers and most unfiltered resource we have. When we shut them down by these statements, they shut themselves down. Then we wonder why teenagers won’t talk to us! It is because we have been verbally, or subconsciously, shutting them down since they were a child. Think back to your childhood. Did this happen to you? Did you then silence your emotions, thoughts, even imagination?
When talking to a child, we need to abandon our adult mentality. You should try not to look at a child’s problem through adult eyes – that is how we come to discredit them and their feelings. For example have you ever caught yourself saying “Do you know how easy you have it?”, “Get over it, that’s not stressful.”, “It’s not like you have bills to pay!”. Kids naturally are egocentric – when something changes in their inner world, especially when it’s a negative social experience, it affects their entire world. When your entire world is yourself, then anything that threatens your identity makes you feel like your world is crumbling from underneath your feet. Usually they put their entire self worth into something tangible that others can comment on (and then depend on approval from their peers). This may be their appearance, their intellect, a special talent, etc. Any negative comments directed at them than directly affects their self worth, and in association their world. It’s similar to how a infant/toddler experiences fear when their parents leave the room, because they have no aspect of time they feel like they’ve been abandoned. Then the parent comes back and they are happy again, and through that learn that if people leave they come back so it’s ok. Teens have little aspect of the world around them. They need to know that if something challenges their identity, it’s not the end of the world, or their worth. That their worth is always intact because it is internal, not external.
So how can we help foster healthy mental attitudes in children?
- See their experiences through their eyes, but with our experience. Empathize with their situation and validate their emotions. Try to give logical examples that show that their world is bigger than them. That it is healthy to show emotion and that it will pass with time and only the lesson will stay (this one takes time and patience).
- Let them express and experience emotion. Unconditional love is love without enabling or suppression.
- Don’t share adult problems – we are parents, they are kids. Let them be kids. And let ourselves be kids every so often too.
- Have them experience the world. Either through volunteering, reading, after school programs, activities, etc. This way the know that the world is bigger than them (I would avoid watching news to learn about the world as it can be negative and misrepresentative).
- Have a breakfast or dinner table conversation. Ask: What was one things you enjoyed about today? What was a challenge? What is one thing you learned that you can implement in everyday life?
In my family our motto has always been “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. I have now learned that true strength comes from supporting your sensitivity and not suppressing your emotions. Communication is necessary for maintaining a healthy mindset and relationships with yourself and others. However, sometimes children just need you to be silent beside them, which is okay, because you are still beside them and supporting them, and they can feel that.