6 Ways to Empower Your Child to Meet Life’s Challenges

Self on 11.20.12
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Becoming a parent is likely to be the biggest responsibility you have in life. That’s a daunting thought, and it causes many of us to have the urge to draw the curtains and never let our kids see the light of day, lest they get hurt.

Unfortunately, overprotectiveness never serves the purpose we intend. By shielding our kids from life’s realities, we stall the inevitable lessons they will have to learn for themselves. Give your kids a leg up with these 6 tips so they can be fully equipped to meet life’s challenges by the time they are ready to forge ahead on their own into adulthood.

1. Allow your child to be herself. 

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It’s natural to love in other people what we love about ourselves. Unfortunately for our kids, the opposite can also be true: we may have negative reactions when we observe traits in others that we dislike in ourselves. As a result, we sometimes mistakenly try to guide our children to be our mini-me’s so that we can love them easier.

Our job is to love our kids unconditionally, to accept all of their traits as a whole and complete human being. What you might see as a flaw might be a strength in your child. Squashing that flaw might do your child a disservice, as this “flaw” might be a perfect complement to the puzzle pieces that make up your child’s personality. For example, if your child is cautious because she is sensitive, don’t take away her defense mechanism by pushing her too hard. Consider the whole child and let her be herself.

2. Start believing your child is ready for the next step.

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We often think we’re trying to protect our kids from life’s lumps, but our field of vision is narrowed to our own experiences. We can’t predict our children’s failures, as much as we like to think we have some control over their lives. Remember this quote as you guide your kids: 

“When people undermine your dreams, predict your doom, or criticize you, remember they're telling you their story, not yours.” --Cynthia Occelli

We sometimes try to hold our kids back, fearing that they aren’t mature enough or wise enough to take the lumps of life. Know this: your kids will learn lessons they need to learn, when they need to learn them. Opportunities will present themselves. They don’t need you to discourage them or to show that you lack confidence in their abilities. If their abilities are indeed lacking, they will learn that for themselves. If you show that you doubt their abilities, all they learn is to be unsure of themselves. This paralysis will prevent them from learning the lessons that will bump their abilities to the next level. If they try and fail, your kids will likely compensate by focusing on the development of other skills that you might not know exist within them.

3. Choose action over worry in tough situations.

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Human beings will face difficulties; that we know. To pretend otherwise is nuts. However, enthralling in doom and gloom while we wring our hands is counterproductive. We might think that worrying about what might happen leaves us better prepared, but we can’t predict the future. The beauty in this truth is that we can control our perspectives and our reactions when times are tough. Teach your kids the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Help your child take away whatever lessons he can from negative experiences in order to grow stronger, and then don’t dwell on the past or what could have been. Onwards and upwards.

4. Validate your child’s feelings.

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It’s beyond obvious to state that parents hate to see their children experience negative emotions. We often jump in and say things like, “Hey, it’s not so bad!” Or worse, we punish a child who is having a meltdown. Acknowledge bad feelings. Offer hugs. But resist the urge to force your child to snap out of it.

Here’s the problem with always overriding or interfering with a child’s emotions: feelings are supremely useful to human beings. You need feelings to guide you throughout life, to recognize when situations are right or wrong for you, and to know how to make adjustments so that you can feel better. If you don’t let your child simply feel what’s going on, your child will never learn to cope with feelings or how to simply ride them out. In many cases, there’s a big chance later in life that your child will turn to addictive behaviors like alcohol or overeating in order to numb feelings when you aren’t there to punish or cajole.

Psychologist Guy Winch, Ph.D. writes:

When we are extremely angry or upset, we tell someone why and they totally get it, it truly and effectively validates our feelings. As a result, the relief and catharsis we experience is tremendous! Only then can we actually let go of at least some of the feelings we had built up. It is that which feels like an authentic visceral 'release'

In my experience, Winch is right: when I acknowledge and accept my toddler’s distress, no matter how irrational, (rather than trying to squash it) she frequently calms down quickly once she feels heard. When things go south, validate your child’s feelings. It’s okay to feel bad! Read Winch’s article for a detailed ‘how to’ on emotional validation. It works for adults as well.

4. Allow your child to start taking full accountability for her own life. 

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Rather than always coming to the rescue – whether that’s with support or criticism – step back and allow your child to slowly start taking responsibility. Encourage her to consider accountability for her choices and mistakes and to take the steps to recover and improve.

When your child feels self-possessed, she learns to feel challenged and capable and in control of her own circumstances. This is a huge contributor to feelings of happiness throughout life.

If your child is rarely allowed to be held accountable, it’s easy for her to always play second fiddle to other people’s ideas and visions. Conversely, when you let her grow and learn from her own mistakes, it gives her the opportunity to feel secure enough to act from her own strength and for her own best interests and peace of mind. It’s not going to be easy for you or your child to let her step up to the plate and start swinging, but it’s better for her to learn some tough lessons on your watch. That way she can build a sense of autonomy and control while she’s young – rather than having to learn all of those lessons when she’s out of the house and on her own for the very first time.

5. Teach your child to stop looking to peers for happiness. 

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When your child is school-aged, he’s lumped with a very limited segment of the population. For many unlucky kids, this isn’t the ideal group of peers that could best nurture his inner world. Kids need to have strong feelings of value and inner worth that can’t be shaken in the face of unkindness and insensitivity from other people.

It’s helpful to have one activity, talent or release that a kid can turn to and practice on his own, far from the fray and tumult of school life. This might be a solitary sport like yoga, running or swimming, it could be an art like painting or piano, a means of expression like journaling, or it could simply be hanging out with wildlife, exploring on foot or on a mountain bike. Allow your child to engage in activities that will help form a reliable inner sanctuary he can recreate wherever he goes. This will benefit him long into adulthood.

6. Change your definition of “discipline” from punishment to teaching.

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When we resort to traditional modes of punishing kids – essentially the equivalent of an adult tantrum, complete with yelling and sometimes even physical violence – kids learn several unsavory lessons. They learn that people we love are not safe because they are prone to spinning out of control. They learn that they can become alienated and emotionally abandoned by loved ones. And they learn that they don’t want to get caught. The true lesson gets lost in the mix.

What we actually want to teach kids is to be internally motivated – meaning to actually want to behave well, not just to avoid punishment. If a kid commits a negative action that needs to be corrected, address the underlying emotions first, which will speed the return of rational thinking and prime your kid to listen to you and be ready to learn. Then offer a more helpful behavior in order to correct the action: “I understand you’re angry. Your little sister shouldn’t have flushed your cars down the toilet. That really stinks, and I will deal with her. But you can’t flush her doll down the toilet for revenge. Let’s go punch a pillow instead.”

When your child does something that demonstrates bad behavior, focus on teaching your child healthier coping mechanisms and greater self-control. Find out from your child why he did what he did and help teach him what he could do instead next time. Whenever possible, problem-solve and teach as opposed to flying off the handle.

Let your kids get out there and start learning. If you follow even one of these 6 tips, your child will be better equipped to face life’s challenges with style and confidence.

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