What would it be worth to you to extend your child’s life by up to 20 years, and decrease their chances of diseases and mental illness in their adult years?
Would you remortgage your house and go into massive debt, or work multiple jobs, or donate an organ?
If you said yes to any of these, I’ve got some great news for you - you may be able to give them this gift for absolutely free, just by contemplating and incorporating these 6 practices into your life.
A quick rundown of the theory
Our health and well-being, both physically and mentally, are greatly impacted by our childhood experiences, especially early childhood, something that’s, by and large, accepted by the scientific and academic community. According to addiction expert and best-selling author, Dr. Gabor Mate, suppressing emotions in order to appease somebody else can take up to 20 years off a person’s life. This is due to something called toxic stress, which “can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk of stress-related disease and cognitive impairment,” as referenced in this Harvard article.
This means that a child’s interactions with his/her parents can strongly impact their health and longevity. Although the interactions in the first few years matter most, the communication styles as kids get older still count. As they say, better late than never.
So, what causes someone to suppress their emotions and how does one go about not causing someone else to suppress their emotions? If you think back to a time when you suppressed speaking up about your preference or perspective, it was probably because you felt that your opinion would either offend whomever you were speaking to or against, or that it would not be well received.
There can be any number of influences in their lives that condition children to suppress their voice, but my purpose for writing this is to help parents reevaluate and realign themselves, if necessary, so that that their influence is a part of the solution, not the problem. By default, clicking on an article to learn about extending your child’s life implies your dedication to your child, but sometimes oppression can occur unconsciously.
1. Giving them the benefit of doubt.
It's easy to assume that people are the way that they are because it's a part of the personality they were born with, but a lot of our identity is shaped by our life experiences. For instance, I’ve worked with quite a few Math students that I’d initially, subconsciously thought of as “bad” kids because they'd act out in defiant ways, only to learn that they were actually just lost and didn't know how to tell me. More importantly, giving them the benefit of doubt presented the opportunity for me to teach them how to express what they they were thinking, once I had understood where they were coming from.
2. Empathizing, rather than advising, when they express worries and anxiety.
Here’s a scenario: A teenage girl comes home one evening and tells her dad that she’s nervous about the many tests she has the following week. The father responds with, “This is what happens when you procrastinate. You knew about the tests for weeks, you should have started studying for them sooner.” Sounds like practical advice, right? The problem is, the message that's subliminally communicated to her is that she’s not doing/being/giving enough and needs to do better. In reality, she probably knows that is the solution to her problem, after all, it’s not very complicated to figure out. That means, her statement was likely intended for another reason, like reassurance and encouragement.
Creating a habit of listening for their emotions, beyond their words, is one of the most valuable gifts you can give to them. The responses that they get in their moments of uncertainty become the voices in their heads when they are alone and experiencing the same uncertainties. They will either scold themselves, telling themselves that they’re not good enough, or they will encourage themselves and persevere.
3. Avoiding any build up of resentment towards them when they hurt you.
It's one thing to avoid getting defensive when someone is not offending you, but what about when they are purposefully being offensive? Sometimes kids can be intentionally spiteful, especially in the teenage years. Why do they do this? Something to keep in mind is that anger is often a mask for sadness, and sadness is a mask for anger. A good way to respond to their nastiness is to genuinely and sympathetically ask them what’s wrong and if everything is okay in their lives. You may find that their projections had nothing to do with you at all, and they were just releasing steam over something else.
If this doesn’t work, and they continue their mean streak towards you, letting them know that you’re going to give them some time to get themselves together, while you disengage for a bit might be a good approach. The main objective for you is to not allow their behavior to create any resentment in you towards them. Resentment is one of the most toxic emotions because it shortens our ability to keep our defensiveness at bay, and when a parent starts to foster resentment towards their child, it can eat away at their compassion.
4. Not allowing your life to revolve around them.
When we give to someone, it’s natural to hope and, eventually, expect something in return. For most parents, especially mothers, the first few years of a child’s life require so much devotion to the infant’s needs, that they can easily start neglecting their own, making it easy for them to lose their own identity. Without restoration and active efforts to avoid parental burnout, they can start to become dependent on their child for their own identity. Just like how suppression is a health hazard for children, it is also a health hazard for the parents. For children, however, the identity sharing can either position them to resent or adhere to the needs of their parents, and thus, neglecting to develop an identity of their own.
5. Encouraging them to focus on making themselves proud, and not you.
I’ve frequently met parents that were frustrated because their child needed to be micromanaged for school and refused to act responsibly, but the thing about responsibility is it can’t be forced. Responsibility must be accepted on an emotional level, and when children feel burdened with doing well to please their parents, the stakes become so high that meeting their expectations takes precedence over working hard to make themselves proud. If and when they fail, it can easily render them hopeless, sometimes in devastating ways, making them think it's too big a risk to try again.
6. Exhausting non-authoritative methods of influencing first, when holding them accountable.
When you're tired and stressed, using your “Parent card" (a.k.a. "because I'm the parent and I make the rules") to get kids to comply may be the most convenient approach for holding them accountable, but overuse of it eventually devalues its power in the long run, as we often see in the behavior of rebellious teens. That's why it’s best to limit the use of this strategy for when it's absolutely necessary and all other non-authoritative methods of influencing have been exhausted. As an educator and parental influencing coach, I have personally seen major changes in my own students’ attitudes and the bonds with their parents, after the parents tweaked how they were interacting with their kids.
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