Do all new parents have that ‘better do this perfectly so they don’t complain about me to their shrink’ paranoia? Though I’m gradually learning to accept that I’ll mess this stuff up, here’s my interview with a few people with more wisdom than I on what all parents can do to raise emotionally stable and happy kids. (and if you have any other tips, let’s hear ’em!)
“GIVE me the child until the age of seven, and I will give you the man” — Jesuit proverb
As a new parent, it’s scary to realise that 90 per cent of the brain’s growth happens in the first five years of your child’s life.
“Over these crucial years, millions of brain connections are being formed,” writes Margot Sunderland in The Science of Parenting. By age seven the foundations for their adult brain function (and ability to handle tricky emotions) are pretty much set. And no, nothing will have more influence on your child’s life than you, their primary caregiver.
Overwhelming? Yes. But it’s also a wonderful opportunity to create routines which “wire” your child’s developing brain for a happy life (and develop healthy responses to the inevitable setbacks and frustrations).
First, the obvious: the most important thing you can give your child is unconditional love. Not having to ‘earn’ your love by being good won’t create spoiled kids; you can still enforce boundaries while loving unconditionally.
Beyond that, “helping young children develop healthy brain habits early on in life is one of the best gifts you could possibly give,” says author Catherine Plano, who uses techniques based on neuroscience to help teenagers ‘train’ their brains to help them develop happiness, success and fulfilment.
“Techniques that foster emotional intelligence, self-esteem and self-awareness will give them more of a head start in life than anything else,”
Instead of scrambling to send your children to Baby Mozart classes, what simple, practical rituals can the average, nonscientist parent can put in place to foster good brain development?
CREATE A ROUTINE
“Building routines with your children helps them feel safe,” says Child Psychologist Danielle Kaufman of Melbourne child psychology and school psychology services.
“They know what to expect when they go home, and it provides them with clear boundaries, expectations, and consistency.”
How do you build a routine? Keep it simple. Play around with one or two techniques and have fun modifying them to suit you and your child.
And do it regularly. One of the easiest way to make a new habit stick is to pair it with one you’ve already established, says Gretchen Rubin, whose book Better than Beforelooks at the science of habit creation. Try doing the gratitude practice during dinner or bath, and the worry box (if you need it) after the evening story.
1. Fairy tales
“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairytales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairytales.” Who can argue with Albert Einstein?
2. Gratitude and ‘small things’
Numerous studies show that gratitude “has the strongest relationship to life satisfaction”, not only for adults, but for children too.
How do you practice gratitude in an age appropriate way? “Be specific,” says Kaufman. “Instead of asking ‘how was your day’, try ‘what’s something funny that happened to you today, or something you found difficult but you tried it anyway?’”
Consider modelling appreciation for the small things by tell them what you’re grateful for with things like “I loved having dinner with you tonight”.
“It’s the concept of appreciating the process in life, and noticing the little things, not just the outcome,” says Kaufman. “So focusing on something like ‘I tried really hard’ or ‘what new things did you learn?’ rather than ‘I got a great mark in a test.’
“Not to say we shouldn’t recognise achievements, we’re starting to realise that a successful individual isn’t necessarily someone who things come easily to. Those who grow up understanding that failure and mistakes are okay, may be more likely to learn from them rather than defeated by them.
3. Worry box
The number of children seeking help for anxiety has doubled since 1998. While we all experience anxiety at times, teaching children rituals to externalise the worry calms the brain’s “amygdala hijack” and that keeps the child in state of hyper arousal.
“Telling children not to worry squashes their feelings. It’s more helpful for them to have something they can actively do to process it,” says Kaufman, “but not necessarily having negative associations with negative emotions.”
Keep it fun — whether it’s writing it down and tearing it up, or putting it in a “worry box” that will hold their worries for them while they sleep.
“Asking your kids where in the body they feel it helps them detach and be the observer of their feelings rather than drowning in them,” says Plano. “By teaching emotional intelligence, they become aware of their thoughts, and what is real and what is not real.”
1. Move early
We all know it’s good to exercise early in the day, but research shows that getting your child in the habit of moving early in life itself will lead to a much healthier adulthood.
Crucially, it also helps kids to fully “inhabit” their bodies. In the teenage years this helps them appreciate what their bodies do and how they feel, rather than how they look.
The trick is to make it about play, and not a chore. I take my four-month-old son for a walk around the block to look at neighbours’ flowers, but for older kids try music and “freeze” games, dancing around the living room to an upbeat song before school or (if your child likes a challenge) timing them as they run a loop around the yard or block.
2. Easy Mindfulness
“Nowadays, there are way too many distractions for a young child to bear, and this increases their stress,” says Plano. “We label them with ADD, ADHD, OCD, you name it, then give them medication when it could often be rectified with a simple mindfulness meditation practise.”
Asking your kids to meditate might be a stretch, but simple visualisation or sense awareness techniques can be easy, fun ways to help kids experience the benefits of mindfulness.
Smiling Mind has a couple of wonderful meditations for kids, for example imagining a bubble floating in your body, and watching it rise up and down. Again, simplicity and regularity are key.
And cherish these seemingly small moments you create with your child — it’s not only them who will benefit.