We often talk about emotionally strong children who look very mature, who don't show rage, who don't cry a lot. We think that emotionally weak children do everything opposite, they disturb, crib, snatch, cry, scream.
Where does this emotional strength come from? We are definitely not born with social judgment and ability to regulate emotions. In fact, we are born with a fragmented psychological frame, not knowing what’s ‘me’ and ‘not-me’. It takes time to develop the boundaries of ‘me’ and ‘not-me’, which eventually act like out gatekeepers and filters. The boundaries help us absorb, understand, respond, connect in appropriate ways. Traumas can puncture these boundaries often resulting into weaker psyche during traumas. But in general, there are a few things should be done and should not be done to build layers of boundaries to understand ‘me’ better.
There are 10 layers that need to be developed for strong boundaries and thus for emotional strength:
1. Power of identity – Children develop their identities all the time. Understanding of belongingness develops early. The gender identity, as Frued puts, gets strongly developed in the Oedipal phase at the age of 4-6 years. Children build their self-image based on their understanding of their personalities, body-shapes, performances, age-appropriate skills, people’s responses and much more.
Don'ts: Why are you crying like a baby? Why do you want to use my cream, are you a girl? You hit him; you are a bad boy. He is your friend and you must share with him. You will be a good girl if you study well. Why are you behaving like your sister? You are eating like your fat friend.
2. Power of bonding – A display of affection is needed for children. Verbal (telling openly), physical (hugs and kisses), gestural (looking at the child and smiling) ways are a few of the ways of doing this. A 15-minute time of talking/playing without distractions helps them feel connected. This is more importantly needed during transition phases (like for a baby when she wakes up after sleep or for a preschooler at the time of leaving for or returning from school ). Listen when children talk. Do not be judgmental and preachy they share something.
Don’ts: talking more than the child, judgments ( you shouldn’t talk about your friends like this, you must respect your elders)
3. Power of being taken care of – The basic needs of being fed or being provided shelter makes a child feels taken care of. This is generally missing in underprivileged kids or orphans.
Don’ts: Neglecting basic needs, providing more than needed to compensate for own childhood’s gaps
4. Sense of being needed – If children feel that they are a burden to us or their presence is overwhelming for us they think of themselves as a liability. Then they want to establish their power. This often leads to tug-of-war, struggles, and defiance. We could help them feel needed by verbally telling that they were missed a lot when they return from a trip or by asking them to help in the household chores. Help a child feel like a giver and an important part of the family and society.
Don’ts: making a child feel like a liability by overtly sacrificing (“I can’t come for the party as there is no one to leave my child with” when the child is in earshot)
5. Power of choice – We need to understand the difference between the platform of equality/discussion and parental authority tower. It helps to decide what areas do we want our children to have a choice. We cannot let them decide which city to move to, but we can definitely let them decide what to wear. Provide them choices to choose from like “Will you prefer roti or rice for dinner tonight?” instead of starting an open-ended discussion like “What do you want to eat today?” Children develop decision-making abilities if they can trust their choices.
Don’ts: reject choices after asking, mock at their choices
6. Power of trust – It goes both ways. Children need to know they can trust us (we can do this by being consistent, not adamant though) and they also need to know that we trust them (we can do this by letting them do age-appropriate tasks, by making them responsible for a few things). Lies or tardiness here and there do not break that strong layer of trust. Understand the difference between dependability and truthfulness. Children lie when they are scared to tell the truth, keep this in mind.
Don’ts: Asking the teacher if she gave homework even if the child says she didn’t, checking the door again for even if the child says he locked it
7. Power of discipline – Discipline and punishment are two very different things. While discipline focuses on the behavior and child’s safety-cum-learning, punishment focuses on the child and stems from parents’ moments of weaknesses. Discipline in children means that they know what’s expected from them, what the dos and don’ts are. Be disciplined parents first. Don't say what you won’t do.
Don’ts: hitting, shouting, ignoring, isolating, ridiculing, depriving, threatening, giving empty threats.
8. Power of empathy – Empathy and sympathy are different. Empathy comes from understanding, sympathy comes from guilt and pity. A layer of empathy helps children understand people’s behavior better and thus they are able to regulate their apathy/guilt/anger. Empathic children are more in charge of their own emotions. If your child laughs at an obese girl, let it go at that time. Talk later what kind of obesity-causing disease the girl might be struggling with.
Don’ts: Shaming the child for ‘wrong’ thoughts, expecting an empathic child to adjust and let it go all the time.
9. Power of big picture – Children do not understand time on a spectrum. They see time in small chunks. As a result, their understanding of consequences is very dim. They are better equipped to take decisions and regulate responses if they know what’s reversible and what’s not. We should share pieces from our childhood, so they can see how our choices in the past have affected our present. We should ready them for their future without imposing the difficulties of our present.
Don’ts: if you don’t study well you will not get a job, it’s ok if he has hurt you; just shake hands and be friends again
10. Power of positivity – There are two ways to look at most of the things. One way to look at torrential rains is “Oh no, it’s been raining so hard, we haven’t been able to go out anywhere”. The other way to look at the same thing is “Thank god we have a shelter and food to eat. It must be so difficult for homeless people in this rain”. Of course this is not applicable for crisis situations where someone has died. But the ability to look at most of the things from a positive angle prevents children from taking everything as a catastrophe. Broken pencil, poor marks, ripped pants, poor T.V. network are difficult situations and not crises. They shouldn't respond to all situations with the same panic.
Don’ts: oh no, such poor marks! Oh no, there is no power supply today! Oh no, there is no juice in the fridge! Oh no, they stopped airing my favorite show!
(Note: This write-up is a result of many months of research.A special thanks to Priya Balasubramanian for collating the points after the workshop. Should you want to consult for more details/discussions, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org. )