In previous posts, I have discussed the importance of positive emotions in child development and offered some suggestions for how we can strengthen positive feelings in our children’s lives—how we can engage children’s interests, nurture a spirit of kindness and generosity, support their idealism, and share feelings of pride. Positive emotions—especially, a child’s positive expectations for her future—are the cornerstone of her emotional health.
Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp explains, “Positive emotional systems… capture cognitive spaces, leading to their broadening, cultivation and development….As a general principle, the larger the sphere of influence of the positive emotions, the more likely is the child to become a productive and happy member of society.”
But the daily lives of children, of course, are not all about positive feelings. All children, even the most fortunate (or the most over-protected), experience disappointment, frustration and failure. All children have moments of discouragement and self-doubt. In every family, there will be moments of anger and misunderstanding.
In healthy development, children recover from these moments. Whether on their own or with our support, most children bounce back.
Too often, however, children do not quickly bounce back. Painful feelings linger, longer than they should. Vicious cycles are then set in motion: Bad feelings lead to bad attitudes and bad behavior. Criticism and punishment lead to anger and defiance, or secretiveness and withdrawal; and then to more criticism; and then to more defiance and more withdrawal.
Several years ago, a 10-year-old boy explained this to me. We were talking about his frequent arguments with his mother. “When I don’t like the rules, I’ll say something. My mom thinks I’m being fresh. Then she takes something away, and that makes me mad. And it stays with me. Then she thinks I’m always mad. It’s a big cycle…Later, I try to apologize, but she’s still angry.”
Our task, as parents, is to recognize these moments and begin a process of repair.
Children learn invaluable lessons from moments of repair. They learn that, although it is not always easy, moments of anxiety, sadness and anger are moments and can be repaired. Disappointments are disappointments, not catastrophes, and bad feelings do not last forever.
A Pathway Toward Emotional Maturity
We have now opened a pathway toward emotional maturity. In these moments, children begin to develop a more balanced, less all-or-nothing perspective on the disappointments and frustrations in their lives. As a result, they will be better able to “regulate” their emotions - they will be less urgent in their expressions of distress, less insistent in their demands, and able to think more constructively about how to solve emotional problems.
Moments of repair may also lead to a reduction in the level of stress hormones and other stress-related physiological processes that, when prolonged, are damaging to children’s physical and emotional health.
Ten Minutes at Bedtime
I therefore recommend that parents set aside some time, every day (perhaps 10 minutes at bedtime) for kids and parents to have a chance to talk, and to use this time to repair moments of conflict and misunderstanding. This may be the most important ten minutes of a child’s day.
In these brief daily conversations, we should ask kids if there is something they might want to talk about—perhaps a problem she is having at school or with her friends, something she is angry with us about, or what she may be anxious about the following day.
When there has been conflict in our relationship with our kids, it is especially important for us to take the lead and begin to repair hurtful interactions. We need to make a deliberate effort to set aside criticism and judgment as long as we can and hear her side of the story. Discussion and disagreement, even problem solving, can come later. Especially, don’t stay angry.
I also encourage parents to take responsibility for their own emotional responses, acknowledge their errors and, when appropriate, apologize to their child. (We can say, for example, “I know I was really angry at you earlier. Maybe I got too angry.”)
Some parents express concern that, in apologizing to their children, they may implicitly condone their child’s disrespectful or defiant behavior and diminish their authority as parents. This fear is understandable, but unfounded. Our apology does not excuse our child’s bad behavior. (“You still should not have hit your sister.”)
In my opinion, when a parent initiates repair and offers an apology, he has modeled an important lesson in interpersonal relationships and gains authority with his child, because our children’s acceptance of adult authority is, ultimately, based on respect.
Of course, children do not always make this easy. And sometimes we may not know what to say. But our willingness to make the effort is important in itself.
Patient listening receives far less attention than it deserves in current parenting debates, in our understandable concern with children’s achievement and character development. In my experience, however, there is no more important parenting “skill” than this, and nothing we do as parents that is more important for our children’s emotional health - and for their success in life.
Copyright Kenneth Barish, Ph.D.
Kenneth Barish is the author of Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child's Emotions and Solving Family Problems. Pride and Joy is winner of the 2013 International Book Award.