I’m the father of three. Ten years ago, when my wife and I learned we were going to have our first child, I quickly began making arrangements to leave the career path I was on, so I could devote myself as a stay-at-home dad. Those kids have been the center of my attention ever since. I’ve been an active father, hosting regular play dates, volunteering in classrooms, coaching sports, even acting as a daycare provider for the children of others. Now that my youngest has started kindergarten, I’m trying to find new ways to stay active and involved, like substitute teaching at their school. This is easily the best, most rewarding job I’ve ever had.
It’s also the most stressful, taxing and emotionally exhausting job I’ve ever had. And with middle school and teen years on the horizon, it’s only going to get more challenging. My kids have such unique, individual, emotional needs, and my time is always limited. It’s easy to feel like I’m failing each in some way. I want to help them with their fears. I want to prepare them for the hardships they’ll encounter during their lives. I want to help them with their anxiety. And I also want to teach them to always find the beauty in life. It’s all very overwhelming.
As a member of the GoZen! team, I’ve been lucky enough to get a sneak peak at the expert interviews collected for the forthcoming Resilient Child Summit. Despite my years of experience, despite the research I do daily for GoZen!, I’m routinely shocked by how much I still have to learn. I’m thankful that I’m not alone in my work as a parent, and that my kids are not alone with their emotional challenges. There are voices out there offering guidance.
Here are five things I learned while previewing the Resilient Child Summit.
1. “Overparenting” contributes to childhood anxiety
Who knew I could do too much? Dr. Robin Berman explains in her interview how over-engaging, over-praising, over-stimulating, over-fixing and over-regulating our kids can cause their “emotional immune systems” to weaken. Our emotional resilience is very much like an immune system, where the more it is tested, the stronger it gets, and the more likely one is to ward off difficulties. However, our instinct as parents, myself included, is often to protect. We want to step in and diffuse arguments among our kids, when really there are times when it’s more healthy for them to work it out on their own. We want our kids to believe they are the smartest, most talented children in their schools, when really they should learn to be comfortable with themselves when they’re not. We want to rush to put a band-aid on every scrape, when really it’s time for them to learn that a little blood won’t kill them. Dr. Berman helps us understand when to allow kids cope on their own, and when it’s time to step in and help.
2. Anxious, negative thoughts can be controlled
We are the executives of our minds. We have the ability to manage our own thoughts. As Dr. Tamar Chansky asks, what thoughts do we “want to hire? What do we want to fire?” The goal for our children, and for us, should never be to eliminate anxiety. We cannot rid ourselves entirely of negative thoughts. But we can recognize anxiety for what it is: often notoriously inaccurate thinking. I love the idea of our children interviewing their thoughts, fact checking their negativity. Is it accurate for our thoughts to say, “I’ll never be able to sleep without having nightmares?” Or is, “The whole school will laugh at me when I make this speech,” a reliable suggestion? What is a more likely outcome? What is a more accurate thought? If we help our kids change their relationship with anxiety, normalize their worry, they can take control of it and learn when to listen to it and when to ignore it.
3. Self-compassion is the new self-esteem
I remember self-esteem being all the rage. Kids with high self-esteem were seen as more competent. They had higher rates of general achievement. Everyone needed to experience success in order to boost their self-esteem! But Dr. Kristin Neff points out the flaws in the high self-esteem mindset. Apparently we’ve had it all wrong! “The main problem is that having high self-esteem requires feeling special and above average.” In other words, self-esteem requires success that not everyone can achieve. Rather than allowing our kids to fall into the esteem trap of needing to be superior, we should be avoiding social comparison all together and teach self-compassion. Essentially, self-compassion is the practice of “treating yourself with the same kindness and support, care that you show to a good friend when they’re struggling.” There are three components of self-compassion. First, using kind, non-judgmental language with ourselves. In other words, showing ourselves unconditional love, no matter what. Second, recognizing our common humanity: knowing everyone suffers, makes mistakes and feels inadequate from time to time. And the third is mindfulness, taking a balanced, “present” approach to all of our needs and emotions.
4. Really, mom and dad, it’s okay to take care of yourselves
If you’re like me, you devote most of your time to taking care of the people around you, especially your children. Taking time for ourselves is often a guilt-ridden experience. We feel selfish and not present for our families. Thank goodness for Heather Chauvin, who works to enable us to take care of ourselves. And to hear her justify it in her interview … it just makes so much sense! How can we teach our children to manage their stress, their anxiety, their general well-being, if we aren’t willing to, or don’t even know how to, manage our own? She connects the dots between being present for ourselves and being present for our children. She reconciles the idea of creating boundaries in our personal lives so that you, and your children, can feel more free. She illustrates how “You have to be more proactive in your life. When you start being more proactive you’re no longer surviving, you’re thriving.” I like that thought.
5. Just talk about it
Howie Mandel. If you don’t know of Howie, I’m not sure where you’ve been for the past several decades. I remember hanging out with my cousin almost twenty-five years ago watching Howie do stand-up comedy and thinking he was the funniest man I’d ever heard. Listening to this interview, I understand the flip side of that. Howie deals with severe OCD and anxiety. In his interview, he describes an incident that took place years ago when he was a guest on the Howard Stern Show. Howie had a panic attack on the air, found himself suddenly and unwillingly exposed as someone who had mental health issues, and he thought his career had ended just like that. Until he ran into someone on the street who said to him, “Me too.” At that moment, he knew he wasn’t alone. Since then, Howie has made himself an advocate for transparency of mental health issues. He doesn’t want anyone to feel alone. Howie says, “Talking about it is the first step. And if everyone talked about it, I’m telling you this would be a better world.”
Howie is right. And that’s what GoZen! is aiming to do. Let’s talk about the mental wellness of our children. Let’s talk about the mental wellness of ourselves. Let’s share what we know with each other, using compassion and understanding and empathy.
This is just a fraction of what I took away from the interviews that compose the Resilient Child Summit. My friends, this is a free event. Consider registering and making yourself a part of the conversation. Please join us. We’d love to see you there.