In a world that will throw lots of difficult challenges and people their way, parents have to do what they can to prepare their children to be ready for what comes. Sadly, we can not entirely protect our children from manipulators, predatory relationships or controlling people. However, we can prepare them with tools on how to handle themselves in such a way that they are less likely to be victimized by others.
Here are three ways to empower your child:
1. Allow them to withhold affection without being punished.
So often children are forced to give Aunt Sally a hug and a kiss when they see her… and sometimes they don’t want to. This is okay! Pressuring a child to offer signs of affection will weaken their self-confidence in being able to tell others “No” when they really need to. Similarly, if you ask your three year old for a hug and he refuses, coyly or not, don’t play the game of crossing your arms and having hurt feelings. This gives the same message that a child will be emotionally punished if they don’t give in to your wishes. All affection whether age 3, 23 or 93 should be freely given and freely received. There should be no form of emotional blackmail on signs of love.
2. Allow them to speak freely about their anger or sadness without trying to fix them or cheer them up right away.
By proactively teaching our children that it is okay to experience the range of human emotions, and that it is good and healthy to express those emotions (within reason of course), they learn that healthy relationships do not involve bottling up feelings or dismissing their emotions because they make other people uncomfortable. Don’t say things like “You have no reason to feel this way!” Even worse is to suggest “It hurts me when you’re sad.” This will teach the child that they are responsible for YOUR feelings and begin a very difficult pattern for their future. They are not responsible for your feelings. Do not sigh. Do not roll your eyes. Do not change the subject until they are ready. Simply be there. And be present with them in to validate their pain. This will form a proper expectation of what healthy interpersonal relationships look like.
3. The word No is a two-way lesson.
It’s so important for children to feel the control of the “No” they state… even a toddler. This gives them the autonomy they need to make independent decisions and protect them from abusers in their life. However, it’s also important for parents to make sure children understand the implications of the word No when it’s said in a defiant or disobedient way. But this doesn’t look like the hard “If you don’t obey me, you’re grounded for a month!” It’s simply handing the power calmly back to the child: “You can choose not to obey me. However, if you do so, you’re also giving up your friend’s birthday party this weekend.” Etc. The critical part is to stick to the consequences, don’t backpedal in the fit of pleading tears from a misbehaving child. Staying consistent is true love. And learning that “No” sometimes has consequences is a lesson better learned from the parents than from the police or court system later on.
Written by: Elizabeth Peck, a Clinical Mental Health Counseling Candidate at the University of the Cumberlands and a support assistant to Pax Family Counseling.