By Kathy Eckert (Staff)
The social emotional wellness of my family has always been a priority for me not only because my own emotional wellness was so important but also because I knew that if I raised emotionally healthy children they would go on to be successful adults. My husband and I had a consistent theme in our parenting style; “we’re raising strong men (we have 2 sons) and we’re raising a strong woman” and everything revolved around that.
This theme would become incredibly important to us when we learned that one of our children not only had some learning disabilities, but also some mental health challenges that would make school and higher education more challenging; not impossible, just more difficult.
Our family’s principals surrounding wellness consisted of these 4 habits:
Everyone requires something different – get to really know your family. How do they respond when they are happy, sad, frustrated and angry? Adjust your parenting style to reflect how they can best learn and grow. My children, like many families, are all different. I have one who would avoid conflict at any cost, did not like any attention brought on them, therefore played by the rules. One who was somewhat augmentative, saw the world in black and white, no gray and didn’t put a lot of value on “things” (which made it difficult to take away processions as a punishment, they would just play with something else), and one who responds really well to positive reinforcement and is a definite “people pleaser”. Therefore, although the rules were the same in the house, how we disciplined was different and based on how they learned best. Two of them needed time to process if they were upset, mad or angry and one wanted to talk about it right away. By giving them what they needed, they were able to process and work through their emotions on their own first, before it would escalate, then we would be able to talk about it.
Listen more than you talk – This is a tough one for me, like many of you, “I have all the answers”. I have been a teacher, stay at home mom, mental health advocate, supervisor and educator but it was my daughter who taught me one of my most valuable lessons on listening more than talking. She would call me from college, struggling with something. Maybe it was her roommate, a professor or class, or all the work she had to do, and my first instinct was to solve her problem by offering suggestions or a different point of view, something she should try etc. She finally just got tired of it and told me that she didn’t call for all of that, she just wanted me to listen to her, hear her, validate what she was feeling or experiencing and NOT solve the problem or offer advice. At first it was a gut punch, but then I thought about what she had said and realized I wasn’t really even listening; my mind was already thinking about the solution. After I apologized to her and frankly my whole family, I began to practice the art of listening. When she would call or in the off chance that the boys wanted to talk about something, I asked if they just wanted to “chirp” or were they looking for advice or help with a solution. As hard as it was, with blood dripping from biting my tongue, if they said “chirp” all I did was listen and validate what they were saying while offering encouragement. I am still a work in progress but it is important enough to keep trying every day.
Find the strengths everyday – Let’s face it – raising kids, heck, having a spouse or partner, is sometimes (well most times) hard work. Finding the strengths in your family has never been so important. We all want to hear the good things that we are doing or that are happening and our children, spouses and partners are no exception. I have spent many years working with families, helping them to identify strengths in themselves and others. I’ve worked with community members on the importance of communicating strengths before addressing concerns. For me it is a way of letting someone know that they matter and that you’ve noticed. There will always be concerns that need addressing but when you lead with a positive, everyone is more apt to listen, rather than get defensive. My nature is that I am a “sunny” person, I can find the strengths in everything. My glass is always full no matter where the water line is and this is something that can be learned with practice. If it is not something that you feel confident with, start with self-reflection. Journal or look into a mirror every day and say a strength about yourself, then move on to your family. Find the strengths in every situation no matter how big or small and verbalize those strengths with your family. My son left for school one day, mad, angry, and frustrated with me, and I at him. However, even in the midst of our mutual frustration, when I went to leave for work that day, I had noticed that he locked the door behind him because I was still in the house – now our door does not need to be locked but he always has done that when I am alone in the house. In the mist of my anger and frustration with him, I texted him and thanked him for locking the door. Look for the little strengths and verbalize them. Don’t forget about the grown-ups in the house, they also need to hear strengths. More often than not, we only hear the bad, no one just calls up to say something good, make sure they are hearing the good at home.
Make your home a “safe” place – Consistency, routine, laughter, respect and love are what make our home safe. Our children knew that when they walked through the door they could be exactly who they are, they could make mistakes without humiliation and they could try new things without fear. If they were having a bad day, they were given their space. We tried very hard not to allow the “sibling rivalry”. Name calling, physical fighting, and obsessive teasing were things that were not tolerated. The world today can be a big, ugly, mean place and that place was not going to be home.