As we welcome in the New Year we also look at goals and new opportunities to explore in the coming year. A fresh start. As parents, it might be a great time to reflect on how you are supporting your kids in building a stronger sense of self.
Sometimes as parents we can get a bit over excited about what our kids could have interests in— wouldn’t it be great if they just popped out with all of our passions and wanted to do them with us from day one?! But as you probably have found this is not usually the case. As much as you would like your kids to genetically find interest in the things you love to do, they are their own individual with their own identity, and have their own drives, desires, passions and interests to discover for themselves. It’s one of the joys of being alive—exploring and learning from experience what you like, don’t like and what is challenging or easy for you. By exploring you get to create your path and decide who you want to be. You are creating a sense of self. This is what play for kids is all about. Trying out roles and personalities and “testing the waters” socially, emotionally, and physically. Each person’s journey is their own, including your child’s.
So what can we do to help our children/teenagers grow into adults with a strong sense of self—knowing who they are and confident about being in the world?
After working with kids and teens for the past 15 years at over five schools here are 7 tips I can give around helping support your child/teen develop a clear sense of self, which can also create stronger parent-child communication, respect, and positive relating for years to come.
1) Encourage exploration and curiosity.
Encourage and support exploration—share your passions with them but if they aren’t for them, allow them to pursue their interests and explore—you may just learn something new about yourself in the process by trying something you may have never tried before.
You might even take them to some different types of art events in town (i.e. theater shows, dance productions, craft or art shows so they are exposed to a large array of different interests). Also take them to try or watch different sports (i.e. college Basketball, v-ball, lacrosse, baseball, softball, yoga, Tai Chi). Let them see all of these things at least once, and see if anything draws their attention in. Be open and willing to explore what interests them and take some time to see what is offered in your town or city.
While encouraging exploration of new experiences and interests the one thing we must be careful of as parents is not bringing in our own biases, judgments or shame around different activities. Maybe we grew up with parents who pushed their ideals, interests and shame onto us—telling us “boys don’t dance—that’s for girls…Shaming a passion we may have had internally and imprinting on us that there is something wrong with that activity just because we were shamed out of it as a kid. This is a great time as a parent to watch for those internal voices that judge and tell us that our kid shouldn’t be doing that because…___fill in the blank___. Stop and ask yourself, “Who’s voice am I hearing? Is it mine? Or is it a shaming adult in my past? Is it true?” Then go from there and try to be as open and supportive as you can be with your child’s choice of what interests him or her. This is a great chance for you to personally grow and reflect on your own programming and become more conscious in your own life—freeing yourself from past programming that you may not have chosen to be programmed to live with consciously. Free yourself! Free your future generations from those old voices.
2) Support your kids in choosing what interests them. Don’t push your agenda on them.
Working with young adults for the past 14 years has made me realize how important it is for parents to be aware of how much their pressure on their child to be someone they want them to be can really have a big effect (positive and negative) on their kid’s social and emotional wellbeing, especially around extracurricular activities.
I have watched and interacted with 100s of kids who have told me, “You know Caroline, I don’t really want to do dance— its really my mom’s thing and it makes her so happy I don’t have the heart to tell her it’s not what I am interested in. I really want to play soccer but then I won’t be a professional dancer, which is what my mom wants me to become.” Or “I have to go to basketball practice every night—my dad loves basketball and he is constantly making me play saying I have to follow in his footsteps and play in college. I hate basketball and never have liked it. I really want to get into surfing— I love the water, but no one in my family likes the ocean so it will never happen.” Or it’s about musical instruments when they would rather write or make art… Or they want to read books and write but their family has always played football so they don’t understand how anyone would want to spend their time alone reading and writing.
The pressure comes in all shapes and forms and tends to have the repeating theme of the kid wanting to please their parent to receive love, pushing down their own sense of self and identity to be someone who they think their parents will love and accept more and a parent who does not realize their kid is hiding who they are to please them… I don’t think any parent really wants this for the child in the bigger picture, but sometimes we get so excited in our own dreams or living through our children that we forget that they have their own life to live and their own dreams to sew and yes, they might be different then yours.
One reason I feel this topic is so important to stop and take some time to think about as a parent is because one of the good things that I have seen come from parents who allow their kid to explore their interests and find what they like or don’t like without judgment or shame, is that the relating between the parent and child is so much clearer, respectful and loving—the parent(s) and child want to be with each other and send time together because there is mutual respect for who they are. This relating continues throughout their life and builds trust and honesty because it is safe to be yourself and share it. As a parent myself, I couldn’t want anything more with my own child—I want her to feel safe to be who she is and to share that with me. Home should be a safe place for our children to grow and find themselves. A safe place to fail at things they try and to get up and try again.
So if you want the teen years to be a lot smoother—give them the time and space to explore their own interests. You may want them to go to a specific college or have a specific life — remember there are many paths to the same destination and tier are many destinations with many opportunities out there. The one thing I do know is if you can instill a intrinsic motivation and drive in your son or daughter, they will be able to steer their boat to any destination they choose.
3) Recognize introverted verses extroverted interests.
Another thing to take into consideration when helping your son or daughter find their passions and interests is whether or not they are more naturally introverted or extroverted. If they can understand this about themselves better earlier on it can help them creates a stronger sense of self especially if they are more naturally inclined to be more introverted since we live in a society that values and sees being more extroverted as successful. (i.e.: the school system places great value on group work, outward successes like being able to talk in front of large groups of people, going to big events like football games and dances, and going to parties with their peers in high school.) If your child isn’t that extroverted naturally they might be trying to fit into a box that does not fit them well.
As parents becoming more aware of what we are more naturally will help identify if our type is the same or different then our children’s. This is a very important step to recognize because what your child might need maybe very different then what you might need. For example, if your child is more extroverted and you are more introverted then your child might need more social arrangements with friends to recharge and feel happy, and you may need more down time to yourself away from friends to recharge and feel happy. You may find great joy in spending the day on your own reading books, while your extroverted child might need connections with people doing activities with people to feel joy. This can go both ways, if you are a parent who is more extroverted and your child is naturally more introverted, then you might not understand how they could enjoy spending time on their own in their room all day writing, reading or doing art on their own. You might worry there is something very wrong with them because they aren’t socializing enough and or you might try to push them to interact with people more through team sports or other interests you enjoy and find comfort in. there is no right or wrong answer in any of this—I just wanted to bring it up as something to look at and think about while you are learning more about your child/teen in this process. Here is a link to a site you and your child/teen could go to take a personality quiz which can help you understand more about how you learn and interact in the world and how your son or daughter might be similar or different. This is not a diagnosis but a fun way to understand yourself in another format. I used this in my Life Skills Class at middle school last year and the students found it very helpful in seeing parts of themselves they wouldn’t have known how to describe in words to others. It’s designed for kids: http://www.16personalities.com/free-personality-test
4) Let your teen learn from their choices and natural consequences.
Your part in this is almost acting as a facilitator in your child’s life—not the dictator or “preaching teacher.” Instead you are helping them reflect on and share what they are learning from exploring their interests and making their own personal choices. Through open ended questions, reflection based questions, and a genuine support and acceptance even when they find they might not like something or that they are not as good at it as they would have liked to be, you will help them feel safe to really take in and understand who they are better at the core for their life. Remember, it’s not your job in this to “fix them” and how they are feeling, but instead to hear them and reflect back positive observations on what they are sharing.
A good question to ask, “Would you like my opinion on this?” If they say no, don’t give it. This builds trust and eventually they will be asking for your thoughts on their own.
So what if your child finds they don’t like one of the choices he or she has made about exploring a new passion? Or what if you have one of those kids who tends to want to switch from one thing to the next from day to day? I am not suggesting letting your kid run the show in this regard—instead laying it out in the beginning that when they sign up for something they are committing to sticking to it for a set amount of time that you both agree on beforehand (ie: a week, a month, a season…) And you remind them of this commitment when either their interest is no longer there or they are finding it too challenging. Then you are there to help support your child/teen if they are not enjoying it by helping them reflect on what about it they do not like, coming up with ways to get through something they don’t like and make it more interesting to them still is a huge lesson to learn in life. Learning to communicate about what is working for you or not working for you will help them be better communicators in their future work and relationships. This helps build resilience as well. Your job is to help them find humor and positives in the work part of this experience.
Reminding them they have made the choice and commitment to it. They learn to take responsibility for their own choices and how it feels to follow through and finish even when it gets tougher. If you, as the parent, had picked the activity/interest for your child/teen then they don’t get to feel what it is like to take responsibility of their own choice and they loose a huge lessen in natural consequences of personal choices. If kids are given a chance to learn this earlier on it can help them understand better how every choice they make has consequences—both positive and negative. It can be especially helpful for those of us who also struggle with impulse control as it is. We learn to spend a little more time with our decisions after a few very boring choices made impulsively.
One of the times I feel it is a good choice to support your child in changing or stopping something they committed to is when they are with peers or adults who are not emotionally safe for them—they are being teased, or shamed or threatened and it doesn’t stop when called out. These are really good reasons to support your kid in leaving or stopping the activity. Abuse is never ok, and it is important to support our kids in speaking up against it and not wanting it in their lives.
5) Stop worrying about how things will look on their college application.
This worry is about you, not your child’s sense of self and development. There are many colleges out there and many different paths to take. What makes your child/teen happy and excited about being alive? What motivates them to get out of bed? Naturally if your son or daughter finds these things they will have the energy, desire, and motivation to pursue their future and it will show up in their college applications naturally. The message your son or daughter hears when you are only focused on how “what they are doing” looks to colleges or to others, is that “looks” matter more then them—they are worth less then looks… This is not a message any parent really wants their child to receive is it? No, you want your child to feel loved and worthy of attention for who they naturally are. It’s exhausting to try and be someone your not. Help free your child/teen from that exhaustion by accepting them as they are and encouraging their own identity.
6) Don’t try to live your life through your kids.
It’s good to be aware of your intentions when pushing your kid/teen into something. Just take a moment and ask yourself if what ever the activity or event is—if it is something you feel will truly benefit your child/teen or if it is something you wish you had a chance to do? If it is the later, then take some time and write up a few things you wish you could do in your adult life now. Put that same energy you were projecting on to your child/teen and put it towards a focus and intent to make something happen in your own life for yourself that you have wanted to do. You will feel less stressed about fighting your child on doing something they aren’t interested in and you will be happier and more fulfilled because you have taken care of your own needs in some way. As parents life can get busy and we have to focus on our kids before ourselves a lot of the time—but it is really important to building self-care time and recharge activities that keep us excited about our own lives. It’s our responsibility to do this for ourselves: not our partners or kids.
7) Take some time to look at your own sense of self and passions.
Why not make this an adventure for both you as a parent and your child. It’s never too late to reflect on your own life and interests. Re-check in to see how your choices in your own life are steering your path and if it is the direction you want to go. As your child discovers new interests maybe look for new interests for yourself in your own life. Join a group, go to the theater, write a blog, try something new—see a therapist, try yoga, go kayaking, meet someone new… If you are excited about your own life—you won’t be as dependent on your kids making you feel happy, successful or good. That is a lot of pressure to put on your kids—I can guarantee you they will be happier knowing you are passionate and excited about things YOU are doing too. You both can share your joy in doing things you love even if they are different activities. The experience is similar which is what can be shared at a deeper level—the feelings and benefits to your health you get while doing something you truly love.
The Benefits of Helping Your Teen Create a Strong Sense of Self
Your child/teen learns work ethic, resilience, how to problem solve–communicate and express when they don’t like something and do like something, and why. This builds a strong sense of self and more confident person for the future. Also in doing this together you will improve relating between parents and child/teen due to respect for the child/teen having their own identity and personality. They will most likely respect and see you as a person as well. This builds trust and honesty, which will benefit the entire family for years to come. But overall it could just be a lot of fun to explore new things together. Why wait, get started today! I dare you! : )