Parenting is hardly all sunshine and rainbows. And neither is the world we all live in. Which is why, stressful as it may be, it’s important to talk to kids about difficult topics in age-appropriate ways—and probably earlier than you think.
To help wade through the discomfort of addressing everything from death to climate change to sex, we turned to Emily Barth Isler, the author of AfterMath, a middle grade novel about navigating grief; one that Amy Schumer has called “a gift to the culture.”
While the parents in AfterMath shy away from these conversations, Isler, a mom of two, takes a different approach, drawing influence from the famous Fred Rogers quote: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
Here, she walks us through tackling some of the tougher conversations with a similar approach: Find ways to draw kids in, activate their empathy, and encourage them to get involved.
Emily Barth Isler: “Let’s be clear, I hate that this article is so necessary, but I do appreciate that it features really clear, age-specific ways to start conversations with kids about school shootings. As someone who wrote a book that deals with this topic, I often hear from people who think it’s inappropriate to talk about these things with kids. But let’s be clear:
What’s inappropriate for kids is gun violence—gun violence in schools, churches, synagogues, grocery stores—all places they deserve to feel safe. When I wrote AfterMath, I hoped that it would soon be shelved in the Historical Fiction section of the library; I’m devastated that it continues to land squarely in current events. And will, until lawmakers do what’s necessary to make the violence stop.”
Emily Barth Isler : “The first step towards getting comfortable talking to kids about hard things is to get comfortable with those things yourself. Historically, American culture has often favored the “let’s pretend that’s not a thing” mentality when it comes to death and other tough stuff. I’d like to present another angle.
What if we dive in? What if we get vulnerable and honest with ourselves, and find a way to make some peace with things like the inevitability of death? I love how artists confront mortality, and the genius TV writer/creator Mike Schur does such a great job of doing so in the most hilarious, moving, brilliant way with his show, The Good Place.”
Emily Barth Isler : “Kids have excellent bullsh*t detectors. They tend to know when we’re lying—or even just withholding truth—and it can damage their trust in us. I’m not saying that you have to include all the details you would give a 30 year old when talking to a 10 year old, but if honesty is the foundation, you’re in good shape.
I appreciate this article because it gives parents very clear step-by-step instructions to get through the tough parts, it helps to be able to lean on that structure.”
Emily Barth Isler : “The survivors of tragedies do not owe us their stories or wisdom. But sometimes, something horrible will bring our attention to a bright light in the world, someone who is knowledgeable, compassionate, and brilliant. Nelba Marquez-Greene, my favorite Twitter follow, is one of these lights. She is such a vulnerable, honest voice, and I—an adult!—have found so much comfort in her faith and resilience.
She’s a therapist, but also lost her daughter, Ana Grace, in the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, so I find that she’s able to give multiple perspectives on life, death, and grief. Her TEDx talk has advice directed at teachers and teachers-in-training, but I think it translates very well to parents, too.”
Emily Barth Isler lives in Los Angeles, California, with her husband and their two kids. A former child actress, she performed all over the world in theatre, film, and TV. In addition to books, Emily writes about sustainable, eco-friendly beauty and skincare, and has also written web sitcoms, parenting columns, and personal essays. She has a B.A. in Film Studies from Wesleyan University, and really, really loves television. Her debut novel, AfterMath, is out now; learn more at emilybarthisler.com.
Kids who learn and think differently aren’t the only ones who can feel lonely or “apart” from other kids. Most people feel that way at some point.
But research shows that kids who learn and think differently are more likely than their peers to struggle with loneliness. And they often have a harder time dealing with those feelings when they have them. Learn more about loneliness and kids who learn and think differently.
Why kids who are different might feel lonely
Kids who learn and think differently might feel lonely for many reasons. For starters, they’re more likely to be bullied or left out. They can have a hard time making friends or connecting with people. And struggling in school and socially can make kids feel bad about themselves.
They may feel like nobody understands them or their challenges. And they might even withdraw. Kids with certain challenges are most likely to feel left out and isolated. These challenges include trouble with:
The difference between being lonely and being alone
Some people like spending time alone. That goes for kids and adults. As long as they have the ability to make friends and connect with other people when they want to, being alone is a preference, not a problem.
Being unhappy when alone doesn’t necessarily mean someone is lonely, though. Having a hard time entertaining yourself and feeling bored aren’t the same thing as feeling socially isolated.
Also, loneliness isn’t always about being alone. Some kids feel isolated even when they’re with others. They feel like nobody around them shares or understands their challenges. There’s nobody to connect with.
How loneliness can impact kids
When kids go through the occasional lonely spell, it usually doesn’t have a lasting impact. Feeling lonely all the time is different, though. It can affect kids in lots of ways. And it can lead to other difficulties.
Kids who feel lonely might be:
More likely to have low self-esteem. They might feel like others are rejecting them. Kids might lose confidence in themselves and eventually believe they have nothing valuable to offer.
Less likely to take positive risks. Trying new things can build confidence and lead to new interests and skills. But kids who are already feeling rejected and vulnerable may not want to take this leap. They may be afraid to call attention to themselves and risk failing.
More likely to be sad, disconnected, and worried. Kids deal with loneliness in different ways. They may keep their sadness inside and pull away from others. Or they may become angry and act out. The combination of negative emotions and isolation can lead to depression and anxiety.
More likely to engage in risky behaviors. Teens may drink, smoke or vape, use drugs, vandalize property, or do other risky things if they think it will help them feel accepted.
Keep an eye on signs of depression, too. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your health care provider if you have concerns. And if your child has ADHD, read about the connection between ADHD and depression.
If your child is struggling to make friends, there are ways to help. First, try to figure out why. Some kids need help with social skills. This is common for kids who are immature or have ADHD, autism or non-verbal learning disorder. Other kids are anxious. They may feel overwhelmed in new social situations or big groups.
Kids who are depressed often want to stay in their rooms. They may interpret things negatively and doubt others want to see them. Finally, some kids may have a hard time fitting in because they have different interests.
If you think your child is lonely, ask them. Start by describing a time when you have felt lonely. If they don’t want to talk, try again in a few days. Don’t push them.
If your child says they are lonely, try to be a good listener. Show that you’re listening by reflecting back what they’re saying: “It sounds like you’re having a hard time.” You can also say supportive things like: “That sounds tough. Would you tell me more about that?”
Once you know more, you can try to help. For kids who need practice with social skills, you can break things down into small steps. Then you can role play them with your child. For kids who have a hard time putting themselves out there, acknowledge how they feel. Then remind them that they’ll probably have a good time once they’ve made the effort. Give them lots of support and praise for doing something tough.
Some kids tend to misunderstand interactions. You can give a reality check: “What makes you think he’s mad? Are there other explanations?” For kids who interpret things negatively a lot, pointing it out each time can help break the pattern.
Finally, help kids find a group or activity that is interesting to them. Many kids find success online, where there are lots of virtual groups for kids with specific interests. Getting excited about something will help them feel more confident, too.
Hankin BL, Abramson LY, Moffitt TE, Silva PA, McGee R, Angell KE (February 1998). “Development of depression from preadolescence to young adulthood: emerging gender differences in a 10-year longitudinal study”. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 107 (1): 128–140. doi:10.1037/0021-843x.107.1.128. PMID9505045. S2CID29783051.
Hallfors DD, Waller MW, Ford CA, Halpern CT, Brodish PH, Iritani B (October 2004). “Adolescent depression and suicide risk: association with sex and drug behavior”. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 27 (3): 224–231. doi:10.1016/s0749-3797(04)00124-2. PMID15450635.
Ahmed, Z., & Julius, S. H. (2015). The relationship between depression, anxiety and stress among women college students. Indian Journal of Health and Wellbeing, 6(12), 1232-1234. ProQuest1776182512Sutton A, ed. (2012). “Depression in Children and Adolescents”. Depression Sourcebook, 3rd Edition. Detroit: Omnigraphics: Health Reference Series. pp. 131–143.
Zahn-Waxler C, Klimes-Dougan B, Slattery MJ (2000). “Internalizing problems of childhood and adolescence: prospects, pitfalls, and progress in understanding the development of anxiety and depression”. Development and Psychopathology. 12 (3): 443–466. doi:10.1017/s0954579400003102. PMID11014747. S2CID25880656.
Inside a cramped, windowless room at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., a special team of clinicians gathers every Wednesday to help kids struggling with long covid.
The cases are complex, varied and heartbreaking. Once-active children now struggle to walk more than 50 feet. Some are so tired they sleep for 20 hours a day. Others have had to withdraw from school because virus-induced brain fog clouds their ability to solve simple math problems. The one thing they have in common is a covid infection.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there were roughly 26 million cases of covid among people under 18 during the first 20 months of the pandemic. But just how many kids are dealing with long covid is hard to pin down. The condition seems to be less common in children than in adults; one international study put the risk at nearly 6 percent.
But the sheer number of initial infections in kids means that many likely face lingering symptoms — yet few areas have facilities equipped to offer adequate care. That leaves many families, especially those with lower incomes or outside of major metro areas, to figure it all out themselves.
“It’s hard for kids. Their peers often don’t understand because they look normal,” said Alexandra Yonts, an infectious disease specialist at Children’s National Hospital, which sees three new patients a week and is booked through June 2023. “The parents vocalize a lot of frustration being passed around from doctor to doctor, since there’s still a lot of community physicians that don’t believe that long covid exists in kids, or just don’t know what to do about it.”
But in quick bursts of discussion between appointments, Yonts and her colleagues — in infectious disease, physical medicine, rehabilitation and psychology — hash out what they can do about it. The team decides which blood tests might identify causes of fatigue, weigh whether to bring in a neurologist to help with headaches or rule out other conditions that might diminish concentration.
“It helps that we can all be here talking with each other,” Yonts said. “It cuts down on cross-communication.” This kind of centralized, interdisciplinary care for long covid isn’t a silver bullet — scientists are still scrambling to understand what long covid is and how best to treat it — but it’s the best option for kids dealing with debilitating symptoms that often stump other doctors.
But there are just over a dozen such clinics in the U.S. Many are staffed with clinicians juggling more routine patient care and other responsibilities at the hospital, which limits their capacity and leads to monthslong waitlists.
Families often hit many dead ends before finding their way to dedicated clinics. “It’s pretty draining,” said Monika Varma, whose then-9-year-old son Akshay got covid in December 2021. “He’d get these really difficult headaches any time he was on a screen or tried to read, have temper tantrums and was just exhausted to his core,” she said. “He didn’t have the stamina to do anything.”
For several months Varma scrambled to find the right doctors, bringing Akshay to a pediatrician, neurologist, cardiologist and pulmonologist, some of whom were unfamiliar with long covid. “We were going piecemeal until we got into [Children’s National Hospital], but leaving that clinic we had the biggest sigh of relief,” she said. “You’re there for a long time, and the doctors are all talking to each other. By the end of the day, we knew, yes, this is long covid and had specific areas to focus on.”
Recovery wasn’t smooth or easy, but the tools Akshay got from the clinic — pacing strategies to manage his depleted energy, strategies to ride out mood swings and a neurology referral to help with headaches — have helped him get traction in feeling better. “He does have days where he’ll get really tired, but that’s not the norm anymore,” said Varma. “Knock on wood, I think we’re really on the other end of it.”
“We were very, very lucky that we had the care we had and the time that I was able to devote,” she said. “We were so much luckier than most people.”….Read more
Good parenting requires empathy, compassion and the willingness to make some of your needs secondary — essentially, many of the traits that you wouldn’t find in a narcissist. But as a psychologist who studies the impacts of narcissism in family relationships, I’ve noticed that many narcissist traits, such as grandiosity, superiority and entitlement, are on the rise.
Narcissistic parenting isn’t about bragging on social media or forcing rigorous extracurricular activities on your kids. It goes a lot deeper, and it’s one of the most toxic ways to raise your kids. Narcissistic parents have a hard time allowing their kids to become their own person, or have their own needs met.
You might know a narcissistic parent and not realize it. Here are the common signs:
1. They see their child as a source of validation.
Narcissists will often loudly flaunt their children when they score the winning goal or get the big part in the school play. You might see them constantly bragging online or bringing up their child’s beauty or talent in conversation.
Unless something involves their child’s achievements, the parent is checked out, detached and disinterested in their child. They generally shame their child’s need for connection or validation, and instead see them as a tool to fulfill those needs for themselves.
2. They are emotionally reactive, but shame their child’s emotions.
Narcissists are often angry and aggressive when they feel disappointed or frustrated. If they believe their child is being critical or defiant, they can lash out. These reactions can manifest as screaming, sudden bouts of rage or, in more severe cases, physical violence.
Meanwhile, the emotions of others can make narcissistic people uncomfortable and they may have contempt for them. They may shame their child into not sharing their emotions at all with phrases like, “Get over yourself, it wasn’t that big of a deal,” or, “Stop crying and toughen up.”
3. They always put their own needs first.
Sometimes adults need to put real-world issues first — maybe a late shift can’t be avoided or chores will take up an entire afternoon. But narcissistic parents expect their children to make sacrifices so that they can do or have whatever they want.
For example, if the parent likes sailing, then their children must go sailing every weekend. Or if the parent has a standing tennis game, then the parent will never miss it, even for something important like a graduation ceremony.
4. They have poor boundaries.
Narcissistic parents can be quite intrusive. When they don’t feel like it, they won’t interact with the child. But when they want the child to validate them, they may feel they can interrupt their child’s and ask them to do whatever they want to do.
They may ask probing questions or be critical of their child in a way that feels intrusive as well, such as commenting on weight, appearance or other attributes that leave the child feeling self-conscious.
5. They play favorites.
Narcissistic parents maintain their power by triangulating, or playing favorites. They may have a golden child who they compliment excessively, for example, while speaking badly about another child in the family.
This can make children feel uncomfortable, disloyal and psychologically unsafe. They may believe that they need to go along with or impress the narcissistic parent to avoid their wrath and maintain good standing in the family unit.
6. They shift blame onto their children.
Narcissists have the need to feel perfect, so they shirk responsibilities for their own missteps and blame their children. They can be cruel when they feel criticized, and their comments often sting.
Common refrains from narcissistic parents might be something like, “It’s your fault that I am so tired,” or, “I could have had a great career if I didn’t have to deal with you.”
Over time, children of narcissistic parents internalize these comments and begin to self-blame, believing: “When I have needs, I make everyone else feel or perform worse.’
7. They expect the child to be the caregiver.
At a relatively young age, the message from a narcissistic parent is that their child has to take care of them.
This often extends well into adulthood, where the narcissistic parent can be quite manipulative. A common line might be, “I fed and clothed you, so now you owe me.” Many narcissists expect their children to provide care and support later in life.How to change narcissistic parenting tendencies
If you find yourself relating to any of the traits above, don’t worry. We all have a certain level of self-involvement. However, there are several strategies you can use to change your mindset and habits.
First, don’t gaslight your child. If they say, “You’re always angry at me,” don’t say, “That’s not the case.” This will only confuse them further. Instead, meet the child with empathy: “I am so sorry. Do you want to talk about it? How are you feeling?”
Another strategy is to avoid forced forgiveness. Forced forgiveness benefits the parent by pushing their bad behavior under the rug but only fosters self-blame and confusion in the child. Let the child have their experience.
Lastly, consider therapy; it’s one of the best places to explore your parenting attitudes and tendencies.
We all want to be the best parents we can be for our children, but there is often conflicting advice on how to raise a kid who is confident, kind and successful. And every aspect of being a parent has been more complicated and more fraught during the pandemic, with parents managing complex new assignments and anxious new decisions, all while handling the regular questions that come up in daily life with the children we love.
Throughout the circus act of parenting, it’s important to focus on balancing priorities, juggling responsibilities and quickly flipping between the needs of your children, other family members and yourself. Modern parents have the entire internet at their disposal and don’t follow any single authority. It’s hard to know whom or what to trust. Here, we’ll talk about how to help your child grow up to be a person you really like without losing yourself in the process.
Your Parenting Style
Good news: There is no one right way to raise a child. Research tells us that to raise a self-reliant child with high self-esteem, it is than authoritarian. You want your child to listen, respect and trust you rather than fear you. You want to be supportive, but not a hovering, helicopter parent.
All of these things are easy to set as goals, but . How do you find the right balance?
As your child develops, the challenges will change, and your thinking may evolve, but your approach should be consistent, firm and loving. Help your child learn through experience that making an effort builds confidence and helps you learn to tackle challenges. Calibrate your expectations about what your child is capable of doing independently, whether you have an infant learning to sleep through the night, a toddler helping to put toys away, or an older child resolving conflicts. Remember, there is no one right way to raise a child. Do your best, trust yourself and enjoy the company of the small person in your life.
How to Put a Baby to Sleep
Right from the beginning, babies vary tremendously in their sleep patterns. And parents, too, vary in terms of how they cope with interrupted nights.
There are two general schools of thought around babies and sleep after those early months when they need nighttime feedings — soothe the baby to sleep or don’t — and many parents find themselves wavering back and forth. Those who believe in sleep training, including many sleep experts, would argue that in helping babies learn to fall asleep by themselves and soothe themselves back to sleep when they wake during the night, parents are helping them master vital skills for comfort and independence.
Two techniques for this are:
Graduated extinction, in which babies are allowed to cry for short, prescribed intervals over the course of several nights.
Bedtime fading, in which parents delay bedtime in 15-minute increments so the child becomes more and more tired.
And many parents report that these strategies improve their children’s sleep patterns, as well as their own. But there are also parents who find the idea of letting a baby cry at night unduly harsh.
Whatever you try, remember, some babies, no matter what you do, are not reliably good sleepers. Parents need to be aware of what sleep deprivation may be doing to them, to their level of functioning, and to their relationships, and take their own sleep needs seriously as well. So, ask for help when you need it, from your pediatrician or a trusted friend or family member.
Keeping screens out of the bedroom (and turned off during the hours before bed) becomes more and more important as children grow — and it’s not a bad habit for adults, either. Even when education went remote during the pandemic, keeping children’s sleep schedules regular helped them stay on course.
As your child hits adolescence, her body clock will shift so that she is “programmed” to stay up later and sleep later, often just as schools are demanding early starts. Again, good family “sleep hygiene,” especially around screens at bedtime, in the bedroom, and even in the bed, can help teenagers disconnect and get the sleep they need. By taking sleep seriously, as a vital component of health and happiness, parents are sending an important message to children at every age.
How to Feed Your Child
There’s nothing more basic to parenting than the act of feeding your child. But even while breast-feeding, there are decisions to be made. (Yes, breast-feeding mothers should eat spicy food if they like it. No, they shouldn’t respond to all infant distress by nursing.) Pediatricians currently recommend exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months, and then continuing to breast-feed as you introduce a range of solid foods. Breast-feeding mothers deserve support and consideration in society in general and in the workplace in particular, and they don’t always get it. And conversely, mothers are sometimes made to feel inadequate if breast-feeding is difficult, or if they can’t live up to those recommendations.
You have to do what works for you and your family, and if exclusive breast-feeding doesn’t, any amount that you can do is good for your baby. As children grow, the choices and decisions multiply; that first year of eating solid foods, from 6 to 18 months, can actually be a great time to give children a range of foods to taste and try, and by offering repeated tastes, you may find that children expand their ranges.
Small children vary tremendously in how they eat; some are voracious and omnivorous, and others are highly picky and can be very difficult to feed. Let her feed herself as soon as and as much as possible; by “playing” with her food she’ll learn about texture, taste and independence. Build in the social aspects of eating from the beginning, so that children grow up thinking of food in the context of family time, and watching other family members eat a variety of healthy foods, while talking and spending time together. (Children should not be eating while looking at screens.)
Parents worry about picky eaters, and of course about children who eat too much and gain weight too fast; you want to help your child eat a variety of real foods, rather than processed snacks, to eat at mealtimes and snacktimes, rather than constant “grazing,” or “sipping,” and to eat to satisfy hunger, rather than experiencing food as either a reward or a punishment.
Don’t cook special meals for a picky child, but don’t make a regular battlefield out of mealtime.
Some tips to try:
Talk with small children about “eating the rainbow,” and getting lots of different colors onto their plates (orange squash, red peppers, yellow corn, green anything, and so on).
Take them to the grocery store or the farmer’s market and let them pick out something new they’d like to try.
Let them help prepare food.
Be open to deploying the foods they enjoy in new ways (peanut butter on almost anything, tomato sauce on spinach).
Some children will eat almost anything if it’s in a dumpling, or on top of pasta.
Offer tastes of what everyone else is eating.
Find some reliable fallback alternatives when your child won’t eat anything that’s offered. (Many restaurants will prepare something simple off the menu for a child, such as plain pasta or rice.)
Above all, encourage your child to keep tasting; don’t rule anything out after just a couple of tries. And if you do have a child who loves one particular green vegetable, it’s fine to have that one turn up over and over again.
Bottom line: As long as a child is growing, don’t agonize too much.
Family meals matter to older children as well, even as they experience the biological shifts of adolescent growth. Keep that social context for food as much as you can, even through the scheduling complexities of middle school and high school. Keep the family table a no-screen zone, and keep on talking and eating together. Some families found that the pandemic meant more opportunities for family meals, which helped them through the hard times, but if the stresses of the recent past have pushed your family toward more snacking and more fast food, know that you are not alone. It will always help to re-set as a family, to stock healthy foods in the house, and to eat together and connect over food.
More on Your Child’s Diet
Small children are essentially uncivilized, and part of the job of parenting inevitably involves a certain amount of correctional work. With toddlers, you need to be patient and consistent, which is another way of saying you will need to express and enforce the same rules over and over and over again. “Time outs” work very effectively with some children, and parents should watch for those moments when they (the parents) may need them as well.
Seriously, take a breather when you are feeling as out of control as your child is acting. Many parents have been under extraordinary stress during the pandemic; be sure you are taking care of yourself, and get help if you need it. Distraction is another good technique; you don’t have to win a moral victory every time a small child misbehaves if you can redirect the behavior and avoid the battle. The overall disciplinary message to young children is the message that you don’t like the behavior, but you do love the child.
Think praise rather than punishment. Physical discipline, like hitting and spanking, tends to produce aggressive behavior in children. Keep in mind that it’s always a parental win if you can structure a situation so that a child is earning privileges (screentime, for example) by good behavior, rather than losing them as a penalty. Search for positive behaviors to praise and reward, and young children will want to repeat the experience. But inevitably, parenthood involves a certain number of “bad cop” moments, when you have to say no or stop and your child will be angry at you — and that’s fine, it goes with the territory. Look in the mirror and practice saying what parents have always said: “I’m your mother/father, I’m not your friend.”
As parents, we should be trying to regulate our children’s behavior — or to help them regulate their own — and not trying to legislate their thoughts:
It is OK to dislike your brother or your classmate, but not to hit him.
It is OK to feel angry or frustrated, as long as you behave properly.
Our “civilizing” job as parents may be easier, in fact, if we acknowledge the strength of those difficult emotions, and celebrate the child who achieves control. And take advantage of the opportunity to demonstrate what you do when you have lost control or behaved badly: Offer a sincere parental apology.
It’s also worth recognizing that we have all been living through extraordinary times, and that a child who is, for example, angry or frustrated because activities have been canceled, or interrupted, should not feel bad about expressing those emotions. Even young children can understand that what’s “wrong” or “bad” is the pandemic – not the child’s feelings.
Parenting in the Time of Covid
This is an anxious time to be a parent. You’re helping children navigate a pandemic world in which new information – sometimes scary, sometimes confusing – has to be absorbed and reacted to on a regular basis. You may be helping an anxious child handle fears about going out into the world, or trying to enforce safety protocols with a child who is just eager to declare the pandemic “over.” You may be dealing with economic pressures, with worries over vulnerable family members, or with grief for people who have been lost.
And many of the everyday decisions of parenthood have become more heavily weighted and more frightening. It can’t be said too often: understand that you are living – and parenting – through very difficult times, and as far as possible, take care of yourself.
If you are anxious, if you are depressed, if you are angry, think about the coping strategies that help you, and look for additional help if you need it, from your partner, if you have one, from close friends and family, from your spiritual community, from your doctor, from a mental health professional. Understand that parents have faced a difficult – and at times impossible – set of “assignments,” and that they have in large part responded with everyday heroism in taking care of their children. But they need to care of themselves as well.
You can take steps to help your children manage both bullying and conflict — and you’re at your most useful when you know which of the two you’re trying to address. Children who are being bullied are on the receiving end of mistreatment, and are helpless to defend themselves, whereas children in conflict are having a hard time getting along. Fortunately, most of the friction that happens among children is in the realm of conflict —an inevitable, if unpleasant, consequence of being with others — not bullying.
If children are being bullied, it’s important to reassure them that they deserve support, and that they should alert an adult to what’s happening. Further, you can remind your children that they cannot passively stand by if another child is being bullied. Regardless of how your own child might feel about the one being targeted, you can set the expectation that he or she will do at least one of three things: confront the bully, keep company with the victim, alert an adult.
When the issue is conflict, you should aim to help young people handle it well by learning to stand up for themselves without stepping on anyone else. To do this, you can model assertion, not aggression, in the inevitable disagreements that arise in family life, and coach your children to do the same as they learn how to address garden-variety disputes with their peers.
All parents have in common the wish to raise children who are good people. You surely care about how your child will treat others, and how he or she will act in the world. In some households, regular participation in a religious institution sets aside time for the family to reflect on its values and lets parents convey to their children that those beliefs are held by members of a broad community that extends beyond their home.
Even in the absence of strong spiritual beliefs, the celebration of religious holidays can act as a key thread in the fabric of family life. Though it is universally true that children benefit when their parents provide both structure and warmth, even the most diligent parents can struggle to achieve both of these on a regular basis. The rituals and traditions that are part of many religious traditions can bring families together in reliable and memorable ways. Of course, there are everyday opportunities to instill your values in your child outside of organized religion, including helping an elderly neighbor or taking your children with you to volunteer for causes that are important to you.
Above all, however, children learn your values by watching how you live.
When it comes to school, parents walk a difficult line: You want your children to strive and succeed, but you don’t want to push them in ways that are unfair, or cause needless stress. At every age and skill level, children benefit when parents help them focus on improving their abilities, rather than on proving them. In other words, children should understand that their intellectual endowment only gets them started, and that their capabilities can be increased with effort.
Many children struggled during the course of the pandemic, faced with learning in ways that were harder for them than regular school – this may be especially true for children with learning differences and special needs, but it applies across the board. As they return to in-person schooling, children need time to catch up, and they need to feel comfortable asking for that time, or for extra help – so they need to hear the message that what matters is the learning and understanding that they gain, not some rigid schedule that they may have fallen behind.
Children who adopt this growth mindset – the psychological terminology for the belief that industry is the path to mastery – are less stressed than peers who believe their capacities are fixed, and outperform them academically. Students with a growth mindset welcome feedback, are motivated by difficult work, and are inspired by the achievements of their talented classmates.
To raise growth-mindset thinkers you can make a point of celebrating effort, not smarts, as children navigate school. (This may be more important than ever as schools reopen and children return following their different experiences with remote or hybrid education.) When they succeed, say, “Your hard work and persistence really paid off. Well done!” And when they struggle, say, “That test grade reflects what you knew about the material being tested on the day you took the test. It does not tell us how far you can go in that subject. Stick with it and keep asking questions. It will come.”
Parents should step in when students face academic challenges that cause constant or undue stress. Some students hold themselves, or are held by adults, to unrealistic standards. Others missed a step along the way, had a hard time during the pandemic, study ineffectively or are grappling with an undiagnosed learning difference. Parents should be in touch with teachers about how things are going. Determining the nature of the problem will point the way to the most helpful solution.
More on Children and School Pressure
Here’s how to raise a child with a healthy attitude toward shiny screens and flashing buttons.You could try to raise a screen-free child, but let’s be honest, you’re reading this on a screen. As in everything else, the challenge is in balancing the ideal and the real in a way that’s right for your family. The pandemic upended many families’ rules and practices, as everything from visits with grandma from teenage social networks to math class started to happen on screens.
And some aspects of those experiences may help you think about positive screen-related experiences you want to build into your children’s lives going forward: regular dates for watching a movie as a family, reading a book on an iPad, FaceTiming with out-of-town relatives. Technology plays such an important role in children’s lives now that when we talk about it, we’re talking about everything from sleep to study to social life.
“Technology is just a tool and it can be an extremely enriching part of kids’ lives,” said Scott Steinberg, co-author of “The Modern Parent’s Guide to Facebook and Social Networks.” “A lot of what we’re teaching about parenting around technology is just basic parenting,” he said. “It comes down to the Golden Rule: Are they treating others in a respectful and empathetic manner?”
And then there’s the question of protecting family time. Mr. Steinberg advises setting household rules that govern when devices may be used, and have clear, age-appropriate policies so kids know what they can and can’t do.
Some of these policies will be appropriate for all ages, including parents, such as:
No phones at the dinner table.
No screens for an hour before bedtime.
It’s important to practice what you preach. And if your family needs to re-set some of these rules as children return to the classroom, you can talk it through with your children, explaining why it matters to use devices well, but set some limits. And in addition to taking time for family meals and family conversations, parents should be taking the time to sit down with young children and look at what they’re doing online, rather than leaving them alone with their devices as babysitters.
Parents as Digital Role Models
When a parent wants to post on social media about something a child did that may embarrass the child, Ms. Homayoun said, it’s worth stepping back to consider why. Are you posting it to draw attention to yourself?
You should respect your child’s privacy as much as you respect the privacy of friends, family members and colleagues. As cute as it may seem to post pictures of a naked toddler, consider a “no butts” policy. That may not be the image that your child wants to portray 15 years from now.
“We need to, from a very early age, teach kids what consent looks like,” Ms. Homayoun said. “It doesn’t begin when a kid is 15, 16 or 17. It begins when a kid is 3 and he doesn’t want to go hug his uncle.” Or when he doesn’t want you to post that video of him crying over a lost toy.
Our children will create digital footprints as they grow, and it will be one of our jobs to help them, guide them and get them to think about how something might look a few years down the line — you can start by respecting their privacy and applying the same standards throughout their lives.
It’s easy to dismiss high-tech toys as just pricey bells and whistles, but if you choose more enriching options, you can find toys that help kids grow. For young children, though, there’s a great deal to be said for allowing them, as much as possible, to explore the nondigital versions of blocks, puzzles, fingerpaints and all the rest of the toys that offer tactile and fine motor experiences. As children get older, some high-tech games encourage thinking dynamically, problem solving and creative expression.
“These high-tech games can be an opportunity to bond with your kids. Learn more about how they think and their interests,” Mr. Steinberg said. Some games encourage kids to be part of a team, or lead one. And others let them be wilder than they might be in real life – in ways that parents can appreciate: “You can’t always throw globs of paint around the house but you can in the digital world,” he said.
The Right Age for a Phone?
“Many experts would say it’s about 13, but the more practical answer is when they need one: when they’re outside your direct supervision,” Mr. Steinberg said. Ms. Homayoun recommends them for specific contexts, such as for a child who may be traveling between two houses and navigating late sports practices.
Consider giving tiered access to technology, such as starting with a flip phone, and remind children that privileges and responsibilities go hand in hand. A child’s expanding access to personal technology should depend on its appropriate use.
To put these ideas into practical form, the website of the American Academy of Pediatrics offers guidelines for creating a personalized .
If you are a parent, your greatest fear in life is likely something happening to one of your kids. According to one 2018 poll from OnePoll and the Lice Clinics of America (not my usual data source, but no one else seems to measure this), parents spend an average of 37 hours a week worrying about their children; the No. 1 back-to-school concern is about their safety. And this makes sense, if you believe that safety is a foundation that has to be established before dealing with other concerns.
You can see the effects of all this worrying in modern parenting behavior. According to a 2015 report from the Pew Research Center, on average, parents say children should be at least 10 years old to play unsupervised in their own front yard, 12 years old to stay home alone for an hour, and 14 to be unsupervised at a public park. It also shows up in what parents teach their kids about the world: Writing in TheJournal of Positive Psychology in 2021, the psychologists Jeremy D. W. Clifton and Peter Meindl found that 53 percent of respondents preferred “dangerous world” beliefs for their children.
No doubt these beliefs come from the best of intentions. If you want children to be safe (and thus, happy), you should teach them that the world is dangerous—that way, they will be more vigilant and careful. But in fact, teaching them that the world is dangerous is bad for their health, happiness, and success.The contention that the world is mostly safe or mostly dangerous is what some psychologists call a “primal world belief,” one about life’s basic essence.
Specifically, it’s a negative primal in which the fundamental character of the world is assumed to be threatening. Primal beliefs are different from more specific beliefs—say, about sports or politics—insofar as they color our whole worldview. If I believe that the Red Sox are a great baseball team, it generally will not affect my unrelated attitudes and decisions. But according to Clifton and Meindl, if I believe that the world is dangerous, it will affect the way I see many other parts of my life, relationships, and work.
I will be more suspicious of other people’s motives, for example, and less likely to do things that might put me or my loved ones in harm’s way, such as going out at night. As much as we hope the dangerous-world belief will help our kids, the evidence indicates that it does exactly the opposite. In the same paper, Clifton and Meindl show that people holding negative primals are less healthy than their peers, more often sad, more likely to be depressed, and less satisfied with their lives.
They also tend to dislike their jobs and perform worse than their more positive counterparts. One explanation for this is that people under bad circumstances (poverty, illness, etc.) have both bad outcomes and a lot to fear. However, as Clifton and Meindl argue, primals can also interact with life outcomes—you likely suffer a lot more when you are always looking for danger and avoiding risk.
Teaching your kids that the world is dangerous can also make them less tolerant of others. In one 2018 study, researchers subjected a sample of adults to a measure called the “Belief in a Dangerous World Scale,” which asked them to agree or disagree with statements such as “Any day now chaos and anarchy could erupt around us” and “There are many dangerous people in our society who will attack someone out of pure meanness, for no reason at all.”
They found that people scoring high on this scale also showed heightened prejudice and hostility toward groups such as undocumented immigrants, whom they stereotypically considered a threat to their safety. This study was conducted among adults, but it is easy to see how these attitudes would migrate to their kids. This is similar to the argument made by the writers Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Atlantic in 2015, and in their subsequent book, The Coddling of the American Mind.
Lukianoff and Haidt contend that when parents (or professors) teach young people that ordinary interactions are dangerous—for example, that speech is a form of violence—it hinders their intellectual and emotional growth. It also leads them to adopt black-and-white views (for example, that the world is made up of people who are either good or evil), and makes them more anxious in the face of minor stressors such as political disagreement.
And to top it all off, negative primals don’t even help keep people safe. Researchers writing in the journal Psychology & Health in 2001 showed that a general state of fear can actually make a person less likely to take threats seriously (a self-defense mechanism to control our fear) and undermine precautionary behavior (by degrading the ability to address danger rationally).
It is not in young people’s interest that we instill in them negative primals. In so doing, we might harm them by making them less happy, less healthy, and more bigoted toward others. To break this pattern, parents—and anyone who interacts with children—should instead work to cultivate a sense of safety. Here are three rules to help you get started.
1. Heal thyself.
Parents might feed their kids negative primals because they hold such views themselves. This is easy to do in a world where we are bombarded with news and information, which studies have linked to distress, anxiety, and depression—even when the news is not specifically negative. And research shows that many parents pass on their anxiety to their children. One way to allay our own fears is simply to look at the facts.
Being a kid in America has never been safer. Since 1935, the number of childhood deaths between the ages of 1 and 4 fell from 450 to 30 per 100,000. It has fallen by nearly half just since 1990, and the decreases in other age groups are similarly impressive. Use this knowledge to counteract the media’s relentless focus on fear and danger. You might even print out a chart on declining childhood mortality (such as the one linked above) and put it on the fridge as a reminder of how good your kids have it.
2. Be specific and proportional.
Grown-ups want to teach young people how to stay safe in the face of threats. However, the research is clear that a blanket attitude of fear can actually make them less able to do so. If you want to offer a child a warning to make them better prepared, focus on one specific danger they might face and how to deal with it. Instead of saying, “People will try to take advantage of you at college,” say, “If someone is trying to get you to drink too much, avoid that person.”
When you do need to bring up a threat, make sure you keep it in proportion. For example, I don’t want anyone to be mean to my kids any more than the next parent. They know this. But it doesn’t help them for me to say that hostile words inherently make them unsafe. Social conflict is unavoidable, and making them fear it as an existential threat amounts to giving them a negative primal, rendering them less resilient.
3. Counteract negative primals from outside.
Almost every day that my daughter was in high school, she was taught about the dangerous world—about bad people, dangerous forces in nature, and a bleak future for our country. She told us about the gloom and doom each evening at dinner, and my wife and I could see her growing pessimism. So we set about deliberately countering the scary narrative. We didn’t sugarcoat the threats; we simply tried to be specific about the kind behaviors we witnessed, and ways that the world was safer and more prosperous today than in the past.
It was our way of sharing our genuine belief that on the whole, most people are good and things are getting better. Working hard to avoid instilling a fear-based primal belief in kids is good. But really, we should all be able to do better than that, and try to cultivate a positive primal belief that can truly improve their lives. For that, I turn to the words of the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. “Through Love, one has no fear,” he wrote in the Tao Te Ching.
Instead of teaching our kids fear primals, let’s teach them love primals, which neutralize fear and put something good in its place. Let them know that people are made for love—we all crave it, and we can find something lovable in just about everyone we meet. We don’t always give it or accept it, because we make a lot of mistakes, but love is what all our hearts desire. If you want to give your children a rule to live by, this one is a much safer bet.