How do you raise an emotionally healthy child in a world that seems focused on selfies, immediate gratification, and constant stimulation?
It is a question that has likely troubled many parents, teachers, and caregivers. The answer, says Maureen Healy, begins with three simple words: stop, calm, and make a smarter choice. She writes, “Emotional health is based on the ability to make better choices, even when feeling anger or another big emotion.”
In her new book, The Emotionally Healthy Child: Helping Children Calm, Center, and Make Smarter Choices Healy draws on her vast experience, both as an overactive child and a leader in the field of children’s emotional health, to offer the knowledge, skills, and strategies parents need to raise children who can respond mindfully — even in the face of emotional challenges.
“One of the challenges of emotions is that the tricky or challenging ones usually have speed, and to stop requires skill and practice. Just saying, “Stop that” isn’t enough to slow a fast moving car; one needs to know how to apply the emotional brakes, come to a stop and then move in another direction,” writes Healy.
One large part of what children (and adults) need to learn is to experience uncomfortable emotions and constructively express them. Emotional intelligence begins with first identifying emotions, expressing them constructively, applying self-control, responding instead of reacting, and making smarter choices, even when challenged.
Healy quotes David Caruso, who says, “Emotional intelligence is not the opposite of intelligence, it is not the triumph of heart over head — it is the unique intersection of both.”
Often, parents fail to recognize that their children are responding from their right brain, which carries their emotional needs, and asking them to apply logic simply won’t work.
Healy writes, “Helping our emotional (right-brain) children bring their reason and logic (left-brain) into the decision-making equation earlier is central to raising emotionally healthy children.”
The goal, however, is not to achieve a constant state of positive emotion. Rather, emotional health exists along a spectrum where at one end we harbor negative emotions, respond quickly and thoughtlessly, and make careless choices, and at the other we exhibit healthy choices, use self-awareness and an awareness of others, and actively cultivate positive emotions.
“The path toward positive emotional health is one of increasing a child’s awareness of self and others while building skills, gaining understanding (knowledge turned into wisdom) and making smarter choices (good for them and good for others),” writes Healy.
And this path is the first step toward happiness, which, Healy tell us, comes from facing challenges. The role of parents and professionals then, is to help children see their challenges not as final outcomes, but rather experiences that can be used to spur growth.
Because happiness, emotional balance, compassion, and altruism are all skills, they need to be actively developed and practiced, which is where education comes in. To begin, parents first have to create a strong emotional connection with their children.
“Children must feel like their feelings matter, that you appreciate their perspective, (although you may not agree with them) and want them to be happy. Said simply, they must feel you are on their emotional team versus against them,” writes Healy.
Children also need to learn that while emotions can be strong and overwhelming at times, they are temporary, and their natural state is that of joy. All emotions, however, can be useful. Healy writes, “Helping children realize that emotions are neither good nor bad but simply signals is essential to their positive emotional development.”
One of the first tools parents can use is to recognize their own emotional balance. By becoming aware of the triggers, cues, and events that lead to their own emotional imbalance, parents can learn how to regain their emotional footing and, in the process, demonstrate this to their children.
While children’s behavior can be frustrating for parents, all behavior is a signal for the underlying emotions. “Most of the time children aren’t being difficult on purpose — they merely don’t have the skills yet to handle their overwhelming and fast-moving emotions,” writes Healy.
Learning to slow down also opens the door for children to begin to experience and practice mindfulness, which, when learned early in life, leads to the behaviors and habits that support a happy and peaceful life.
Healy quotes the National Research Council, “The attentive, caring, and wise voice of a supportive adult gets internalized and becomes part of the youth’s own voice.”
Parents give children a lifelong gift when they teaching children to center themselves, think, see, and feel mindfully. These children gain the ability to use positive emotions, emotional balance, and self-regulation to cultivate growth — even in the face of challenges.
Filled with the wisdom, real-life scenarios, immediately accessible tools and strategies, The Emotionally Healthy Child is an indispensable guide that is transformative not just for the child but for the relationship between a parent and child.
The Emotionally Healthy Child: Helping Children Calm, Center, and Make Smarter Choices
New World Library, October 2018
Paperback, 232 pages