The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 25 percent of American children experience anxiety and 14 percent have a mood disorder, and National Public Radio reports that as many as five million public school students have mental-emotional issues such as depression and anxiety. In light of these statistics, award-winning author Maureen Healy’s new book, The Emotionally Healthy Child: Helping Children Calm, Center, and Make Smarter Choices, couldn’t be more perfectly timed.
In The Emotionally Healthy Child, Healy explains that emotional health is based on the ability to make better choices, even when feeling anger or another big emotion. Three simple steps are key — Stop, Calm, and Make a Smarter Choice. While not always easy, these steps are powerful, and Healy shows readers exactly how to implement them so they can help children find equilibrium in the moment and build emotional well-being over the long term. We hope you’ll enjoy the following excerpt from her book.
Emotionally healthy children aren’t simply born—they are made. They’re nurtured and taught skills that help them identify their emotions and constructively express them so they can connect with others in emotionally intelligent ways. But before children begin learning about their emotions in earnest, they typically are very emotionally reactive, which creates a ripple effect of problems for parents, teachers, and anyone in their vicinity, even the quiet-seeking neighbors.
But once children learn how to slow down, calm, and then make smarter choices with their big feelings, a change occurs. They learn how to display self-control and gain awareness of their varied emotions. On this journey, four big-picture skills will help your children become emotionally healthier, and they are the ability to:
- pay attention
- respond (versus react)
- press pause
- make a smart choice
Although these steps may sound simple, they’re not necessarily easy. They take practice and patience from adults as well as children, but they’re possible for every healthy child.
MAKING SMART CHOICES
Children are constantly making choices—from what socks to put on to what friend to invite over for a playdate—but the choices I’m referring to are the emotional ones. The emotionally healthy child is learning how to make choices that are good for him or her and good for others, which I call smart choices. Since life is simply a sum of our choices, the earlier we teach our children how to make smart choices, which integrate the whole brain (right and left hemispheres), the more positive their life trajectory becomes.
So what does that really mean? It means that as a parent you are responsible not only for making sure your child changes her clothes but also for her learning how to change her mind, see the positive, slow down, and express her emotions constructively. It’s really an enormous task, which is why I’m a huge proponent of social and emotional learning (SEL) in the classroom; research shows that it is children’s emotional intelligence that helps them succeed in life.
KATE, MARISA AND MIKE
Kate, a mother of two girls, contacted me about her eight-year-old daughter’s choices. Marisa knows the family rule that at 7:00 am the TV in her room must go off, which leaves her thirty minutes before they need to leave for school. Yesterday Marisa’s dad, Mike, turned off the TV at 7:05 am, and Marisa turned it back on again. Mike wasn’t having this, and said,
“This is not happening. You must turn the TV off and get ready for school. I’m not going to be late today.”
Marisa instantly went into tears and screaming. She yelled at her dad,“You hate me” and “I hate you.” The tears and screaming persisted for fifteen minutes. Kate tried to help her calm down, but Marisa was already emotionally hijacked and hadn’t yet learned to create enough space between stimulus (anger) and response (tears, screaming, mean words) to make a different choice.
At this point we couldn’t change how Marisa had already responded, but she can learn how to make smarter choices with her big feelings in the future, to use the four big-picture skills I mentioned above. Children like Marisa can learn how to pay attention to their feelings and stop before they release them in destructive ways.
TAKING RESPONSIBILITY FOR OUR CHOICES
As adults we also need to take responsibility for our choices and for how we connect with or disconnect from our children. Mike, Marisa’s dad, took an authoritarian approach with his daughter (think: My way or the highway), and it backfired on him in the form of a tantrum.
I suspect if he had emotionally attuned and connected to Marisa and helped her feel seen, she may have moved through her emotions easier. But maybe not—sometimes things just go off the rails, and we need to begin again. Eventually there’s a day when instead of a breakdown, your child has a breakthrough, and this is what we’re aiming for.
Marisa’s dad lost his cool and became very angry. When we lose it and raise our voices, we give our children permission to do the same. So the more we learn how to stay sane, even in the stressful moments of getting the children out the door in the morning, the better we model positive emotional health. Of course, this doesn’t mean we need to be perfect but simply honest, respectful, and authentic. And if we mess up (as we’re bound to do), a sincere apology helps repair the parent-child relationship.
Excerpted from the book The Emotionally Healthy Child. Copyright ©2018 by Maureen Healy. Printed with permission from New World Library — www.newworldlibrary.com.
Maureen Healy is the author of The Emotionally Healthy Child and Growing Happy Kids, which won the Nautilus and Readers’ Favorite book awards in 2014. A popular Psychology Today blogger and sought-after public speaker, Maureen runs a global mentoring program for elementary-aged children and works with parents and their children in her busy private practice. Visit her online at www.growinghappykids.com.