Moms

10 things parents should know about meeting children's emotional needs

Editor's note: Theresa Kellam, Ph.D., is the author of The Parent Survival Guide: From Chaos to Harmony in Ten Weeks or Less. The Arlington-based psychologist bases the book on something called child-parent relationship therapy, a technique that helps parents and child use structured playtime to reconnect with each other and grow. She has used the technique as a parent herself and also provides 10-week workshops for families when a child's behavior is an issue.

Watch Dr. Kellam at 9 a.m. Tuesday on Good Morning Texas.

She wrote the book "in hopes of giving every parent, regardless of income or health-insurance coverage, the chance to help their children" through CPRT. She also believes that many children are misdiagnosed with disorders such as hyperactivity and depression and then prescribed medication, when in fact their behavior is a result of unmet emotional needs.

We asked her to give us a quick look at the philosophy behind CPRT.

Here, she shares with us 10 things every parent should know about meeting his or her children's emotional needs.

Your child can't control how he feels, and neither can you.

1We often confuse making our children happy or having fun with them as meeting their emotional needs. When you try to make your children have fun or be happy by trying to convince them that they have so many friends, have everything they want, will get to do something special if they stop crying or will get in trouble if they don't, you are not recognizing their true feelings. Instead you are telling your child, "Don't tell me about your pain. It hurts me. I don't want to hear about it. Feel the way I want you to feel. Be happy."

Trying to guide children without first trying to understand them is like giving someone directions without knowing where they are starting from.

2To meet your child's emotional needs, you must first understand how he is feeling without trying to fix it or make it better. If you don't understand how your child is feeling, you won't know how to guide him. Even worse, you may guide him down the wrong path.

A striking example of this was told to me by a parent who had just learned how to focus on her son's feelings rather than fix them. Her 7-year-old son asked what to do if someone at school offered him drugs. She was shocked that he even asked the question, because she had already warned him about drugs. At first, she reacted by lecturing emphatically about the dangers of drugs. How could there be anything wrong with that response? He listened and walked away, but later asked the same question. She responded the next time by communicating that she understood his feelings by simply saying, "It sounds like you're worried." "Yeah," he replied. "There's a kid at school who has a gun. I'm afraid if I say no, he'll shoot me." She intervened immediately by calling the school and the police. She was relieved that her son had told her what was going on, but haunted that he might never have told her had she not remembered to empathize with him.

Your children can't find their way if you are making a path for them.

3Your children can't help how they feel, but they can decide how to behave if you give them a chance. For example, if you try to keep your child entertained all of the time because you're afraid he might get lonely or bored, he will never figure out what inspires him. Boredom is a gift that forces you to decide what you are drawn to and to learn what makes life meaningful for you.

Children who get everything they want are not getting what they need.

4Parents often say, "I don't understand why my child is acting this way. We have given him everything in the world, and he just wants more. He's never happy. He doesn't appreciate what he has."

Children who act spoiled are not getting their emotional needs met.

For some reason, we often feel that if we give our child everything she wants to keep her happy and entertained, she should behave the way we want her to. An important part of meeting children's emotional needs is to set limits often and firmly in a loving way. Parents who learn to set limits in a loving way set them more often because they don't have to wait until they've "had it up to here" to do so.

A therapeutic way of setting limits is called ACT: Acknowledge the feeling, communicate the limit, and target the choice. Essentially, you are saying to the child: "I understand how you feel. It's OK to feel that way, but you can't act that way when you feel like that. You can act this way when you feel like that." It is also important to communicate this message in a loving way, not an angry way.

Using ACT limit-setting teaches children to cope with their emotions and to find appropriate behavioral expressions that don't suppress emotions or hurt the children themselves or others. It can also be used to teach children to delay gratification. Here are some examples of how it works. If your child is complaining a lot about his sister not wanting to play what he wants to play, you can say (A) "Johnnie, I know you're really mad at your sister for not wanting to play the things you want to play, (C) but my ears can't listen right now. (T) If you still need to talk about it, we can sit down at 7:15 tonight and you can tell me everything you want to say." If your child wants a toy when you're at the store and you don't want to buy it, you can say, (A) "You love that toy and want it right now, (C) but we're not spending any money on toys today. (T) You can put it on your wish list for birthday or Christmas." If your child has meltdowns during homework time, you can say, (A) "Susie, I know this homework is frustrating and you just feel like giving up, (C) but homework time is the same as school time and the rules are the same as they would be for school. Homework time and school time are not time for giving up -- it's time to learn how. (T) If you're still upset about it and want to cry after we finish, you can do that then. Right now, though, you pretend you're at school and act like you would if I were your teacher, and I'll pretend I'm the teacher." If your child is complaining about doing chores, you can say, (A) "I know you don't want to do your chores and you don't think it's fair, (C) but chore time is not negotiation time. (T) If you want to talk about it after your chores are done, we can talk about it then."

Using this technique, you'll learn to set reasonable limits that work. If you set limits too harshly, you are also more likely to give in, because you feel guilty. If you don't follow through with a consequence or you make one that is too harsh, you teach your child not to trust you.

Parents should learn to be fascinated with the world through their child's eyes.

5When you are fascinated with your child, you are practicing giving up being right, giving up your need to control your child and letting go of the problems in your relationship. It's a very brave and difficult thing for anyone to do. By practicing fascination, instead of being in control, we are filled with wonder as we watch our child's psyche unfold. Fascination provides a time for discovery of who your child is. You'll also have time to learn things about yourself. Sit with and question your reactions with the same fascination and curiosity that you allow yourself to have about your child. As you do, you will begin to understand why you feel and react the way you do.

Parents should not take responsibility for things that children can be responsible for on their own.

6Never do anything for children that children can do for themselves. When you do, you end up teaching them that they are incompetent and weak. If your child asks you to do something you know he can do -- for example, clean his room -- simply say, "That's something you can do," in a nice way. If he persists, say, "Show me what happens when you try." Notice what he is doing by saying things like, "I see you're scooping up all those toys and putting them in the box. Now you're picking up the dirty clothes. Look at that! It already looks better." All children should have chores. It's important that they pick up their own messes and rooms and that they have at least one chore that contributes to the family. It helps children feel valuable and competent to do their share.

Don't ask your children over and over to do something. That's taking too much responsibility for something they should be responsible for. Just give them a choice: "You may choose to put things where they go and choose to keep your money or you may choose to leave things out and choose to be fined a quarter for them." Once you set a policy like that, it's in place forever. You don't have to remind them the next day. Just say, "I see you've chosen to be fined a quarter."

Respect and fear are not the same thing.

7Who would you rather cooperate with, Darth Vader or Obi-Wan? Not Darth Vader -- he's mean. Of course it would be Obi-Wan, because you respect him. That respect comes from the knowledge that he will also be respectful of you. The only way for kids to learn to be truly respectful is to be treated that way. If you wonder whether you are being respectful, ask yourself if you would be all right being treated by your spouse or boss the way you are treating your child.

Prizing your child is different (and better) than praising him.

8Praising teaches children to be guided by what other people think and to be dependant on others for a feeling of self-worth. For example, if your child draws a scribble and you say, "Oh that's beautiful," your child is likely to go back and draw another scribble that looks like the one that was praised. Instead of being guided by his or her own creativity, he or she is being guided by what you think. If you have said something is pretty when it's not, your child is being guided by something that isn't even true.

To avoid the problems created by praising and evaluating your child, you can simply "prize" or value your child for just existing on the planet. In reality, there is nothing your child can do to make you stop loving him or her. If you child makes straight A's and is beaming with pride as she shows you her report card, say: "You should be so proud of yourself. You worked really hard, and it paid off."

The child is never the problem.

9It is always the relationship between the child and you that needs to be the focus when a child is behaving destructively or inappropriately. Even if your child has a diagnosis that includes symptoms that no amount of love, understanding, correction or treatment can heal, it will come down to learning how to relate in a loving way to your child just the way he is. The child is never the problem. The problem is always figuring out how to relate to your child in a way that meets his or her needs (not necessarily wants) at the deepest possible level.

Parents need to keep their eyes on the doughnut and not on the hole.

10Remember to notice the moments when your child brings you joy. They don't have to be big things. It can be the little curl of hair on his forehead, her sweet smile, the way he holds a flower, the way she says "snissors" instead of scissors, how small and precious his feet and hands are, how she reaches for you, how he runs to you when you come home, how round her cheeks are, how lyrical his laugh is, how curious she is, how hard he tries. The list is endless.

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