In my practice I am regularly asked the following question: What can I do to help my child? In the context of a child, adolescent and family psychology practice, the question is best understood as what can I do to promote my child’s wellbeing?
There are many perspectives and recommendations in the parenting and psychology literature about what parents can and should do to promote their child’s wellbeing. It can, quite literally, be overwhelming for parents to know what is best for their child. Keeping this in mind, I have reflected long and hard about fundamental aspects of good parenting and practical strategies for implementing them.
I believe that a lifetime of happiness and fulfillment stems from children developing a secure attachment to their primary caregiver(s) during their preschool years. Secure attachment relationships stem from the infant and young child experiencing their primary caregiver(s) as:
- Understanding, and
- Emotionally Connected.
As a result of experiencing their primary caregiver(s) as accessible, understanding and emotionally connected and, in turn, forming a secure attachment to their caregiver(s), the foundations are laid for the child to perceive themselves as lovable, deserving, capable, and safe. In turn, these beliefs are critical to a child’s wellbeing.
So, when I am asked by a parent how they can promote the wellbeing of their child, I recommend that they go back to basics and do what promotes, reinforces and extends attachment security and a child’s belief that their are lovable, deserving, capable and safe. I recommend that they be accessible, understanding and emotionally connected.
How do they do this? Lets start with accessibility. I believe that you can only truly assure a child that you are accessible to them by addressing their needs and reasonable wishes in a proactive manner. If you are primarily responding to a child’s expressed needs and wishes (i.e. you are being reactive), the child’s experience is that they need to do something to make you attend to them. In contrast, when you spend time thinking about the child’s needs and reasonable wishes and address them before the child asks, the child’s experience is that you are aware of them and their needs and wishes without the child having to do anything to make it so. This is a powerful source of assurance that you are there for them. It also overlaps with the second fundamental aspect of parenting that promotes child wellbeing: understanding.
My preferred method of communicating understanding to children is to stop asking them questions. Rather, I observe the child and the setting and I say what I think is in their head (thoughts) and in their heart (feelings). For example, if a child is happily playing lego in my waiting room, I comment “I can see that you like playing lego”. In contrast, if a teenager slouches in their chair, avoids making eye contact and gives only a minimal verbal response to my greeting, I comment “I can see that you would rather be anywhere else but here”, or something like that. When you follow this method of communicating, children typically “light up” at the experience that their inner world is understood and important. They feel loved and valid.
Finally, children feel emotionally connected to their caregiver(s) when they are engaged together in activities they like doing together. Even as little as five minutes per day doing an activity of the child’s choosing that you will enjoy doing together will improve the child’s adjustment and wellbeing. So, play with your child, as often and consistently as you can.
Just to recap, three loving acts that enhance child wellbeing are:
- Addressing needs and reasonable wishes proactively;
- Saying out loud what you think is in the child’s head and in their heart; and
- Engaging with your child in activities you enjoy doing together.