This is how to make your kids amazing: 4 secrets from research

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Every parent wants their kid to do well in school. And it’s simple to measure because GPAs and SATs have nice numbers that are easy to quantify and rank. On the other hand, we don’t have a universally accepted “emotional intelligence index” or a “decent human being metric” let alone a “this kid’s gonna end up in jail ratio.”

But we’re frequently told kids need to have a good internal compass, to be curious and flexible, have grit, be emotionally stable, mindful, have social skills, solid self-esteem… Okay, hold on. This is a lot. As a parent, there’s a new buzzword every week for these “noncognitive traits” you need to instill.

How the heck do you do all that? We don’t want kids to feel the only emotional tools they have to face the world are basic “fight or flight” reactions. (Neither of those two go over well in job interviews.) But the current list is insane — and growing by the minute. What does a parent need to do these days to raise a good, happy, successful kid? Luckily, two experts have some answers.

Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the founding co-director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. Tina Payne is a pediatric and adolescent psychotherapist and Director of Parenting for the Mindsight Institute. The two teamed up to write The Yes Brain: How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your Child.

Alright, time to help your kids learn the fundamental skills they need. If you’ve ever been unsure on what steps you need to take, or perhaps you didn’t experience the best parenting yourself and want to make sure you do a better job raising your own kids, here are some expert answers.

Let’s get to work…

Collect Them All While Supplies Last

Siegel and Payne establish 4 critical skills children need to learn:

  • Balance: Managing their emotions and behavior. Fewer screaming meltdowns in the cereal aisle of the grocery store.
  • Resilience: Bouncing back after life inevitably reminds them just how not-the-center-of-the-universe they really are.
  • Insight: The ability to understand themselves. To learn lessons, not make the same mistake 65 times in a row and to apply that wisdom to other areas of life.
  • Empathy: To understand the perspectives of other people, to care, and to be able to apologize and set things right without an authority figure forcing you.

We’ll get into the witchcraft necessary to instill all these traits into your adorable little entropy machines in a sec, but right now there are two other meta-ideas we want to be clear on:

“Behavior is communication”

The jerk at the office is a full-grown adult and is responsible for his behavior. Kids are not fully developed. They don’t always know better and even if they do, many times they just do not have the ability to control their impulses and behave in accordance with Geneva Convention rules. Usually, they are not deliberately trying to make your life miserable. But parents often act like kids should have the self-control of adults, which is insane.

In general, it’s healthier to see their behavior as communication instead of willful defiance. They’re crying to communicate they need help with emotion regulation. They’re shoving their sister to tell you they need help with social skills.

“Discipline is teaching”

Your kid is relatively new to this planet, at least compared to you. So treat them like you might treat an alien. You wouldn’t scream at an alien for being rude. They don’t know better. Their culture on Mars may be very different. You would educate them.

The standard model of discipline is to punish because proper behavior is obvious, easily executed and this person is willfully non-compliant and must be forced into submission. That model of discipline is not applicable. Sorry, your kid is not nearly that competent yet. They’re not a malicious Bond-Villain; they’re someone who just painted the toilet purple. For the third time.

If the kid does poorly on a math quiz, the response would be to help them develop math skills. Screaming at a child does not increase calculus ability. Same with social skills. They must know better before they can do better. And it will take practice because they’re aliens whose brains have not fully adapted to our atmosphere and the intensity of our yellow sun. Educate your alien as to the ways of Planet Earth.

(To learn more about how you and your children can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)

Okay, let’s get to work on the big 4. First up is balance, because frankly if they’re having meltdowns every five minutes nothing else matters…

1) Balance

You don’t want the “terrible twos” to continue all the way out to the “frustrating forty-fours.”

Every parent wants their kid to stay in the emotional “green zone” – balanced, calm, in control and flexible. The “red zone” is losing control and acting out. And then there’s the lesser-discussed “blue zone” where kids shutdown or withdraw.

Your mission? Keep’em in the green zone, help them get back to the green zone when they cross the border, and, over time, help them expand their green zone so they can handle increasingly difficult situations.

Okay, so your kid freaks out. What’s the first step back to the green zone? Don’t shame or dismiss their emotions. “You’re a big boy; there’s no need to be sad” or “You have nothing to be worried about” teaches a kid not to trust their feelings. Expedient for parents but not long-term good as the kid grows increasingly distant from human emotions and ends up as a science-focused, wiseass blogger with a chip on their shoulder. No good can come of this.

Instead, when kids depart the green zone, you want to “connect and redirect.” Take their emotions seriously and comfort them as if they were physically injured. Once they know you’re on their side, then you can work on discipline – which means educating, remember?

No, it doesn’t mean you have to cave. You can set limits and hold them accountable after the emotions have died down. Nobody’s saying give the kid whatever they want to shut them up. That’s called bribery and it should stay in politics where it belongs.

If you want fewer shouting matches you need to teach your kid, not just cow them into compliance. That means dealing with emotions first by helping them regain balance. They literally cannot think straight or learn anything until those emotions die down. They’re not resisting your sovereign authority, they’re temporarily insane. This is not fun for them.

You need to tune to their internal state – not their outward behavior. Your communication should be contingent; it must reflect what they are feeling and telling you. That’s how they realize “hey, this adult is listening to me. They’re on my side. They’re trying to help.” And then they can calm down and listen and you don’t need to go shopping for tasers on Amazon.

Right now your kid’s green zone may only be one micron wide, visible only with an electron microscope. You can improve this by getting to know your child’s idiosyncrasies and prepping for them in advance. What triggers them? Hunger? Being tired? Bedtime is always a nightmare? What often gets them back on track? Draw yourself a flow chart of your kid’s behavior.

The goal here isn’t to just avoid arguments. Behavior is communication. Discipline is teaching. If these problems keep happening, what skills does it mean the kid is lacking? How can we work on those before the emotional 4-alarm fire begins? If we practice dealing with those issues when it’s calm, it’s a lot easier to try and implement solutions when things get tense.

(To learn the 10 steps to raising happy kids, click here.)

“Connect and redirect” is the name of the game when it comes to balance. And the second pillar here is merely an extension of that…

2) Resilience

In the short term, you want to help your child develop balance – to be able to return to the green zone. The long term complement to that is resilience – expanding their green zone. Things that made them freak out don’t freak them out anymore.

We aren’t trying to eliminate the red zone. If little Sarah is attacked by a wild boar you don’t want her calmly using her negotiation skills, you want her to run away screaming for help. Red zone: good for wild boar attacks, bad for the bedroom section of Ikea.

The first step is what you don’t want to do. Don’t “bubble-wrap” your kids. If you never lift anything, you’re not going to get stronger. And if your kids are protected from anything upsetting, they’ll never get emotionally stronger or more resilient.

So as a parent, you gotta balance the pushin’ with the cushion. Sometimes they need to struggle, other times they need support. How do you get stronger in the gym? Find a weight that matches your current ability and as you get stronger, slowly increase it. Too heavy? Dial it back a bit. But you have to keep trying to increase what you can deal with to improve.

From The Yes Brain:

When we step in and rescue a child from a problem she can handle on her own, we short-circuit her opportunity to learn how to address a difficult issue or understand her capacity to handle hard stuff. Having to visit with a teacher or address a problem with a friend can be a powerful learning opportunity… But only if it doesn’t cause so much distress that it floods their nervous systems, sending them into the red or blue zones… So there are other times when our children genuinely need us to provide a cushion. They’re facing an obstacle too big or a challenge they simply can’t address by themselves.

Don’t bubble-wrap them. Don’t throw them in the deep end. It’s all about incremental progress. Sometimes you’ll overestimate them and sometimes you’ll underestimate them. That’s fine. But keep stretching them and they’ll grow into someone who can calmly handle challenges.

(To learn how to raise emotionally intelligent kids, click here.)

Balance means fewer meltdowns. Resilience means more balance over the long haul. But now it’s time to go deeper…

3) Insight

Now you know how to “connect and redirect” when a kid wigs out. The next big step is helping them become aware of their feelings and reactions so they can get to know themselves better, and learn to use that information to make better decisions in the future.

The key is labeling. It’s why therapists ask the question, “How does that make you feel?” over and over and over until how you feel is angry because they just keep saying it. When we notice and label our emotions they die down.

So the phrase to remember is “Name it to tame it.” Encourage kids to verbalize how they feel. When they’re losing it, this will help them increase emotion regulation. But we’re not just trying to put the fire out in the short term. You want kids to better understand themselves so they can address dysregulation on their own. This is how you prevent kids who scream and cry over nothing from turning into adults who scream and cry over nothing.

From The Yes Brain:

JP further calmed down as I soothed him, so I began asking questions to call his attention to his own experience, to the moment when he entered the red zone and lost control: “What did you feel in your body when that happened?” and “Was there a moment you knew you were going to explode?” I wanted to lead him to think about and better understand what had happened inside him that led to this moment. Then the conversation could naturally transition into questions like “When you feel that anger bubbling up inside you, what else can you do to express it?” and “What works for you? What calms you down when you’re really upset and your downstairs brain is taking over?”

Encourage your children to be both “player” and “spectator.” To be able to see themselves objectively from the outside. This is how they can better learn to monitor themselves.

Ever totally lose it yourself and have that thought, “Wow, I’m acting like a crazy person. I better calm down.” Exactly. It’s good for your child to learn this skill now from you versus later from the prison psychiatrist.

(To learn how to deal with out-of-control kids — from hostage negotiators, click here.)

Okay, all this has been very internal. There are other people in this world and junior needs to know how to cope with them…

4) Empathy

It’s okay. You can admit it. You’ve had that thought. Every parent has. You look at your child’s behavior and say to yourself: “Oh my god, I’m raising a self-absorbed sociopath.”

They demand everyone’s attention regardless of what is going on. They cause another person’s pain and then promptly laugh out loud.

It’s okay. The vast majority of the time this is a mere developmental phase. Most kids are inhumanly selfish when they are tiny but slowly their empathy muscles grow. That said, bullies do come from somewhere, so let’s see if we can speed this up a bit. In the future I want your kid to grow up and take first prize in the science fair, not take my car.

Again, behavior is communication and discipline is teaching. If they’re being selfish we gotta help them with empathy and social skills, not be cruel to them to teach them not to be cruel to people.

So deliberately draw children’s attention to other people’s experiences and their feelings. Obviously you want to do this when the kid has harmed someone else, but you also want to do it preventatively.

With a young child, storytime can include questions like, “What is the Lorax feeling right now?” And that is the goal – feeling. You don’t want kids to just understand how other people feel. That’s called “cognitive empathy” and it doesn’t reform sociopaths, it makes them more effective sociopaths. You want your children to have “compassionate empathy.” To see others feeling pain and to have the desire to help. This is another reason why bubble-wrapping children is dangerous. If kids don’t experience the range of negative emotions it can make it hard for them to relate.

Another fun exercise is to let children help pick the gifts your family buys for others. It’s a natural way to remind them that other people are different and to consider what will make other people happy.

(To learn how to make your kids successful, click here.)

Okay, time to round it all up. Let’s review and then learn about the one thing that will make all of this more easy and more effective. And if you are someone who is concerned that you will parent just like your parents did, this will make sure that’s not the case…

Sum Up

This is how to make your kids amazing:

  • Behavior is communication. Discipline is teaching: Kids say, “Dearest parent, I am in serious need of coaching in regard to my social skills” by screaming at their brother. You need to teach them something better to do instead, not scream at them about screaming at people.
  • Balance: Connect and redirect to return them to the green zone.
  • Resilience: No bubble-wrapping. Sometimes use pushin’ and other times cushion to expand their green zone.
  • Insight: Name it to tame it. Label emotions and help them be both “player” and “spectator.”
  • Empathy: Draw children’s attention to other people’s feelings.

I’ve written a lot of posts about parenting over the years. Very rarely do I come across anything about improving a child’s behavior that adults couldn’t learn from. These days grown adults seem to really enjoy YA novels and I suggest we just expand that to nonfiction as well. If it’s about improving kids’ behavior, it will likely be incredibly helpful for you. (If you find that condescending, fine. I get naptime and cookies and you don’t.)

Most of what children learn isn’t taught explicitly. If you’re an anger-fueled overachiever or a people-pleasing martyr, that’s very likely what you are unconsciously role-modeling for your children. And so I ask…

Did you make sure you were in the green zone before you tried to get your kid back in there? Do you know what your triggers are? Do you know what gets you back in the green zone?

Do you push yourself to be more resilient? Spectate your own behavior enough to gain insight? Pay enough attention to be sensitive to the feelings of others?

You are trying to teach your child to be a great adult. You are already an adult. Hopefully, you are a great one. If not, work on it with the same tools you use to help them. Physician, heal thyself.

Again, most of what children learn isn’t taught explicitly.

It’s much easier to raise a better child after you’ve put in the time to be a better you.

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This article first appeared on Barking Up The Wrong Tree.