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Fostering Emotional Growth in Your Children

April 2013

A person may be very mature in his or her feelings about work and responsibilities, and at the same time be quite immature in relationships with other people. The same is true for our children. For everyone, emotional maturity is always relative. It fluctuates in each of us because emotional development is not steady and continuous. Also, our emotional flexibility and our capacity to cope from day to day and situation to situation vary depending on our life circumstances. So, we cannot expect a child’s emotional growth to proceed like physical growth, which is somewhat constant. Instead, emotional growth is subject to moving forward and to slowing down. And, like adults, children learn from their day to day experiences to integrate beliefs, feelings, attitudes, actions, and re-actions.

To optimize our children’s emotional growth, we must first permit everyone in the family to be open, honest, and free to relate their feelings. At the same time we must encourage our children to become independent and self-sufficient. This requires allowing them to accept responsibility for those feelings, for their behavior, and for the resulting consequences. In these two most basic of ways, the groundwork for the emotional maturity of our children is facilitated and promoted. Thus a democratic atmosphere in the home which provides freedom that is naturally accompanied by responsibility is essential. In this atmosphere our children learn from the natural social order that they are free to play with their friends, do work, or tease siblings, and at the same time they must also be prepared to accept the responsibilities and consequences that follow from their choices.

Empathy is another essential element to positive emotional growth. Children's feelings are real and authentic. They must be heard, and neither judged nor criticized. When we try to change those feelings by denying or repressing them, rather than by responding appropriately, we eventually produce depression, anger or active rebellion in the child. Because we have lived longer does not entitle us to ignore what our children are saying and feeling. Indeed, even more important than understanding the verbal content of a child’s message is recognizing the feelings that underlie it. Listening for those feelings and responding empathically to them is a critical parenting skill.

Developing a vocabulary of feeling words and then encouraging our children to identify and express what they are observing in themselves and others is also conducive to positive emotional growth. For example, it's ok for a child to say "I feel happy," "I feel sad," " I am angry," or "I am afraid." Too often instead we give our children the message to not have certain feelings. How often were we told as children that we “shouldn’t” feel a certain way? This might appear to solve a parent's problem of the moment, but it stunts the child's emotional growth and disconnects him from his essential self. We certainly don’t like it as adults when someone tells us that, “You shouldn’t feel that way,” or “Those feelings are wrong.” No! Those feelings are our reality of the moment, neither right nor wrong. Again, help your child to recognize and to experience his own feelings and to be responsible for them.

When our relationship to our children is neither overprotective nor over solicitous, we encourage mutual respect and an atmosphere in which they are able to join in new experiences and to learn from them. Finally, don’t forget to express your own feelings of love to your children. Love is often taken for granted, but nothing feels better than to be told that we are loved by someone we care about. Our children always benefit emotionally from knowing we feel good about them. In addition to verbal statements about our positive feelings, we can also offer a smile, a hug, or a kiss. These simple, practical and effective ideas will promote positive emotional growth in our children and will enable us to enjoy genuine good feelings within our families.



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