Parenting to your child’s love language

“I don’t understand it. I’ve raised both my kids the same way, and they’ve turned out completely different!” I’ve heard this exasperated claim many times. Have you said it yourself?

I remember reading all the parenting books and columns I could get my hands on while raising my son and daughter. I wanted to understand why I got one result when I applied a parenting principle to my son and a completely different result with my daughter. After all, they were raised in the same household, same parents, same rules, same religious foundation, same everything. What was I missing?

One very big factor: They are two entirely different people. Their personalities, perspectives, choices, passions, strengths, weaknesses – all different. Yet I was treating them the same, thinking “same” was a synonym for “fair.” It isn’t.

Being fair is being judicious, with consistent rules and consequences. Your son shouldn’t get to stay out later than your daughter. Your daughter shouldn’t do more chores than your son. And discipline for one shouldn’t be more extreme than the other.

But with different personalities, values and interests, your children shouldn’t be treated the same, any more than you treat all your friends or family members the exact same way. As adults, we’ve recognized that other adults respond differently to statements, actions, and expressions of love. We adapt our behavior and expectations accordingly.

Look at marriage. Is your spouse just like you? I’ve been married almost 31 years and I’m here to tell you, my husband and I are very different people. Yet we cohabitate peacefully, resolve differences quickly, and enjoy each other’s company. And we have a deep love for one another that hasn’t faded.

But how does that translate to our relationship to our children? Well, think about the Love Languages, Dr. Gary Chapman’s philosophy about how to relate to those who aren’t like us. He says that everyone has a Love Language, a way that they are most receptive to love, leading to cooperation and returned affection. Just as adults have love languages, children do too. And knowing their love language is tantamount to some of the best parenting principles out there.

The five Love Languages – Physical Touch, Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Gift Giving, and Acts of Service – represent how a person sees and feels love. For children of all ages, it looks like this

  1. Physical Touch – Hugs and kisses, sitting in close proximity, wrestling, back scratches, placing your hand on your child’s when talking, high-fiving, and snuggling all help these kids feel your love. While these same actions with another child can cause discomfort or embarrassment, the child who craves physical touch will count on it as a way to view your love.
  2. Words of Affirmation – You will know this is your child’s love language when their motivation and satisfaction grow as a result of verbal praise and recognition. These kids need to hear “I love you” and need you to tell them you’re proud of them. But be careful! They will quickly recognize false praise, as they are attuned to words and tone. Likewise, negative words cut to the core. So be sincere in your dialog and solve disputes through calm discussion, and they will respond!
  3. Quality Time – While all of us need human interaction and crave acceptance from others, kids who fall in this category base their view of relationships primarily on the amount and quality of time you spend with them. As you can imagine, these kids struggle when the two most important people in their lives are constantly at work or busy with other endeavors. It’s not that you need to be with them all the time, it’s that when you are, it needs to be about them, not about your phone, other people, or any other distractions. When they speak, look them directly in the eyes and give them your full attention. Make them feel that when you’re together, it’s only about the two of you.
  4. Giving gifts – These kids are thoughtful. It brings them joy to make others happy through gift giving. They put time and effort into their gifts because to them, giving to others is a true sign of love. In return, they gauge others’ love for them by the same measure. But don’t mistake expensive for valuable. What they are looking for is an understanding of who they are, what they like, and what brings them happiness. This can include homemade gifts, cookies baked just for them, or a handwritten card expressing your pride in their accomplishment.
  5. Acts of Service – No, these children do not expect you to be their servant, but they will feel the most loved when you serve them in a different way. Hosting their friends at your house; doing something when they ask you to do it, not in your own time; and making them feel valued by treating them respectfully, are all ways you can perform acts of service. Again, price is not a factor here. Stopping for a milkshake just because your daughter craves one is a small act that will bring big love rewards.

Figuring out who your children are and what makes them tick is the first step in knowing how to speak to them in the language that they appreciate. When that happens, the fact that your children are different will be a blessing rather than a curse.

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Letting kids stumble

The other day I was perusing Facebook and came across a video of a newly born giraffe attempting to take his first steps. His mother stood above him and watched as he repeatedly teetered on wobbly legs only to fall sideways, backwards, and even flat on his face. Each time, he lay on the ground, catching his breath, and his mother watched and waited. Occasionally she gave him an encouraging lick or a nudge of her head as a show of support, but it was obvious this was something the baby giraffe needed to learn through trial, error, and perseverance. Eventually he did, and if it’s possible for an animal to beam with pride, he did that as well. He happily experimented with his new legs and became more brave and confident with each step. I couldn’t help but root for the little guy and share in his success and joy.

As someone who works with kids and parents, I naturally made the connection between giraffe parenting and human parenting. How many of us are willing to stand and watch while our children figure things out on their own, struggle, fail, and keep trying until they succeed? Are we more inclined to pave the path for our children and try to remove obstacles? Do we jump in before they fail? Do we constantly worry about protecting their self-esteem and warding off hurts and frustrations?

Twenty years ago we saw a developing trend toward helicopter parenting that blew up into a form of overprotectiveness which, through the benefit of hindsight, we now realize truly harmed kids. This group, now young adults, has few coping skills and cannot handle frustrations and roadblocks, thus leading to a higher number of suicides and much higher rates of anxiety and depression. Because we didn’t want our children to face all the small failures that are part of growth, we created a generation of young people who can’t handle failure at all. We didn’t help them; we massively crippled them.

Parents today are seeing the damage caused from carrying our children rather than forcing them to walk on their own. We are seeing a return to “old school parenting,” where kids join sports teams and take music lessons and plug away at it until they get it right. They practice, put in sweat equity, enjoy small successes that build their self-esteem and small failures that build their character, and guess what? They’re growing, maturing, and learning to stand on their own two feet.

As we start a new school year, I encourage you to take this proven philosophy and apply it to your children’s learning. As I told my kids when they were growing up, they had one job and that job was school. Make your kids responsible for their own job, and that includes keeping an agenda, putting effort into homework and turning it in on time, studying for tests and quizzes, and taking any concerns or questions they may have to the teacher. Your job is to be there, watching and encouraging, but not interfering. Your job is to teach them personal responsibility and independence. If they make mistakes – and they will – they must face the consequences in order to learn and do better the next time.

Whatever you do, don’t make excuses for children’s lack of responsibility and don’t ask teachers to continually give them another chance. If this means they earned a zero, then help them by discussing their options and how they might avoid any zeroes in the future. If it means they failed a test, help them determine if it was from lack of understanding or lack of effort. Provide a support system for the former and consequences for the latter. But don’t try to get a retake or argue that your child deserves a do over. This is where healthy support becomes unhealthy interference, and at this point, you are harming rather than helping your child.

If you deprive kids of consequences, you are only crippling them. Better to let them stumble today than to cripple them for a lifetime.

How to empower your kids against bullies

Bullies have been around for as long as we can remember, but their prominence in the news is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Throwing a punch and calling a name has been replaced with a much more sophisticated form of torture, one that is relentless and sometimes drives its victims to suicide.

Bullycide is the new term created to encompass the many children and teens who have committed suicide as a way to escape bullying. The fact that we have coined this term speaks volumes about where we are as a society and how important it is for parents to be aware of this danger. Bullying has changed quite a bit since we were kids, and the results can be devastating.

No longer is bullying confined to isolated spaces and incidents. The days of stealing lunch money or shoving someone into a locker have passed and students can no longer look forward to the end of the school day to escape their tormentors. Home is no longer the sanctuary it used to be, as social media and the Internet infiltrate every aspect of our lives. Now, when a student faces embarrassment, it is broadcast to the world and relived over and over again.

As with other forms of abuse, the victims hesitate to tell anyone what they are facing or feeling. Only 40% of bullying victims tell anyone or seek help, which means as parents, you need to be aware of the signs that something isn’t right with your kids. Below are some pointers for recognizing signs of bullying and dealing with them before they push your kids to hopelessness.

  1.  Do NOT respect your kids’ “privacy” on social media. The very idea of social media being private is absurd. Don’t let your kids guilt you into feeling that an Instagram account is like a diary. The two have nothing in common. A diary is a place where one writes their private feelings, whereas social media, well, is social. Whatever is out there is out there for public consumption, and you, dear parents, are the public. If everyone else can see it, you should be seeing it.
  2. Note changes in your child’s behavior and day-to-day habits. Look particularly for changes in eating (either not eating or bingeing) and sleeping (too much sleeping is a sign of depression, too little is a sign of stress). Are grades suddenly dropping? Does your child seem to lack confidence and have a great deal of self-doubt? Is your child avoiding social situations that she once enjoyed? All of these signs are potential red flags that something or someone is affecting your child negatively. Pay attention and don’t ignore these signs.
  3. Keep the lines of communication open. Ask questions and listen. Inquire about specific friends. Note your child’s change of behavior and discuss it with them. Know and talk to your child’s friends to see if there is something you should know. Be careful to ask with concern but not paranoia. Friends will stay tight-lipped when they fear betraying a friend’s trust, but if you ask with clear concern and love, good friends will share in an effort to help.
  4. Watch for signs that your child could be a bully. These include aggression, getting into trouble at school, hanging around with kids who bully, an excessive focus on self-image, and a high level of competitiveness. If your child is quick to anger and his first reaction involves hurting others in some way, whether physical or emotional, he may be a bully. If he fails to take responsibility for his actions and is always looking to blame others when he is in trouble, you will want to keep a very close eye on his interactions with his peers.
  5. Remember that today’s bullying is oftentimes anonymous. This makes it even worse for the victims, as they have no idea who is going after them on social media and what this person has against them. Psychologically, it’s devastating. The victim begins to question his relationships; he wonders if he can ever trust his friends. Without a clear person or reason behind the bullying, he is left to agonize over the who and why. As parents, you can step in and utilize the resources you have – the school, the police, anti-bullying organizations – to identify online predators and put a stop to their bullying.
  6. Work constantly to help your children develop self-respect and confidence. We’ve all dealt with mean people who set out to hurt us. Whether or not we become a victim, however, is largely up to us. As parents, teach your kids their worth so that when someone else questions it, they know exactly who they are and how unimportant that person’s opinion is. Bullies tend to prey on the vulnerable, so do everything you can to strengthen your kids and let them know that their worth comes from within. When they refuse to allow others to diminish their worth, they will have stopped the bullies in their tracks.

Helping kids cope with tragedy

I sit here reading yet another story about a tragic school shooting, one where young lives were taken well before their time and other young lives must continue with shadows of the tragedy plaguing them for decades to come. It’s a depressing reality that our kids are in danger, not just from drugs, unprotected sex, and recklessness, but from other kids with guns.

It’s also a sad reality that kids are moved through our school systems with obvious social and mental issues and that these same kids have access to guns. They see other school shootings and envision them as glorified, thereby feeding their need for notoriety. The cycle continues, and our children are the victims.

Perhaps the saddest reality of all is that the teenage years have just become a whole lot harder. While uncomfortable parent-teen conversations have been around since Mike from the Brady Bunch had to explain the birds and the bees, how in the world do we talk to our children about the violence that has permeated what was once a safe place?

  1. We can begin by getting ourselves straight first. If we approach our children with fear and anxiety, we will build fear and anxiety within them. Talk to your spouse and your friends about the madness, vent your fears and frustrations, then pull it together for your kids. They will take their cue from you. They will be fearful of those things for which you have instilled fear. So present a calm demeanor that will leave the lines of communication open so you can…
  2. Just listen. You may prompt your children by asking if their friends or teachers are talking about the shootings, and then let them share their perceptions. Based on their tone, their level of anxiety, and their perspective, you can then determine how to respond. If your teens seem especially agitated, help them to put their fear into perspective. In reality,  the odds of a school shooting are still small and school still remains a safe haven for the vast majority of students in America. Help your kids see that while these events comprise the headlines for every news media outlet out there, statistically speaking, they are not something to fear on a daily basis.
  3. In listening to your kids, you’ll probably notice that most put themselves in the position of the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. They imagine what they would do in a similar position. Would they bravely stand up and put their life on the line for their peers? Would they run? Would they hide? Would they try to wrestle the gun from the shooter? It is natural for kids to imagine themselves in the situation and sometimes take on the persona of the hero. So ask them: What do you think you would do? Listen carefully to their response. Then talk them through their options, the smart and best ways to respond in emergency situations. Use these tragedies as an opportunity to educate and plan.

It’s hard to find something positive in such a horrible tragedy as a school shooting.  Perhaps one constructive outcome to come out of these nightmares is that they force us to self-reflect, as a nation, as a public school system, and as parents. Are we doing enough to keep our kids safe? What can we do to end these tragedies?

 

Young love is indeed real

It is the month of romance and love and many will celebrate with fancy dinners, roses, and chocolates. If you’re like me, you’ll treat Valentines Day like any other day except that you’ll make a point of staying home to avoid the mad restaurant rush, the pink and red balloons, and the inflated prices on everything. It’s not that I’ve lost that lovin feeling; it’s just that after 30 years of marriage, being told when to be romantic just doesn’t work for me anymore.

If you have teenagers, however, especially teenagers who have a boyfriend or girlfriend, Valentines Day is anything but old hat. Teens look toward this day with either dread or hopes reaching fantasy level, depending on their relationship status. Valentines Day, when you’re a teenager in love, is a statement to the world and validation so many of them need that someone has chosen to love them, that they are the lucky ones.

Therefore, as parents, you shouldn’t minimize or tease them about their relationships. Nor should you tell them they are incapable of being truly in love, no matter how much you believe that, and no matter how many personal experiences you can share. Have you ever noticed your reaction when someone forewarns you based on their experience? Your initial reaction, if you’re like most humans, is to think to yourself, Well, that was their experience. Mine is different. We always think we’re the exception, rather than the rule.

Teenagers, especially, without the benefit of fully developed frontal lobes that allow them to see the whole picture or fully understand the consequences of their actions, generally dive in, head first. Impulsivity and recklessness are hallmarks of the teenage world. The same applies to romance. In their minds, your story is not their story. You can’t possibly understand the level of their connection with their boyfriend/girlfriend. They are in love. It’s real.

They know it’s real because they feel the extreme emotions that come with love. They feel hurt, they feel joy, they feel that wonderful sense of togetherness. Their hormones are on fire, clouding their judgment. They are experiencing – in real life – everything they have seen on the movie screen or read about in books. They are giddy with love.

So imagine what it does to them, and to their feelings about you, when you dismiss all of this by telling them they can’t possibly be in love. They don’t know what love is, you tell them. They’re too young to love. Imagine how condescending that must sound to them. And imagine how likely they’ll be to talk to you about matters of love again.

It is extremely important to your parent-child relationship that you acknowledge your teen’s feelings and understand they are very real. You don’t have to encourage teen love, but when your child finds it, or thinks he finds it, you should listen. Try to be happy he’s happy. Ask questions such as What do you like about her? What do you enjoy doing together? What makes her different from other girls?

Then sit back and listen to what your child tells you not only about this person he’s drawn to, but about himself, what he’s looking for, and what makes him happy. Don’t judge and don’t ask a hundred questions about the girlfriend’s family, grades, and interests. And whatever you do, don’t smirk and tell him he is too young to be in a relationship or to love someone. It’s too late for that by the time you find out about it. He’s already in it and he won’t willingly leave it.

It’s true that if parents attempt to break up a young couple, they usually succeed in driving the couple closer together. It’s the whole Romeo and Juliet thing. So instead, stay informed by keeping your relationship with your kids solid and the lines of communication open. Be respectful of your kids’ feelings and decisions, and they will come to you on their own for advice and counsel.

And remember, “real” is relative. Love is as real as it gets in the teenage mind, so be patient, understanding, and supportive as your teens navigate the rocky road of romance.

For more advice about parenting teens, check out Teenagers 101.

 

Making togetherness your holiday focus

Whether you celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah, you are faced with the yearly dilemma of deciding how much is too much to spend on your children. A 2016 study revealed that parents spent an average of $422 on presents for each child in the family. Twenty-five percent of parents withdraw money from their 401K  or dipped into emergency funds to finance Christmas. Fifty-six percent went into debt and an alarming 16 percent knew going in that it would take them a full 6 months to pay off their holiday charges.

Hearing these statistics made me wonder: In a country where most of us live better than the rest of the world, is it necessary or even proper to spend this much cash on holiday giving? Does it detract from the true meaning? Or is it important to blend in with American culture and give our kids all that we can afford?

My family has always had a policy of moderation when it comes to gifts. I was struck with the following thought in one of those  crystal clear moments that end up defining your parenting philosophy: If I start giving my kids piles of presents at Christmas, they will come to expect the same year after year. But if I give them just a few well-chosen items, that’s all they’ll ever expect.

God must have been smiling down on me that day, because it was one of the greatest realizations I’ve ever had: Don’t start something with your kids that you don’t want to continue doing forever. This applies to virtually everything, including how you respond to temper tantrums, what you allow your children to do, and what kind of behavior you accept. It’s so much harder to change those behaviors long after they first began than to nip them in the bud early on or prevent them all together. That’s what we did with Christmas. And our kids have never questioned it.

The result has been a Christmas morning that is unhurried and joyous. We have always exchanged one nice present on Christmas Eve from each other, and no more than three presents on Christmas morning from Santa. One item may be a more expensive item, but the others are thoughtful, small, and bring smiles to faces. My children are now grown and no one has ever been anything but thrilled with this system. No one goes into hock to buy presents for family members; no one greedily rips open packages, barely acknowledging them; and most of the focus of the holiday stays where it should – on the reason for the season. We worship at a candlelight service, we eat traditional holiday meals, and we spend time together as a family. The specifics may change from year to year just to keep things interesting, but the one constant is our focus on  togetherness, not the materialism so often associated with this time of year.

What are your thoughts on holiday gift giving? Do you love to indulge your kids as much as possible, or do you prefer a toned-down Christmas or Hanukkah? I’d love to hear about your family traditions.

Being thankful for your teens

I’ve heard a lot of words associated with parenting teenagers. Exasperating. Frustrating. Confusing. Very rarely do I hear someone exclaim, “I’m SO happy to be raising a teenager right now!” If I do hear it, it’s generally dripping with sarcasm.

But the reality is that teenagers really are quite a bit of fun, and they embody some lessons we would all do well to learn. So this Thanksgiving month, spend some time reflecting on what makes your teenagers wonderful and why they are actually a huge blessing in your life.

Need help focusing on the positives? Think about this:

  • Teenagers keep your argumentative skills honed. You have to be sharp in your thinking and your decisions, or they will call you on it. They will ask why until you want to strangle them. But be grateful, because they’re forcing you to ask yourself why, and I don’t think we do that enough. A little introspection never hurt anyone.
  • Teenagers are still children in a lot of ways. They will make side-splitting comments. They still take joy in the seemingly small moments. Their silliness and appreciation for all things farcical make them perfect companions for watching comedies, cracking jokes, and having fun with the eccentricities of extended family members. One year over the holidays, my teens started a quote list for a particularly “interesting” family member visiting from out of town. They kept the list in a kitchen drawer. When the annoyances threatened to bring out the worst in us and the week was beginning to stretch everyone’s nerves a little too thin, one of us would depart to the kitchen, open the quote list drawer, and laugh. I never would have thought to do that on my own. Leave it to the teenage brain to create a unique escape from visitor stress.
  • Teenagers are adults in a lot of ways. They are sensitive, can be thoughtful when they want to be, and understand way more than you realize. You can talk to them, even about the big stuff, as they are quite deep and are able to understand adult issues much more deeply than you suspect. They can be wise and offer new perspectives.
  • Teenagers love you and need you. They don’t show it all the time (that’s what dogs are for), and they may not say it, either. Heck, they may not even realize it. But every time they sit next to you at dinner, ask you for advice, tell you a story about their friends, or even shuffle into the kitchen in their PJ’s, they’re telling you that they trust you, that you offer them a safe haven, and that they even enjoy your company.
  • Teenagers keep us young. They blast all the latest, greatest hits, use ever changing acronyms (GOAT, anyone?), know the perfect emoji to use in any and all situations, and remind us what it was like to fall in love, become yearbook editor, and earn an “A.” We watch them play sports and it takes us back to our glory days. They introduce us to new technology, download apps on our phones, and make sure we don’t wear anything embarrassing. Without them – let’s face it – we’d be stuck in the past.

So you see, you have a lot to be grateful for when it comes to raising teens. They may wear you out, but they also build you up and bring joy to your life. Enjoy them now, because in a few years, you’ll be hoping and praying that they’ll be home for Thanksgiving.

For more tips on living with teens, check out Teenagers 101.