Ten tips for raising emotionally healthy kids

‘I love my kids!’

I hear it all the time. But sometimes love, by itself, isn’t enough. Children are a central theme with many of my clients, and I have learned much about what to do—and what NOT to do.

We have to pass a test to get a drivers license, and we need expensive, accredited education to be a health professional—yet, there is no definable skill set or testing process to prepare parents for the enormous responsibility of raising their kids! So, based on my experience over the years, I have put together ten helpful points for raising a moral, mentally healthy child.

1. Don’t assume they know

Kids are not born with knowledge that adults take for granted, e.g., that they should eat healthy foods, or that they must think before they act. Even so, you should still hold them responsible for their wrong actions. If you don’t punish or at least correct them for lying, hitting or whatever, how else will they learn that these behaviors are wrong?

2. Keep perspective

Your child does not disobey just to irritate you. Childhood is a learning process; so don’t take it personally when she tests your limits. Think of it as an opportunity to teach her right from wrong.

3. Permissive vs. restrictive

Permissive parents reason with their children but do not punish them. Restrictive parents punish their kids but will not reason with them. It’s a false alternative. Give your kids the reasons why they should act a certain way. Children are much more likely to follow rules, even unpopular ones, if you let them ask questions and then give them reasonable answers. Use punishment only if reason fails.

4. Constructive feedback

Positive incentives are often more powerful than punishments. But don’t reward a child for doing the bare minimum, such as going to school or being minimally civil. Save the rewards for extraordinary actions such as excelling in school, trying hard on a difficult task, or acting on their own intelligent judgment rather than peer pressure. Approval and positive feedback, along with constructive criticism, are crucial to building morale and confidence.

5. You have the final say

A family is neither a dictatorship nor a democracy. As the parent, you must have the final say, since you have ultimate responsibility for the child’s welfare. However, remember to explain and discuss, not merely command. If a child makes a logical point proving you wrong, you should stand corrected and make the necessary change. This will teach your child the healthy and affirming view that it’s OK to ask questions, and that reason can create solutions.

6. All kids are different

Some children are oppositional, while others show remarkable self-discipline. The persistently difficult child needs consistency more than anything else. Resist the temptation to control everything he does. Instead, choose your punishments wisely. Pick out the most important offending behaviors, and punish him swiftly and consistently for them. Sometimes, successfully holding your ground on one simple problem, such as bedtime or homework, can lead to success in other areas, because whatever respect he develops for you will generalize to other issues. With difficult kids, respect is often more effective than warm, fuzzy feelings.

7. Don’t fall for labels

Medical ‘disease’ labels, such as ‘attention deficit disorder’ or ‘conduct disorder’ distract from the fact that your child is capable of making choices and is responsible for his actions. Help him make better choices, rather than blaming his laziness or nastiness on some nonexistent ‘illness.’ Even if pills, such as Ritalin, appear to improve behaviors, it does not change the fact that kids make choices, just like adults make choices. In the end, no pill can make them do their homework—or choose their values for them.

8. Nurture self-interest

Don’t condemn your child for being ‘selfish.’ If you tell a child not to be selfish, you are implying he should not act in his own self-interest. How far does that go? He should not study hard in school? He should not look before crossing the street? Should he not treat his friends respectfully? All of these actions are in his own self-interest.

Explain why it is in his interest to respect the rights of others, to do well in school, etc. This is much more logical and motivating than, ‘Don’t be selfish! Put others before yourself.’ Also, he learns that respect for himself and the rights of others does not mean he has to sacrifice his own privacy, property, and happiness.

9. Don’t discourage thinking

Don’t punish a child for what she thinks or feels. Only punish actions you consider to be wrong and serious enough to warrant punishment. You can express strong disapproval of thoughts or feelings, but punishing them discourages independent thought and encourages emotional repression, which can lead to psychological problems.

10. Promote reality

Reasonable punishment does not damage self-esteem. It demonstrates the nature of reality. Adults have to think, work and make rational choices in order to survive and enjoy some measure of happiness. A child is not born with an automatic grasp of these principles. He will not learn them unless you teach him to think logically and to accept responsibility.

Challenge him intellectually. Encourage him to read to and think critically. Withhold support when he behaves irrationally. This is part of this learning process. Don’t count on teachers and day-care workers to communicate these virtues to your kids. As a parent, you must do the bulk of the work if your kids are to grow into healthy and happy adults.