Umbrella Project – Parent Newsletter Authenticity!
We are excited to kick off this month with a new skill that will help your children feel good about who they are, boost their confidence and stand up for their beliefs. That skill is authenticity!
How will authenticity help my child?
Authenticity is the ability to be our genuine selves, staying true to our values and beliefs even under pressure, while still adapting to the world around us. Authenticity comes from having actions that match the words we say and not trying to be someone else to impress others. It’s very difficult to feel unconditionally loved and accepted without this critical skill.
Research shows that authenticity helps kids stand up for what they think is right, which reduces bullying and social stress. As parents, we can do a lot this year to work against the concerning trends in childhood mental health just by helping kids embrace and feel confident in their true selves.
With increased authenticity also comes increased self-confidence and trustworthiness, characteristics that will help your children create strong and lasting friendships which we know to be critical to their long-term wellbeing.
AUTHENTICITY TIP #1 Tap into your curiosity
We all want our children to be happy. In fact, we often want this so much that our own parent anxiety about their happiness takes over and leads us to push our kids into achievement in areas they may not care about. This pattern is usually done with the child’s best interests at heart but often leads to increasing anxiety and a loss of that child’s true passions and interest.
Start the new year by slowing down and listening to your child with the purpose of understanding what it is like to be them. Look out for their strengths and interests and really check that you know them on an authentic level. Notice what games they are drawn to, what subjects catch their interest, where they invest their free time. Kids naturally want to please their parents, friends and teachers and it’s easy for them to lose a sense of what they really care about in exchange for all of this pleasing.
Try to avoid having your child build their persona around what others want them to be and instead help them feel good about who they are.
AUTHENTICITY TIP #2 Help your child shape their authentic self
Your child is crafting the story of their identity-listen closely. As children become more aware of themselves and their position in the world, they start to crave something we all want, a sense of unconditional belonging. Each experience a child has builds on their sense of identity, and they slowly start to develop the story of who they are. Who we are is in fact a story that is pretty open to interpretation. Some of the most formative experiences in our story are the ones that made us feel accepted or on the other side, isolated.
As your child’s story emerges, start to look for conditions of worth. Conditions of worth are the things that we feel will give us value to others. These can range from being pretty, smart, funny, strong, to never getting upset, never losing etc. While these aren’t bad qualities, we don’t want our children’s self esteem to be tied to these, creating anxiety every time they can’t fully meet the expectation. This can cause a mix up in their authentic story and starts to create a social mask that they need to put on to feel accepted. Ever wonder why your funny friend doesn’t seem to know when to turn it off? It’s likely that they have created a condition of worth around being funny. Unfortunately, what this mask actually does is prevents them from ever feeling unconditionally accepted.
When you recognize these conditions of worth in your child, counter this message with two key parenting strategies:
1. Unconditional love and respect (harder than it sounds)
While most parents can say that they love their children unconditionally, it is not the message we give but the message they receive that is most important. To learn more about this, read this blog post: http://www.umbrellaproject.co/2017/10/04/what-does-it-mean-conversations-with-your-kids/
To streamline the message you are trying to give with what they are actually receiving, try not to tie good behaviour with love and connection and bad behaviour with anger. This subtly tells kids that your affection does in fact have conditions and that they are less lovable when they aren’t doing what you want them to. Instead, try to keep anger out of discipline and love out of praise. Avoid phrases like “I love you…you’re so kind” when your child is doing well at their condition of worth. Praise them without tying it back to your love for them. When discipline is necessary, try to zoom in a little and see the feeling – sadness, anger, jealousy, frustration. It will help you keep your cool and not bring anger into the equation. Remember their feelings are normal and suppressing them with anger doesn’t make that feeling go away; but it can lead to a child who has trouble sharing their true feelings.
2. Parent in the grey zone
Help your kids find the normal exceptions to their conditions of worth in the grey zone. The more black and white our view of the world is, the easier it is to get caught up in our conditions of worth. In the black and white world, we are either one way or another-smart or not, kind or not, funny or not (read more in ourGrowth Mindset blog series). We can’t be any of these things all the time and this is a clear set up for never feeling comfortable with your imperfections. This is especially true if, each time you fail at one of your conditions, you feel less loved or accepted. The permission to be imperfect and human like everyone else is a great way to alleviate anxiety and the Grey Zone is where this permission lives.
It’s almost impossible to live an authentic life if you can’t take ownership for your mistakes; however, ownership can be difficult for children. In fact, many of the adults I know struggle with this skill too.
AUTHENTICITY TIP #3 Is there a grain of truth?
Let’s face it – it often feels easier to shift the blame to someone or something else, rather than looking inside and owning up to our mistakes. In reality, the situations we find ourselves in are much more complex than that. There is often more than one factor involved in our mistakes/conflicts and almost always, some piece of it that we can accept responsibility for. The ability to do this is big part of healthy relationship-building for your child.
The next time your child is facing a conflict, ask them if they can pick out a grain of truth in the situation: something little that they can take ownership and responsibility for. This can be especially effective for sibling conflicts, as well as peer and parent relationships.
This strategy will help them start with small, manageable things and eventually to owning bigger pieces of their mistakes. The strategy shows your child the relief that comes with ownership and telling the truth.
Does your child often get upset at the suggestion that they may have something to do with the conflict they find themselves in? Working towards owning up to mistakes is a great way to build their authenticity, help them learn from those mistakes and prevent them from having to carry the burden of that mistake long-term.
This can be a difficult skill for some to nurture, so make honesty the easiest option for your child by praising them every time they are able to find their piece of responsibility in the situation.
AUTHENTICITY TIP #4 Stop focusing on perfection
Remind your child often, and in as many ways as you can, that the goal of life isn’t development to perfection.
This important conversation builds almost every skill in your child’s umbrella, and authenticity is no exception. We dove into this in November when we discussed growth mindset and it’s worth a mention again as we work towards developing a child who feels comfortable being themselves.
We are all climbing a mountain in life that doesn’t have a top and when we imagine that there is a summit to climb, it can lead to a life of struggle trying to get somewhere that doesn’t exist. Striving for perfection can create a set of unattainable standards and this often leads to covering up imperfections with a false exterior instead of being comfortable with who we are as humans, imperfections and all.
Start by normalizing life’s challenges for kids: relationships have bumps, sometimes we do poorly on tests, get injured and have tough days. When your child truly believes that these things are a difficult (but normal) part of life that everyone experiences, their authentic selves will have a chance to shine. Set goals for small incremental improvements instead of trying to get as close as possible to perfection.
Parents of high achieving kids take note: these are the kids I’m seeing most in my practice for anxiety. Remember that just because your child can achieve at a level of excellence now doesn’t mean they won’t face challenges down the road. As these kids hit harder and harder challenges, they will often sacrifice all other aspects of their wellbeing to continue to achieve success including sleep, friendships and relationships with their loved ones. We know that these are critical to wellbeing and their absence takes a toll.
Make sure your children really understand that they don’t need to maintain a high level of success at all times for love, acceptance or self-esteem. This false belief can become deeply ingrained in their minds and cause a lot of anxiety when they can’t hit a desired target; so, teach self-acceptance now, in advance of these challenges.
Mistakes are an important part of learning and the fear of making mistakes might just be what is holding your child back from being their true selves.
See this blog for a more detailed look at coaching children through the challenges of building authenticity: https://umbrellaproject.co/category/authenticity/
Health and happiness,
Dr. Jen Forristal
Founder of the Umbrella Project