Parents naturally spend a lot of time thinking about what great legacies they are passing onto their children — holiday traditions, vacation memories, special opportunities — but they may not imagine that one of the most important things they can pass on to their kids is positive psychiatry.
Simply put, positive psychiatry encompasses how you teach your children to develop psychosocial traits that promote resiliency and help them maneuver through life’s inevitable challenges with the ability to bounce back. These traits are also protective in nature, and many studies have shown that they can prevent future mental health illness.
Parenting styles seem to swing back and forth and, right now, I see parents who are taking an overly protective role. The more we may fear things that are happening in the world, the more we want to shield our children and keep them safe. Taken to the extreme, we don’t allow our kids to develop the resiliency traits that will ultimately help them become the happy, well-adjusted people we want them to be.
Before I delve into these specific traits, let me stress the importance of every child having at least one good adult relationship — someone who offers unconditional love — and good social engagement. As parents, really pay attention to your child. Actively listen when they talk; don’t be doing other things.
Comfort them when they are hurt or frightened; play with them; show empathy and teach them to be empathetic toward others. Help them develop a larger social network of friends and other adults in the community, perhaps by volunteering or helping a neighbor. This all helps build interpersonal skills, which are protective of good mental health.
Now onto that list of resiliency traits that we want to foster in our children.
Optimism. This is the idea that a good outcome will occur if we plan and problem-solve. Teach your kids to find something to be grateful for, even in the bad situations. Spirituality really helps foster this trait — the idea of a greater good, whatever it is, that gives a sense of direction and hope.
Courage. Don’t overprotect; allow your kids to take age-appropriate risk so they can see that they did it. Don’t give them all the answers; let them figure things out. Encourage them to face their fears, with you by their side. “You think there’s a monster under your bed? Let’s look together.”
A sense of well-being. This includes self-control and learning to manage emotions, and to develop patience. It also includes a good diet, exercise and the right amount of sleep. When we are physically balanced and our bodies are taken care of, we are better able to deal with life’s stresses.
Adaptability. Teaching this trait is very important because one of the things that kids fear most is change. Change is inevitable, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be bad. Teach your children not to be rigid and to give people the benefit of the doubt.
Self-sufficiency. This is an important trait that goes along with learning how to be confident. Focus on what your child can do instead of what she can’t. If she can’t run yet, encourage her to walk. If he is upset about a teacher at school, accompany him to school but allow him to do the talking.
Persistence. It’s another trait that fosters resiliency. Don’t let your kids give up, and let them know it’s OK to make mistakes. Some of life’s best lessons are learned through failure.
The list of resiliency traits is long, but the answer to how you can best teach your children is short: Model them. You’re probably doing some of this unconsciously already. Take a moment to assess honestly your parenting style.
It may take self-discipline and a concerted effort on your part to stop before you react, to handle situations in a new way. However, if you model resiliency for your children, hopefully it will come naturally to them when they are adults.
It’s never too early to start modeling this; even before your children can talk, they are watching how you do everything. Taking the time to nurture these traits will pay off in the form of a resilient person ready to make a difference in the world.
Dr. Daisy Shirk is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.