By Jennifer Balink
From bookstore shelves to TikTok, tips and tricks for parents are everywhere we look. Which is great, because children don’t come with instructions, and it’s completely normal for us as parents to feel uncertain and to question our parenting skills.
The desire to share parenting experiences and advice with other, fellow parents is a natural part of community building. It’s also natural for parents to turn to their social and family connections for advice.
But what advice is right for you, or me, or anyone? With so much information around, how does anyone know what’s best?
The good and bad news is that there isn’t really an answer. What works for another parent might not work for you. What works well for a first child might not work at all for a second child.
Is there any hope, then, for parents who are just trying to get it right, despite having too little sleep and too much information?
Yes; and here’s a place to start, with three practical skills that transcend trends:
Get to know your child.
Your child is an edition of one. There is no other child exactly like yours, and no other parent exactly like you. Decisions that are right for your child, yourself, and your family might or might not be right for anyone else. What’s normal for your child (sleep, eating, creative play) might not match another child’s patterns.
As children grow and develop, they show different responses to the world around them. Some children thrive in high-energy settings with lots of people and activity; others need quiet, low-stimulation environments.
Getting to know your child, understanding their unique needs, will help you respond and nurture them. That nurturing response will, in turn, help your child feel safe and protected. Building a sense of trust and safety will help your child build relationships with playmates, siblings, teachers, and so on.
No book, pamphlet, website, or Instagram influencer can tell you about your child. So try being a curious observer. Understanding your child’s unique personality and needs will help you support them as they grow and interact with the world around them.
Respond to your child’s needs.
When your child expresses a need – for food, rest, comfort, or shared excitement – it’s an attempt to make a connection with you, their caregiver. Your response to that need teaches your child that it’s safe to express feelings with you.
Your response can also help teach your child how to identify and name the feeling, as well as how to express the feeling in a healthy and appropriate way.
Teach your child to ask for what they need.
Is that temper tantrum hunger or exhaustion? Is that reaction fear or sadness?
Your child likely knows but may not have the words and skills to communicate that to you.
Teaching children to identify and name their feelings and needs can be frustrating for parents, especially when children are young and just developing language skills. While it may take trial-and-error work, though, doing this work with a child pays a lifetime of dividends.
Recognizing and naming emotions is the first step toward learning healthy ways of expressing and processing feelings. Strong emotions, like anger, excitement, and grief, can be overwhelming, for both children and adults.
When parents teach and model the skill of recognizing and naming feelings (e.g. “I’m feeling sad because…”), it helps teach children the skill and it encourages them to try it.
These three practices – getting to know your child’s unique personality, responding to your child’s needs, and teaching them the skills to recognize and name emotions – are timeless and trend-proof. While it may take time to get in the habit of doing them consistently, the rewards are well worth the effort.
Jennifer Balink is the executive director at Kindred Place, a community resource for parents and families. As a relationship coach and mom of two college-age children, she is passionate about bringing empathetic leadership to the challenges of work, parenting, and family. Jennifer is now a frequent contributor to StoryBoard, and this is her first under her new Yes and . . . column.