In my last post, I discussed why it’s important to let our kids know that we see them clearly and love them unconditionally. In this post, I’ll discuss four more of the best ways to let our kids know that, even if they make mistakes, we will keep loving them.
• Adjust our expectations
Another important, but hard, principle is to adjust our expectations. Sometimes our high expectations can push us into accidentally setting, or at least sound like we are setting, conditions on our love for our kids. This principle is difficult partly because we aren’t wired to naturally understand those nuances, but also because we do need to set expectations for our kids as part of parenting them. I usually set the line at character issues. If the question is one of ethics or character (for example, theft), then I am clear that I believe that they can meet the standard. If, on the other hand, it’s not a moral issue (for example, piercings), then I leave it as a matter of personal preference.
One area in which this comes up often is when our children are deciding about college. It’s very common to judge the success of a foster child by whether or not he or she graduates from college. Yet, not all of our kids are academically-inclined. Some of them have been so affected by trauma that they are too far behind their grade level to ever catch up. Others just aren’t suited to the academic straight-jacket. This question isn’t one of character, but individual ability or preference, and we need to let our kids choose without penalty. They need to know that, whatever their decision, we will not be disappointed, but will continue to love and care about them. Allowing them that freedom to decide for themselves will increase our chances of building a healthy relationship with them.
Finally, we need to expect that our kids will push their boundaries. This fact is particularly true for teens. Pushing boundaries seems to be a required way for them to learn independence. Kids who have experienced trauma are particularly prone to push boundaries. They may be trying to find out if the consequences will really happen, or whether you will still care about them (as you claim) if they don't have good behavior, or any number of other things. So when your kids break the rules, even a character rule like shoplifting, don’t immediately write them off. Just add it your scale of “Stupid Things My Kids Have Done” and help them find a way to recover from the mistake.
• Help Them Find a Way Back from Bad Decisions
Helping our kids find a way to recover from mistakes is one of the most important things we can do. Part of learning resilience is learning from failures, and part of learning from failures is knowing that you won’t lose everything that matters. Our kids need to know that they will not lose our love if they take a risk and fail.
Helping them find a way back doesn’t mean that we just overlook the mistake. Minimizing bad decisions doesn’t help our kids learn. They need to have a clear view of how bad the mistake was, but they also need to be able to separate the mistake from their worth as a person. This is where we need to learn to say, “Yeah, it was a big mistake, but big mistakes happen. We’ll be with you while you figure out how to get past it.” Our kids will be more willing to accept responsibility for their actions if they believe we care to walk alongside them as they learn and grow.
Accepting responsibility often requires restitution. After all, mistakes are not always only about our kids. They make decisions that affect other people. Requiring (and sometimes helping) our children to make restitution to people they have hurt is an important part of teaching them how to overcome failure. It also shows them that we care enough to believe that they can find a way back from mistakes.
Sometimes our kids make such seriously bad decisions that we can’t help them without enabling them. Those are the times that we need to be very clear not only about the limits of our help, but how they can find their way back into a relationship with us. We can learn this lesson from experts in substance abuse, who agree that we have to tell addicts that we will not help them until they are willing to stay clean for a period of time. One of the most difficult conversations I ever had was with an extended family member who was denying and continuing to feed an addiction. I explained, “No, I will not loan you any more money. I will not pay your power bill. I will not give you cash. What I will do is take you to a rehab center. Any day and any time that you call me for that, I will come get you. But until you make that call, I cannot help you.”
Sometimes those tough and clear conversations are the best ones we can have with our kids. They may need to hear that, while we love them, we can’t support what they are doing. In those conversations, however, they always need to hear that we will be there whenever they make the decision to come back.
• Use Positive Reinforcement
By now, most of us have heard this mantra more times than we can count. We know that positive reinforcement works better than negative. The principle is particularly true for kids who have suffered trauma. It’s one of those tips that IS easier said than done, and it’s one of those things that we should constantly remind ourselves about.
• Be Careful in The Words We Choose
We also have to be careful in the language that we use. Our children may be primed to hear conditions and judgment. This tendency is particularly true of kids who have suffered trauma. Many of them have heard so much blame and condemnation from adults that they hear it even when we don’t say it. So we have to be especially careful about how we talk to them. For example, I only talk about my scale of “Stupid Things” when I’m talking to adult friends or audiences. When taking to young people, especially my children, I call it the “Scale of Mistakes My Family and I Have Made.” That title is not as funny, but it’s much less hurtful for someone who is still smarting from a bad decision.
For the same reason, when talking to young people, I avoid the loaded words that I use in writing or talking to adults, such as “failure.” Kids don’t have the life experience or perspective to understand the nuances of the word. They are much more receptive to discussions about “mistakes” or “backtracking on a goal.”. Our kids need to know that we have a clear view of their faults, but we don’t have to pile on.
• Let Them Know We Believe in Their Potential
Perhaps the most important part of letting our kids know that we have their backs is to let them know that we believe that they can overcome their mistakes, and that they have the potential to do great things. Of course, we have to be realistic about our encouragement, or we will lost credibility. Encouraging a child who hates school to go to college will feel to them like pressure, not love and caring. We also can concentrate on things they can control, such as being kind and not giving up.
It also is important to help our kids know that their potential is in reach. In my last post, I mentioned a master’s thesis that interviewed high level athletes about their coaches’ unconditional acceptance of them. One important factor for each of the athletes was their coaches would communicate directly their belief in the athletes’ potential, and tell them that each step was a small one well within their reach. Our children may not be high-level athletes, but each one of them can become kinder, learn to work harder and refuse to give up. Those goals are well within every child’s reach, and we should encourage them to reach them.
All of these techniques are important ways to communicate to our children that we love them without reservations. An essential foundation of that love is seeing them clearly. Our kids need to know that we have a realistic view of them. As one of the figure skaters in the master’s thesis study phrased it, “I didn’t need their fake positivity or paid claps.” They won’t believe us if we are not authentic. But it is essential that we show them that, along with seeing them without any illusions, we love them without any reservations.