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Lina Acosta Sandaal's picture

Last week I sat in a room with 5000 individuals dedicated to advocating for others in their community and effecting change at The United States of Women Summit.  I was honored to have been invited to be included in this fascinating group of citizens, convened by the White House Council on Women and Girls and The First Lady, to review what has been done and what remains to be done on behalf of women and girls.  At the end of the day, the crowd broke into an uproar when we heard Oprah Winfrey proclaim, "Hi, everybody!"  We had all been anxiously awaiting the Q&A of Oprah with Michelle Obama, the hostess of our summit.

Michelle Obama spoke of many things:  self-value, self-worth, defining ourselves and handling criticism.  She described how she chose her priorities and what she values most.  But of all she described and shared, one line stuck with me. After Oprah asked her  what she would be leaving the White House most proud of, she stated, "my daughters," and then she ended that dialogue by exclaiming that she could "...breathe a sigh of relief that I didn't mess them up." 



As a parenting expert I hear that worry every day:  "Lina, am I messing up my children?"  Here I was hearing it again from a parent that most would imagine has it all together.  She is married to the President of the United States, and in most of what we see and read she has made great choices for her girls.  But our First Lady, like many of you who are reading this, worried, from the moment her girls went to school for the first time with Secret Service in tow, to her daughter's high school graduation about how she could avoid "messing them up."  I loved it!  

It was one of those moments that I ask most of the parents that I work with to look out for, that "me too" moment.  The moment we can all look at one another and share the same problems and humanity.  The First Lady was having a "me too" moment with all the parents in the audience.  In that moment I thought she didn't "mess them up" because she just explained aspects of herself that most developmental experts and psychotherapists would agree help in raising children that thrive.  Here are tips to help  you from "messing up" your kids:


Our children take their safety cues from us.  The first time you see it as a parent is when they are toddlers and they explore and check in with us time and again.  Children continue to do this through adolescence; as they get older, the checking in takes on the complexity of their age.  To make sure you are a secure base, attempt to make sense of your past, how it affects your present and your parenting answers will follow. The latest studies in attachment and neuroscience state that all children thrive when a parent can make sense of their past experiences and how it affects them in the present.  Our most dominant model of how to parent is the way we were parented and also how other caregivers (teachers, coaches, mentors) related to us.  If you find that there are aspects of your past that you have yet to be able to process and understand or that you are trying to stop but find yourself repeating then seek assistance. Self-care in the form of time to yourself, health, working on your intimate relationships, and your spirituality are also essential to being a secure base for your child.  It's the put the "mask on first" that we hear in airplanes; if you are not breathing then you cannot help your children. Finally, to be secure, choose teaching and modeling over punishment, connection and love over rejection, and being present over giving presents.  


Being emotionally intelligent is the process of being able to feel a feeling, tolerate a feeling, and recuperate from a feeling.  Take a moment and wonder are there any feelings that you avoid?  How do you avoid them? We are meant to feel ALL feelings.  If there is one that you tend to avoid (e.g. anger, sadness, fear) then that is the one that you are usually telling your child to stop feeling or expressing, because of your personal discomfort with the emotion.  Most times, you probably experience that feeling in your child and then label it as  "bad behavior."  It is my number one intervention when doing a parent consult.  

ln an age appropriate way, be honest and vulnerable with your feelings. It's healthy to describe how you are feeling to your children.  For example, "mom is very frustrated right now, but she will take a minute and she will come back to speak to you once she has calmed down." This is a great way for children to witness their caregiver handling emotion. In those moments were you lose your emotional state and act less than graceful with  your children, repair it.  Get into the habit of apologizing when you make mistakes due to how you are feeling.  When you do this you kill two birds with one stone, you model how to ask for forgiveness and you allow your child to experience that they are worthy and lovable enough to receive an apology from their number one person, you, their parent.  Be mindful of your feelings and how you express them and you will be able to teach your children emotional intelligence, which is needed for self-awareness, empathy, motivation, focus, and decision making. 


When we are clear on our values we are able to make better choices on rules, schools, routines, and how to respond to our children.  The First Lady described it as being able to have a "clear sense of self."  We have to know and be clear about what we stand for. In our family groups at our center we have parents define their five core values.  Once they have those values we ask them to look at their rules, the activities and schools they have chosen, and their day-to-day response to their children and have them wonder if they are teaching and modeling these values to their children?  Could your children tell someone else what their family's values are?  Making decisions from a clear place of values helps you from being swayed by what others say about your parenting, and it helps you get back to your center when things get difficult or scary as your children grow.


Most parents get stuck in expecting too much or too little from their children and teens as it pertains to their normative developmental markers.  At times what is normative in development may be seen or experienced by a parent as challenging behavior or disrespect.  When the children are infants there are myriad books explaining each developmental milestone, but once you arrive at three or four years old that information tends to be limited.  it is important to seek out books on development and what to expect in the milestones through out their time at home. The next time you visit the book store buy a child development book rather than one on parenting.  If you understand how they are developing and how they perceive the world at each age group you will be able to make better choices with rules, routines, and daily activities. 

Become adept at these and you will not "mess up your" children.  When it comes to parenting always remember that it is a daily opportunity to guide, teach, and love a citizen of the world.  Our First Lady has done an amazing job at adding two great citizens into our world. Now it's your turn!

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