How do you help your children find themselves?
Created with Disney+
Written by: Kelly Martin
Published on: September 15, 2022
Photo courtesy of Paul Westlake/The Licensing Project
Most recently psychotherapist Annie Armstrong Miyao have thought about growing up. Her little ones are just starting to understand and express their own identity. And as their senses of self begin to unfold, Armstrong Miyao writes in the essay below, she strengthens her commitment to listening openly, modeling self-acceptance, and examining her own discomfort when it comes up.
In each section of the new document series Grow up, a young adult talks through their coming of age: defying social boundaries (seeking independence, coming out), dealing with major obstacles (disability, grief), overcoming the nagging voices that tell them they’re not good enough. Each interview is combined with beautiful dramatic renderings. And while their childhood may or may not be similar to your own, you’ll likely catch pieces of your own experience in each story.
All 10 episodes of Grow up are available to stream now on Disney+. (Before you hit play: Know where your tissue box is.)
Support your child on their path to self-acceptance
My three children look like their father: He is tall, slim, handsome, half Mexican, half Japanese. With my grey-blonde hair, freckled skin and blue eyes, I am the one thing that is not like the others in my little family of five. When my oldest child was four, we had a conversation about race. She declared definitively, “I’m brown,” and something in me stirred. I found myself wanting to say, “And you’re half white, too.” A certain inner voice told me to be quiet and listen. It didn’t matter that she was half white; she saw herself as brown. She is. And a real beauty at that.
Her perception of herself developed beyond my sense of her. And her self-identity was not in my likeness. I have a long life of listening and learning about these three creatures I brought into the world. My role as their mother is to create a safe place of love and structure for them so they can be themselves in all their glory as they move out into the world. It’s not to instill my idea of who they should be. I may be the captain of our little home ship, but not of their voyages.
As a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles, I work with children, adolescents and adults. I witness people in their tender moments at different stages of development. At the heart of much of my work is helping clients learn to accept themselves, to soften their rough edges with love, and to tend their own wounds with care so they can live with more peace, joy and meaning. When I think about how I can help parents guide my young clients on their path to self-acceptance, I return to the core principles of listening and loving.
TO LISTEN TO YOUR CHILD
There will be moments when your child comes to you with an unapproved piercing, stories about a love interest that make you squirm, or the rejection of something you value—eg. team sports or your liberal arts education. This may make you anxious or angry, but the goal is to hear how they feel about it. Or the reverse may be true: What may not be a big deal to you may mean the world to them.
To begin, listen to what your child is saying. Stop the impulse to jump in. When it’s time to reflect on their experience, use their words. Validate their feelings. By listening to them, you let them know that what they say, think and feel matters. When you accommodate their perspective without giving an immediate opinion or trying to solve the problem, you affirm the value of their expression and express faith in their own self-determination. In return, they see that who they are – and what they have to say and offer – is valuable.
When all else fails, simply say, “I hear you.” If you need a moment to process your feelings about what is being expressed, take it. You can say something like, “Wow, this is big and important. I hear you. I want to take a moment to think about what this means to you before I share my thoughts.”
What I am describing, to be clear, is the ideal way to listen. I get it wrong all the time with my kids. All parents do. When that happens, how you repair the break is important. You can always go back to your child and tell them, “I’m sorry. I wish it hadn’t gone like this. I was overwhelmed. Can we try again? I love you and I want to hear what you have to say.”
A self-regulation practice to become a better listener
A core skill in listening is learning to self-regulate so that we don’t impose our own emotional response on the person who is revealing something to us. As a therapist and parent, I imagine a barometer that measures my inner emotional climate. I am aware of the feelings that arise when I listen, so that when I am uplifted, I can bring myself back toward center. Here’s how you do it:
Ask yourself, what am I feeling? If you’re searching for the right words, start by seeing if you fall somewhere in the mad, happy, sad, scared, or neutral categories.
When you come to an answer – say “nervous” – follow up with: How do I know I’m feeling nervous? The answer might be something like: Well, I know I’m nervous because my heart is beating a little fast, there’s a tightness in my throat, and my thoughts are racing.
If you find yourself in a heightened state in response to your child expressing something about himself, practice bringing yourself back to your center before reacting. A few tricks to help with this: Notice your feet planted on the ground or how the fabric of your armchair feels under your hands. Take a few deep breaths, look around and name a few things you see, smell, hear and touch. You can also imagine the feeling as a wave rolling through you and let it rise and watch as it rolls away. Sometimes I find a place in my body that feels neutral or relaxed and focus on it for a moment.
EXAMINATION OF OUR VALUES
As a therapist, I was trained in cultural competence. I had to become clear about my principles so that I could accommodate them and listen to my clients explore themselves without imparting my own ideals to them. It’s a skill that translates to parenting: We have to be aware that our children are growing up in a different world than we did. Be curious about how it feels to them.
When you find yourself struggling with some identity your child is expressing, I invite you to look deep within yourself: Are you up against an internalized value or societal pressure that you may (consciously or unconsciously) be placing on your child? Does this inhibit your child’s full self-expression or self-acceptance?
Do I really care if my two and a half year old son wears dresses? None. Am I sensitive to the perception of traditional gender norms and potential judgment? Yes. Can I tolerate my own discomfort by letting him explore what he wants to wear, what feels good to him? Yes.
Working toward self-acceptance is partly about tolerating the discomfort that occurs when we honor our own values over those we are told to honor. Am I more interested in vacuuming the carpet or laying in the backyard with my kids? Put me in the backyard with the kids. But am I sensitive to the expectations my culture has for me as a woman to maintain a certain appearance in my home? Yes I am.
I invite parents to be curious about how they model self-acceptance. As adults, how can we continue to develop our own sense of self-love?
When appropriate, share with your children how you are also learning to accept the difficult parts of yourself. Once, after I scolded my daughter for leaving a trail of snack paper, earmarked books, and dirty socks in her wake, she broke down in tears. She won’t let me down, and despite her best efforts, she struggles with executive functioning. I held her in my arms and said, “Oh, honey, I’m sorry. You know who else has a hard time with that? Mother. How many times a day do you hear me ask, ‘Where did I put my coffee?’ Who is always the last one out the door? I’m also trying to work on my little scatterbrain. It is not easy. But you know what? We can’t be good at everything.” We laughed and lovingly teased ourselves.
One of my favorite graduate school professors, a dynamic woman in her 80s who taught us Freud, told us that after all her years of studying, analyzing patients, teaching, and living, she had learned to giggle when she was caught in a complex of irrational emotions and behaviors. “Oh, there I go again, doing what I do,” she said with a laugh and a shrug of self-pity. Every time I say that to myself, I sigh with relief.
Modeling and encouraging self-compassion goes hand in hand with self-acceptance. Just like we fight for ourselves. I recommend helping children build their inner resources by reflecting to them what you see as their magic and beauty. Tell your kids how incredible they are. Then invite and encourage the children to answer the questions: What do you like and love about yourself? What do you believe your strengths are? It can start small. Maybe they like their ears and penmanship. Help them build on it. Eventually, they may notice that they like their hands and smile and think of themselves as a good friend. Help them clarify what and who they love and support them in pursuing their passions.
Recently, one of my beloved teenage patients was spiraling into self-destructive behavior. The people who loved her were spiraling too. Week after week we returned to an image of her as a ship in a storm. While I knew she would get through it, I also knew she needed the love of those around her. We wanted to be like the mermaid carved at the bow of the ship, weathering the storm right in front of her and helping her see through.
Being a parent is so beautiful and so painful. We are asked to watch our children struggle and fail. We witness their heartache and shame. We cannot buffer them from all the pain they experience.
And through it all, we can be pillars of love, strength and non-judgment in their lives, offering them a safe haven where they can be themselves and grow. Our children are on journeys to become something we could never imagine. How lucky we are to witness it.
Annie Armstrong Miyao is a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist, author and mother of three.