Raising Healthy Resilient Kids

By Annelise Spees, M.D.
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Unconditional love coupled with positive discipline is helpful for raising healthy resilient kids.

I heard the crying before I knocked on the exam room door. It was time to meet a new patient and his mother for a developmental evaluation. When I opened the door, I found the young boy lying by his mother’s feet. He was crying hard, kicking his feet against the floor, moving his head back and forth. His mother spoke quickly, telling me how difficult her son was. She said how hard it was to please him, to get him to stop crying, to get him to eat. I tried to ask questions, but I had a difficult time trying to get a word in.

Therefore, I bent down next to the boy, and turned on my otoscope’s light. He looked at the light and stopped crying. I turned the light off and on again and he reached out for it. I let him hold the light and showed him how to turn it on. He moved the button, saw the light, looked into my face and laughed. We played back and forth with the light for several minutes while his mother continued to tell her story.

I stopped to speak to the boy’s mother about the light and his excited response. She glanced at him briefly, and then continued talking. Consequently, the boy looked up at his mother and suddenly threw his head backwards and fell back to the floor, crying again.

At this point, she looked at him and said to me, “See, I told you, he’s impossible.

The foundation: Unconditional love

I feel sad just thinking about the encounter that day. What was going on in that little boy’s head and heart? It would be easy to assume that he was just having a tantrum and needed some space. I’ve learned, however, that his behavior was an apparent reaction to an overall parenting pattern that hindered a strong, loving connection between him and his mother.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” In Matthew 19:13-15, people brought their children to Jesus so that He could place his hands on them and pray for them and even the disciples grew frustrated and rebuked those people!

Jesus instructed them for the children’s sake and for ours also. So we have a pattern to follow—to bring our children to Jesus for his blessing and care. God wants to open our eyes to the amazing privilege and responsibility that we have as adults—parents, caregivers, grandparents. We can begin the process of raising healthy, resilient kids by modeling the love that Jesus has for us and for our children. Jesus blessed the children and prayed for them, and we can do the same.

Blessing through our parenting

One way we can bless our children and encourage healthy growth and development is to nurture their souls through our everyday parenting interactions with them. Over the past twenty years, several parenting methods have built upon the foundation of helping children learn how to handle strong emotions and self-control. Each method begins with parents learning how to cultivate  growth in their child. The Nurtured Heart Approach, for example, focuses on families with kids that have ADHD, encouraging the child to make good choices, exercise self-control, act wisely, and to show compassion and cooperation. To do so, parents take the following three steps:

  • Refuse to reward negative behaviors with time and energy
  • Purposely recognize success by emotionally connecting with the child and showing appreciation for neutral and positive behaviors
  • Create clear rules and consequences with clear, simple, straightforward rules such as “no hitting,” “no teasing.”

In this approach, the parent backs off after a child breaks a rule and allows the child to “reset.” When neutral or positive behaviors return, the parent quickly reconnects with the child and emotionally reinforces the desired behavior.

1-2-3 Magic, a somewhat similar parenting approach, emphasizes the parent’s need to “hold it together” no matter how loud or persistent the child or teen is. This method encourages parents to provide a warning (“That’s one”) and give the child the opportunity to move back into a calm frame of mind. If the parent has to count to two, then three without a change in behavior, the child is given a “time-out.” When the child displays a calm mouth, calm body, and calm hands, Mom or Dad then conclude the time-out and offer praise and physical affection such as a hug.

What about consequences?

If a child has hurt someone’s feelings, broken a favorite toy, or worse, the  parent can creatively work with the child to apologize. Together, they can draw a picture of a heart, share a toy, or write an apology letter. Any action that goes along with the child’s age and ability can aid in their understanding of how to make amends for breaking a family rule and encourage them to grow into healthy, resilient kids.

What about rules?

Perhaps you have seen a version of “House Rules” with beautiful calligraphy or pictures to display in your home. Sometimes those lists of rules are quite long! I encourage parents to funnel multiple rules of their own into three main ideas:

  1. We don’t break stuff
  2. It is important to refrain from hurting other people with our words
  3. Hurting other people or pets with our actions is not allowed

What do you think? Too few guidelines? While there are multiple rules within a family’s daily life that center around taking care of ourselves and our things (brushing teeth, making the bed, and picking up toys), others such as being kind to siblings can fall under these three overarching rules.

Sometimes you have to “pick your battles.” In other words, some rules are not as critical as others. Remember that the biggest battle is for your child’s heart and mind. Maintaining and growing your relationship with your child is more important than ensuring that your child behaves perfectly. Your calm, loving presence will encourage healthy growth and development and set the foundation for your child’s sense of God’s mercy, faithfulness, shepherding, and guidance for a lifetime and eternity.

Responsibilities and rights

While we home-schooled my four children for a few years, I used a workbook that outlined the developmental tasks necessary for a child to grow into a young adult and live independently. Each age and stage contained its own long list. This process helped me to see the big picture of raising each child so that they could take on more responsibility with each year—from helping empty the dishwasher, to taking out the trash, to doing laundry (without mixing red shirts with white shorts on the hot water cycle), to learning to drive.

We spent some time tackling these tasks together with some surprising results. When one asked to have more privileges, we reviewed the corresponding life skills that would go along with that. When they found out what else they had to do, their response was often “no way, I don’t want to have to do that now!” That helped to put those cries for more “rights” into perspective. Also, it helped each child to see how much they really had to grow up. We can bless our children with the gradual addition of responsibilities accompanied by increasing independence. We need to observe and study our kids and help them to see their own strengths and gifts for the future.

Blessing in the midst of challenging circumstances

There are unique challenges that some children face through special needs, difficult early childhood experiences, foster care, adoption, and chronic illness. Therefore, steady, calm, positive parenting patterns may not solve every deep, trauma-related issue for these children. But they can help children learn that they are safe, valued, and loved unconditionally. Parents benefit from leaning on Jesus in learning how to nurture, support, and raise challenging children into healthy adults.

In Matthew 18: 3-5, Jesus says to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.” I am so privileged to reach out to “these little ones” in my job as a developmental pediatrician. May God continue to bless parents and caregivers with the skills to raise healthy, resilient kids and the privilege to care for those entrusted to them.

7 Traits of Effective Parenting Assessment

Good parents aren’t perfect. There’s no formula to follow, but there are ways you can grow every day. Focus on the Family’s 7 Traits of Effective Parenting Assessment gives parents an honest look at their unique strengths, plus some areas that could use a little help.
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About the Author

Annelise Spees, M.D.

Annelise Spees, M.D., is a Developmental-Behavioral pediatrician and a member of the Physicians Resource Council of Focus on the Family.

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