How Do You Help Your Kids Find Themselves?
Created with Disney+
Written by: Kelly Martin
Published on: September 15, 2022
Photo courtesy of Paul Westlake/The Licensing Project
Lately, psychotherapist Annie Armstrong Miyao has been thinking about growing up. Her little ones are just beginning to understand and voice their own identities. And as their senses of self are beginning to unfold, Armstrong Miyao writes in the essay below, she is strengthening her commitment to listening openly, modeling self-acceptance, and examining her own discomfort when it comes up.
In each episode of the new docuseries Growing Up, a young adult talks through their coming of age: braving social boundaries (seeking independence, coming out), coping with big-impact obstacles (disabilities, grief), triumphing over whatever nagging voices are telling them they’re not good enough. Each interview is coupled with gorgeous dramatic reenactments. And while their childhoods may or may not look anything like your own, you’ll likely catch bits of your own experience in each story.
All 10 episodes of Growing Up are available to stream now on Disney+. (Before you hit play: Know where your tissue box is.)
Supporting Your Child on Their Path to Self-Acceptance
My three children look like their father: He’s long, lean, 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 were having a conversation about race. She declared definitively, “I’m Brown,” and something in me stirred. I found myself wanting to say, “And you’re also half White.” Some wise 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 was developing beyond my sense of her. And her self-identity was not in my likeness. I am in for 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 that they can be themselves in all their glory as they move out into the world. It is not to instill my idea of who they should be. I may be the captain of our little home ship, but not of their journeys.
As a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles, I work with children, adolescents, and adults. I witness people in their tender moments at various 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 to their own wounds with care so that they can live with more peace, joy, and meaning. When I think about how I can help parents guiding my young clients on their path toward self-acceptance, I return to the core principles of listening and loving.
HEARING YOUR CHILD OUT
There will be moments when your child comes to you with an unapproved piercing, tales of a love interest that make you squirm, or the rejection of something you prize—say, team sports or your liberal arts education. This might make you anxious or angry, but the goal is to hear how they feel about it. Or the inverse can be true: What might not be a big deal to you may mean the world to them.
To begin, listen to what your child is saying. Quiet the impulse to jump in. When it comes time to reflect their experience, use their words. Validate their emotions. By listening to them share, you are letting them know that what they say, think, and feel matters. When you hold space for their perspective without imparting an immediate opinion or trying to solve the problem, you affirm the value in their expression and express faith in their own self-determination. In turn, 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 around what is being expressed, take it. You can say something like, “Wow, that is big and important. I hear you. I want to take a moment to think about what it means to you before I share my thoughts.”
What I am describing, to be clear, is the ideal way of listening. I fail at this all the time with my children. Every parent does. When that happens, what is important is how you repair the rupture. You can always come back to your child and say to them, “I’m sorry. I wish it hadn’t gone that way. 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 More Skillful Listener
A core skill of listening is learning to self-regulate so that we do not put our own emotional reaction on the person revealing something to us. As a therapist and parent, I imagine a barometer measuring my internal emotional weather. I pay attention to any feelings that come up when I am listening so that when I get heightened, I can bring myself back toward center. Here’s how to do it:
Ask yourself, What am I feeling? If you are searching for the right words, start by seeing if you fall somewhere in the categories of mad, glad, sad, afraid, or neutral.
When you come to an answer—say it’s “nervous”—follow up with, How do I know I’m feeling nervous? The answer might be something like, Well, I know I am feeling nervous because my heart is beating a bit fast, there is a tightness in my throat, and my thoughts are skipping around.
If you find yourself in a heightened state in response to your child expressing something about themselves, practice bringing yourself back to your center before responding. A few tricks to help with this: Notice your feet planted on the ground or the way 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 is like a wave rolling through you, and let it rise up and watch as it rolls away. Sometimes I find a spot in my body that feels neutral or relaxed and focus on it for a moment.
EXAMINING OUR VALUES
As a therapist, I was trained in cultural competence. I had to get clear about my principles so that I could contain them and listen to my clients explore themselves without imparting my own ideals onto them. It’s a skill that translates to parenting: We have to be aware that our kids are growing up in a different world than we did. Be curious about what that feels like for them.
When you find yourself bristling with some identity your child is expressing, I invite you to look deep within yourself: Are you bumping up against an internalized value or societal pressure that you might be (consciously or unconsciously) putting on your child? Is this stunting your child’s full self-expression or self-acceptance?
Do I really care if my two-and-a-half-year-old son wears dresses? No. Am I sensitive to the perceptions of traditional gender norms and potential judgment? Yes. Can I tolerate my own discomfort to let him explore what he wants to wear, what feels good to him? Yes.
Working toward self-acceptance is in part about tolerating the discomfort that comes up when we honor our own values rather than those we are told to honor. Do I care more about having the rug vacuumed or lying in the backyard with my kids? Put me in the backyard with the kids. But am I sensitive to the expectations my culture has of me as a woman to maintain a certain appearance in my home? Yes, I am.
I invite parents to be curious about how they are modeling self-acceptance. How can we as adults continue to develop our own sense of self-love?
When it’s appropriate, share with your children how you, too, are learning to accept the tricky parts of yourself. Once, after I scolded my daughter for leaving a trail of snack wrappers, earmarked books, and dirty socks in her wake, she collapsed in tears. She doesn’t want to let me down, and despite her efforts, she has a hard time with executive function skills. I held her in my arms and said, “Oh, honey, I’m sorry. You know who else has a hard time with that stuff? Mama. 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 am trying to work on my little scatterbrain, too. It’s 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, shared with us that after all her years of studying, analyzing patients, teaching, and living, she had learned to giggle when she found herself caught in a complex of irrational emotion and behavior. “Oh, there I go again, doing that thing I do,” she’d say with a laugh and a shrug of self-compassion. Every time I say that to myself, I sigh with relief.
Modeling and encouraging self-compassion go hand in hand with self-acceptance. As does championing ourselves. I recommend helping children build their inner resources by reflecting to them what you see as their magic and beauty. Tell your children how incredible they are. Then invite and encourage kids 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 that. Eventually they might notice 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 out in self-destructive behavior. The people who loved her were also spiraling. 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 that she needed the love of those around her. We would be like the mermaid carved at the bow of the ship, weathering the storm just in front of her, helping her see her way through.
Being a parent is so beautiful and so painful. We are asked to watch our children struggle and fail. We witness their heartbreak and shame. We cannot buffer them from all the pain they experience.
And through it all, we can be pillars of love, strength, and nonjudgment in their lives, offering them a safe harbor where they can be themselves and grow. Our children are on journeys to becoming something we could never imagine. How lucky we are to witness it.
Annie Armstrong Miyao is a Los Angeles–based psychotherapist, writer, and mother of three.