Teaching your kids to trust their instincts often takes a backseat to just outwardly protecting them, especially when they're young. It's easier to just say no when they ask to do something potentially unsafe, right? But if you keep doing that, you deny your children the opportunity to learn about their instincts and how to trust their gut in precarious situations. You won't be able to keep them safe always; at some point, they will need to do it on their own. Luckily, there are ways to teach your child to trust their instincts, and it's on you to work with them on it. You can't protect them forever. It's your responsibility to make sure they have the skills to protect themselves.
According to the Association for Psyological Science, babies as young as 6 months old can begin to distinguish trustworthiness in adults, while babies just over 1 year old can tell whether or not we are trustworthy enough to listen to. Babies are born with these instincts — they don't just blindly swallow information. But, often as parents, we override their abilities to trust their own instincts with our own impressions of what they should feel or how they should behave. What we need to do is develop our children's basic instincts, and nurture their natural intuitions on trust, goodness, and what feels right or wrong.
1. Ask Questions
Being involved in your child's life is one of the best way's to build their trust, and in turn, allow you to build theirs. Ask questions about their likes and dislikes, their friends and other people they come in contact with, and how they feel about certain situations or circumstances.
"Ask, 'What do you think? How did that make you feel? Do you believe that?'" Priscille Koenig, parenting coach, tells Romper. "Questions help kids to think for themselves, understand their thinking, and begin to trust what they feel," she explains, all of which help to develop instinct.
2. Teach Them About Their Emotions
It's easy to quickly dismiss your kids' emotions, especially when they often come out in the form of ill-timed tantrums in the middle of the checkout aisle at Target. But, though their emotions may be big and seemingly dramatic, what they feel is always real. By disregarding this, you are telling your kids that what they feel doesn't matter.
"It is important for us, as parents, to talk about how feelings and emotions are here to serve us, and how to recognize and listen to them," Koenig says. Our emotions are there to protect us, but it's vital for us to understand why we feel certain things in certain situations, and how we can manage each appropriately.
When your kids are young, use questions to help them figure out their own feelings and emotions. "Questions, such as 'What does that feel like in your body?' or 'If that feeling had a color, what color would it be?' can help broadens kids' emotional vocabulary and makes talking about feelings more comfortable," notes licensed family and marriage therapist Ann DeWitt in an interview with Romper. Use your words to narrate your kids' emotions in order for them to better understand why they're feeling what they're feeling.
3. Value Their Thoughts & Input
Sometimes, as adults, we have a habit of discarding what kids say as unimportant. The more we can value what our kids say, the more they will know that their opinion is valid.
When kids are scared, honor that, and don’t force them to ignore their own feelings and do something anyway, emphasizes DeWitt. "If a child wants to hide behind your legs when meeting new people, let that be," she says. "If you want your child to be directed more by their feelings than by social conventions, you have to keep that higher goal in mind. This includes not forcing your child to say hi or give a hug, even if the other person is the child's grandma," DeWitt continues.
Acknowledge their perspectives, and value their choices. Don't fault them for trusting their own instincts, even if their choice doesn't match yours.
4. Talk To Them
"Speak to your children about instincts, why we have these guttural reactions, and the benefit of trusting one's inherent judgment," Dr. Carly Snyder, M.D., Women's Mental Health Specialist, tells Romper. Safety starts at home, and if you teach your children signs of danger and what to do, they will be more prepared, and will be more apt to trust their gut in a possibly bad situation.
Reinforce that no one will fault them for being safe, support and nurture their sense of self, and hold yourself to that. "Confidence and positive self-worth leads to comfort in decision-making," adds Snyder, "so, highlight and applaud your child's protective, instinctual actions, and openly discuss other behaviors where they could've chose differently."
Most importantly, create an environment at home where your child feels comfortable coming to you and talking about anything, without fear of judgement or getting in trouble. Don't always give the answer; help them to trust their judgement, rather than be easily swayed by outside influences or dangers. Consequences for bad choices can always be upheld, but knowing that you are always there for them will allow them to trust themselves.
5. Be A Model
"The best way to teach your child almost anything around core values and good decision-making, including trusting intuition and instincts," notes Eileen Lichtenstein, MS. Ed., "is to be a great role model." Point out your effective cause-effect intuition, behavior, and communication when appropriate, and take care to break it down to an understandable level, Lichtenstein tells Romper.
"From an early age, teach your children the importance of self-protection by instilling healthy habits, like always wearing a seat belt in a car and a helmet on a bike," adds Snyder. Model safe choices for yourself and explain why you did what you did. "Don't just cross the street in the face of a precarious construction site. Explain why you did so, and ask your kids if they would have done the same," Snyder says.
The safer we are, the safer they will be, and the more likely they will be to trust their instincts as they get older.
Teaching kids to trust their instincts is not an easy thing. It takes time and consistency, and a lot of trust on both sides. As your children get older, the situations and circumstances they come across are going to present real challenges. Instead of sheltering them from what's to come, you need to teach them how to face those challenges head on.
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