A Neuroscience Toolkit for Parents Determined to Raise Amazing Humans
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A Neuroscience Toolkit for Parents Determined to Raise Amazing Humans

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A Neuroscience Toolkit for Parents Determined to Raise Amazing Humans

Dr. Charles Fay is an author, public speaker, consultant, and president of the Love and Logic institute, which provides practical tools and techniques that help adults achieve respectful, healthy relationships with their children.

Dr. Daniel Amen is a double board-certified psychiatrist and multiple NY Times bestselling author. He is also the founder of Amen Clinics, which has the world’s largest database of brain scans related to behavior, totaling more than 125,000 SPECT scans on patients from 111 countries.

Below, co-authors Charles and Daniel share five key insights from their new book, Raising Mentally Strong Kids: How to Combine the Power of Neuroscience with Love and Logic to Grow Confident, Kind, Responsible, and Resilient Children and Young Adults. Listen to the audio version—read by Charles—in the Next Big Idea App.

Raising Mentally Strong Kids Daniel Amen Charles Fay Next Big Idea Club

1. Clear goals are critical for parents and kids.

Do you know what you’re trying to accomplish as a parent, or are you simply winging it? If you’re like most parents, you’re probably just trying to get through your day. But taking the time to think about your goals for your child will ultimately pave the way to mental strength for you and your child. Some common goals include raising kids who are competent, responsible, kind and caring, resourceful and resilient, self-controlled and confident. We each keep a list of our individual goals, and we start each day by looking at them. This helps us keep our behavior consistent with what we want.

What are your goals as a parent? Think about them and write them down.

I have all of my patients—whether they’re 5 years old or 75 years old—do a goal-setting exercise I developed called the One-Page Miracle. This exercise can quickly focus and change your life and your child’s life. Simply take one sheet of paper and write down exactly what you want—not what you don’t want—in the major areas of your life as a parent. This includes things like your relationships, work, or emotional, mental, or spiritual self.

Goal setting isn’t just for parents. It’s also one of the best ways to prepare your child for mental strength and success. When children know what they want, they are more likely to match their behavior to get it. Similarly, on one sheet of paper, have your child clearly write out what’s important to them in the same areas mentioned.

After you finish, place this piece of paper where you and your child can see it every day. That way, every day, your child can focus on what’s important to them. Once you and your child have your goals, learn three of the most powerful words in the English language: “Does it fit?” Does your behavior fit your parenting goals? Is it helping you achieve what you want, or is it hurting your chances of getting what you desire? The same goes for your child. Is their behavior helping or hurting their ability to reach their goals? Asking, “Does it fit?” reinforces good decision-making and mental strength.

2. Brain health for kids and parents is foundational.

If you want your child to be mentally strong, it starts with helping them have a healthy brain. Brain health is important for you, too, because effective parenting requires mental strength.

There are three brain principles for kids and parents. The first is to develop a love affair with your brain. You need to love the 3-pound mass between your ears because your brain controls how you think, act, feel, and manage those difficult situations that leave you wanting to lecture, threaten, scream, or use some other ineffective parenting strategy. When you fall in love with your brain, you start taking better care of it. You feed it, exercise it, and rest it.

The second brain principle is to teach your child to love and protect their brain. Modeling is one of the most powerful ways to teach your kids. Seeing you falling head over heels in love with your brain will help them develop a similar love affair. Loving the brain also means protecting it from harm.

“Show by example how to avoid anything that hurts the brain.”

Mild head injuries from everyday things like falling off a bike can be a major cause of problems with focus, moods, anxiousness, temper, and more. That’s why protecting a child’s brain is essential for mental strength. It’s critical for parents too. Many parents never make the connection between their emotional or cognitive issues and a minor head injury that occurred years or even decades earlier.

The third brain principle is to educate your child about how to care for their brain.

It’s not hard. I started teaching my daughter Chloe when she was two years old how to make choices to care for her brain. Show by example how to avoid anything that hurts the brain. That means that you encourage them to wear a helmet when biking to avoid head trauma, you don’t smoke, you say no to alcohol, and you don’t eat the Standard American Diet (SAD)

In addition, show them how to do things that help the brain, such as eating nutritious foods, exercising, getting great sleep, learning new things, resisting inaccurate and negative thinking, avoiding overexposure to screens, and taking high-quality supplements.

3. Relationship matters—especially special time and active listening.

Do you want your child to share your values, be able to cope better with all the stresses life will throw at them, and have good life skills? Do you want to reduce the chances that they will engage in risky or unhealthy behaviors? Of course you do! There’s one important factor at the foundation of all these things. What is it? It’s having a relationship with your child.

When parents fail to bond with their children, it sets the stage for trouble and makes parenting even harder than it already is. The good news is that even if you haven’t done the best job of building a relationship with your child, there is still hope. Relationships require two things: time and a willingness to listen.

Unfortunately, too many parents don’t get enough quality time to communicate with their kids. We may be too busy with work or household chores, or we may be too distracted by our phones or social media. In one survey, 40 percent of parents admitted that conversations with their kids typically run shy of the 10-minute mark.

“Relationships require two things: time and a willingness to listen.”

One exercise that will improve the quality of your relationship with your child in a very short period of time is called Special Time. Special time includes spending 20 minutes a day with your child doing something that they would like to do. During this special time, do not give any parental commands, questions, or directions. Also, try to notice as many positive behaviors as you can. Try to listen more than you talk.

A second exercise that can greatly improve your relationship with your child is called Active Listening. Active listening involves repeating back what your child says without judgment. Listen for the feelings behind their words and reflect on what your child is saying and feeling.

These two exercises can be so helpful in strengthening your relationship, which goes a long way in increasing your ability to be a positive influence in your child’s life.

4. Parents need to let kids make mistakes.

If you want to raise mentally strong kids, you need to let them make mistakes and cope with the consequences. This helps them learn from their mistakes and become more resilient. Too many parents try too hard to avoid mistakes.

For example, Helicopter Parents try to remove all obstacles so their kids can live in a perfect world. Whenever there’s a problem, they rush to the rescue. Unfortunately, when you solve their problems for them, it disempowers them. And they learn to be dependent on you.

The downsides of being a helicopter parent are three-fold. You’re more likely to experience massive burnout. You send this message to your child: “You are weak and incapable. That’s why I must protect and rescue you from the world.” Finally, you create irresponsible, incapable, and often resentful kids.

Drill Sergeant Parents are another example. They tend to micromanage their kids to prevent mistakes and punish them when they do something wrong. Drill sergeant parents want it done their way, and they get their child’s compliance through anger, intimidation, and fear. This style leads to a lot of conflict and unhealthy messages.

There are downsides to Drill Sergeant parenting also. By trying to avoid mistakes, your kids almost always end up feeling disempowered. This method also fuels incompetence, unhappiness, and discord. This approach also sends a “you can’t think” message.

Consultant Parents, in contrast, only rescue when absolutely necessary. They demonstrate respect to their kids, and they expect it in return. They let their kids make mistakes when the consequences are more “affordable.”

“Letting kids make mistakes helps them develop a sense of personal responsibility.”

What are some examples of “affordable consequences?” One would be when they refuse to eat what is served at dinner and feel hungry until breakfast. Another example would be getting angry, breaking their favorite toy, and then having to deal without it.

If youngsters don’t have the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them at an early age, the consequences become bigger and more harmful as they get older. Letting kids make mistakes helps them develop a sense of personal responsibility—a key component of mental strength. This sends healthy and empowering messages to kids and helps create responsible, capable, and self-reliant adults.

We encourage parents to make a list of mistakes you made as a kid and what you learned from them. Then, write out three mistakes you want your child to make this month, three mistakes this year, and three mistakes by the time they reach adulthood. When your child gets upset about the consequences—and they will—be firm and kind. This means being loving, warm, and empathetic while still enforcing the consequences.

5. Loving discipline teaches self-control.

Do you know which part of the brain controls decision-making, judgment, planning, forethought, impulse control, and follow-through? It’s the prefrontal cortex (PFC). A child’s PFC isn’t fully developed until their mid-20s, so you have to act as their PFC until theirs is developed. This means supervising their behavior by setting rules and limits and enforcing them with loving discipline.

Discipline is about teaching—providing instruction and training, not about punishment.

There are five goals of loving discipline. The first is to help kids learn right from wrong and good from bad. It’s basic common sense. It’s what we call the MAP of Love and Logic:

  • “M” stands for modeling healthy behavior and teaching by being a good example.
  • “A” stands for allowing safe mistakes. That means allowing kids to have experiences, live with the consequences of their actions, and solve their own problems.
  • “P” stands for providing empathy. We need to show kids that we care about their feelings.

The second goal of loving discipline is helping children learn when they are young and when the price tags are small. The “price tag” of our children’s mistakes increases daily. Help them learn when the consequences are small, not later when they may be life and death.

The third goal is to help children develop self-discipline so they can experience freedom. One of the most common things we hear from youngsters is that they want more freedom. Most of them think freedom should just be handed to them. What they don’t realize is that freedom comes at a cost—it has to be earned.

The fourth goal of loving discipline is helping kids learn how to remain strong in the face of hardship. Discipline helps kids learn how to deal with tough situations. When thinking about raising strong kids, think about a simple can of coffee. You know, the ones that say vacuum-sealed for freshness. This may be ideal for coffee, but we don’t want to vacuum-seal our children. If our children are protected from hardships, they won’t be courageous or capable.

Finally, the last goal of loving discipline is to preserve our sanity and our relationships with them. This final goal is to strengthen our relationships and make life easier for ourselves.

Typically, kids who grow up without loving discipline come to resent their parents. And their parents find themselves counting the days until their offspring become adults and leave home. With loving discipline, we set healthy rules, limits, and boundaries. Ultimately, this helps kids develop self-control, which is essential for becoming mentally strong.

To listen to the audio version read by co-author Charles Fay, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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