If you are not your child’s boss, and you are moving away from using an authoritarian model for parenting, one question that comes up is “How can I teach my child to make good independent decisions for himself? What guidelines can he use?”
The factors that influence how your child makes decisions include your own decision-making practices as well as the values and beliefs that you role model. However, there is another simple strategy that you can use deliberately to teach this life skill. In this post, I’ll share why teaching your child to recognize, understand and use his own feelings for decision-making—both emotions and physical sensations—is central to helping him become his own authority, live an authentic life, and gain mastery over self.
Why Feelings are the Key to Authentic Living
Respected scientist Candace Pert tells us that “your body is your subconscious mind”, because the neuropeptides responsible for feeling emotions in our body are physically located throughout or body, not just in our brain. These physical sensations associated with our emotions are like messengers from our inner self that give us indications of what feels right and wrong uniquely for us. In other words, they provide us with intuition. When we draw our attention to those feelings and use them to guide us, decisions are easier, and we will more naturally follow an authentic life path that feels good—that feeling of being ‘in the groove’, or as if we are in just the right place, the right work, with the right partner, and so on.
How to Help Your Child Connect to Feelings in Everyday Interactions
You can use your everyday interactions to teach your children beginning skills for developing familiarity with their inner feelings and intuition as a way of guiding decisions. I will touch on a couple of basic approaches here with an example.
First, it can be as simple as just asking your child how she feels inside after she has made a decision. If she says ‘good’, you can confirm, “You’ve made a good decision for yourself! Good for you.” This helps her to recognize that her inner feelings are a valid source of information. If she has any feelings that are uncomfortable, you can explore that using the steps below. Either way, it is helpful to draw your child’s attention inward periodically to divert attention away from the very stimulating outer world we all live in and from the outside opinion or approval of others. This helps balance where they place their attention and the type of knowledge they consider legitimate or worthy of using in their decisions.
Secondly, you can support your child through a decision he is finding difficult by drawing his attention to his feelings. While the exact steps you use will vary depending on your child and the situation, you can use some of all of the following basic steps to help your child tune in to his inner awareness when he is having difficulty making a good decision for himself.
1. Start by setting your own intention to hold an open, loving space so he knows it’s safe and acceptable to feel all of the feelings that he is experiencing.
This also supports him to allow the energy of the emotion to run freely in his body without getting blocked or stuck.
2. Explore any physical sensations.
Where does he feel it in his body? Sometimes it helps to close his eyes. Ask him to notice the feeling that he has in his body—can he describe the sensations? (E.g., is there a tightness, or a fluttery feeling, or nausea or trouble breathing?).
- If your child is willing and able, you can also guide him to breathe gently into that area, while focusing on the sensation. If not,
- Notice if there is a “message” associated with this feeling. If your child would not be receptive to those words, just ask him what idea or thought pops into his head when he focuses on the sensation. The thought will invariably provide some insight about what he’s distressed about or what he needs. It also may help you identify an emotion. The key through this whole process is to notice, be aware, and allow, not try to figure it out or get rid of the sensation. For those of you who are familiar with using your feelings to guide you, this will be something that you do automatically without even thinking about it.
3. Ask your child if he knows what emotion he is feeling.
If necessary, you can brainstorm possibilities with him if he’s stuck.
4. Ask “what is my child’s need right now?”
He might be able to tell you, or you may have to ask questions to help identify that.
5. Take notice of whether there are two desires or needs, which may be in conflict with each other.
Acknowledge all feelings, and keep any analysis to yourself for now.
6. What would he like to create? What are the possibilities?
7. Brainstorm and support him to find ways to get his need met and create what he desires.
8. After a decision is made, have him notice how he feels in his body, especially in the place where he felt uncomfortable before.
If he has made a decision that is right for him, the discomfort will have eased. An exception occurs when he has made a decision that feels right for him, but still has some anxiety about carrying it out (e.g., it feels right to perform the piano recital for 250 guests, but he’s still nervous), however this is an opportunity to learn, with your guidance, about how to move forward effectively when anxious.
Here is a recent example from my own life. The numbers in brackets are step #’s from above. You’ll notice that I’ve modified the steps, and because my son is a “man of few words”, sometimes I “guess” what might be going on with him and check in to see if it’s true in order to get clarity.
Recently on anti-bullying day, and my son was distressed in the morning before school. He had a pink shirt from last year which still fit him, but he didn’t want to wear it. I found myself feeling anxious, with butterflies in my stomach, as I wondered why he didn’t want to wear his pink shirt.
I initially had a lot of fear-based thoughts going through my head. “Why doesn’t he want to stand make a stand against bullying” and “Is he not confident enough in himself to stand up against bullies?” It’s really important to me that he has the confidence to be who he really is, and I know that he is a kind and sensitive person who cares about others, and doesn’t support bullying. Therefore it was tempting for me to gently suggest to him that he wear the pink shirt with the belief that he would feel good about it later because it is congruent with who he really is. Instead I bit my tongue, took some deep breaths to let go of the fearful thoughts, and gave it some thought while I made breakfast. When he raised the subject two more times, I knew that he was quite distressed about the decision, so we explored it.
When I first asked him why he didn’t want to wear a pink shirt he wasn’t able to give me an answer. (2) I had him close his eyes and notice any sensation inside. (2 & 3) He had an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach—fear, but still couldn’t articulate any more. We sat with it for a few moments, and I finally asked him if he was worried that the other kids might say something about his pink shirt or that he might not “fit in” and with a look of some relief, he said “Yes. Last year all of the Division 1 & 2 kids wore pink shirts, and Division 3 kids didn’t.” (4 & 5) We talked about it a bit more. This was his first year in Division 3. He wanted to make a stand, but he also wanted to fit in with his peers and was feeling anxious about that, so he was indecisive.
I have to admit that it was tempting for me to use my logic and suggest to him that he really didn’t need to be worried about that on anti-bully day. I chose instead to attend to his feelings and need, and (6) asked him “If we could think of a way that you could make a stand for the anti-bully movement in which you could also feel as if you fit in with your friends, would you like to do that? He said he would, and (7) we came up with a plan for him to wear his regular shirt, and pin a pink ribbon to his shirt in support of the anti-bully movement. (8) I asked him to close his eyes and notice how he felt in his body—was there any butterflies or knots anywhere? Or did this solution feel good inside. He said it felt good (and he clearly looked relieved!), and so that’s what he did.
In the Long Run, What’s Really Important Anyway?
Beginning to know yourself well enough to recognize what your own feelings mean and how to use them to make decisions is an essential component of self-mastery. It can help transform distress when first confronted with an unfamiliar feeling into recognition and a feeling of safety and confidence—e.g.,. “Okay, I have this feeling of anxiety or disappointment, this is what it means, and here’s the process I can use for making a decision with this information.” It can move your child from being stuck or acting out in anxiety or fear, to moving forward with confidence and compassion for himself.
Sometimes the reason a decision is difficult is because there’s two conflicting messages or desires inside, creating a conundrum for your child. Neufeld and Mate propose that when we invite our child’s conflicting feelings to exist and we show acceptance and love of these mixed feelings, we will naturally draw our child closer to us. I believe that this approach also deters your child from disowning or disconnecting from parts of himself that he perceives as unlovable or unacceptable by others, and thereby actually boosts self-esteem.
I believe that the most important issue in my story was not whether my son wore a pink shirt or not, or whether he made a stand. The important issue is that any stand that he made needed to come from his feelings and his heart—this is what will help him to stay connected to his inner self in the bigger picture of his life. I showed complete unconditional acceptance for my son and his feelings, regardless of what he chose, and regardless of what the rest of the world might think, that is what will ultimately give him the confidence to be who he really is, and eventually have the courage to make stands on issues that require increasing courage.
Accepting and engaging fully with your feelings and using them to connect with your inner guidance is a valuable lifelong skill for living an authentic life.
One Last Thought: If you’re at all like me, and can recall times in the past where you analyzed and directed your child when it may have been helpful to attend to his feelings, please be gentle with yourself! It is possible to temporarily lose connection with our feelings, but your child’s authentic self remains within them and always available to re-surface when you provide a loving space within which they can safely reveal their “whole self”.
I’d love to hear about your own experiences with these strategies, or other approaches that have worked for you. Leave your stories, comments and questions in the comment section below.
Neufeld, Gordon, and Mate, Gabor. (2004). Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to matter More Than Peers. Toronto: Random House of Canada, Limited, pp. 226-7.
Pert, Candace B., Ph.D. (1997). Molecules of Emotion. New York: Scribner.
Pert, Candace B., Ph.D. (2006). Everything You Need to Know to Feel Go(o)d. United States: Hay House, Inc.