Many parenting practices I discuss with families are contextual. Often, what I suggest a parent do depends on a family’s particular circumstances, their resources, the ages of their children, the temperaments of both kids and parents, their schedules.  And as a therapist, my goal is to work with families to find strategies that work for and make sense to them, not to issue edicts on the way they ought be run, or what parents should do. That said, there are a handful of practices that apply to all families and are important to all children.  In this post, I’m going to talk about one.

A thing that every parent can do for their child is to help them know that they are enough. That as a person, as a human being, they are worthy.  A person does not have to be successful or have great behaviors to prove that worth, it just is. A fact, like the earth under our feet or the suffocating heat of a DC summer.  No human being is without value.

I imagine that your reaction to the preceding paragraph fell into one of two camps.  The first is, duh, of course a kid should be made to feel enough without needing to prove their valueThe second is closer to a snort and an eyeroll about my seemingly hippie, woo-woo therapist ways.  No matter which category you fell into, this post is for you.

For those of you in the second camp (who snorted and rolled your eyes), I understand how this may seem like a millennial, everybody gets a trophy parenting practice.  You might worry that if you tell your kids they’re worthy, regardless of what they do, they’ll respond by doing nothing or behaving poorly. You might be afraid they’ll become the proverbial thirty-year-old in the basement, who can’t hold down a job, or maintain a healthy relationship, or be a self-sustaining adult.

But here’s the thing: a person who does nothing is not a person who believes in themselves.  A person who does nothing thinks they’re owed and that comfort and security and happiness should be given to them.  This is a person deeply afraid to risk and fail.  This is not someone who has the sense of safety that comes with feeling worthy. Worthiness does not equal entitlement.

The adults I know whose parents nurtured their sense of worthiness live life unafraid.  They work hard.  They take risks.  They’re not constantly looking over their shoulder for failure. They have a good emotional base for healthy relationships because they don’t need validation from their partners (or friends).  They are less likely to tolerate abusive behaviors.  They are free because no one weighed them down with the burden of having to constantly prove their worth to themselves and others.  They are some of the happiest people I know.

Given these rewards, how can you help foster your children’s sense that they are worthy?  How do you help them know that they are enough? Telling them is great, but beyond that, what can a parent do each day to help a child know that they are loved, regardless of their accomplishments or behaviors?

More than anything, kids feel worth from consistent and considerate attention. They feel valued when we treat them like they matter.  Look, I know how that sounds.  Not earth shattering.  Not revolutionary. But I’ve found that sometimes parents think they provide this to their children, and they don’t, or at least not consistently. This isn’t any knock on parents in particular.  Much of what passes for attentive presence in all our relationships—with our partners, friends, family members—isn’t.  To show what it looks like, I’ve broken down parenting behaviors helpful for kids as they age—from early childhood through adolescence.  These behaviors are successive, meaning that almost everything you’re doing with your three-year-old, is also important to do with your fifteen-year-old.

Young Children (Birth to Age 4)

With young children, attentive focus means being present during their play and allowing them to engage you.  It means letting them explore their environment, and serving a touch stone for when they babble or talk to you, or hand you objects. It means responding with interest to their varied and myriad questions, even if it’s to admit that you don’t know the answer.

School Aged Children (Age 5-11)

As children grow, they are better able to tell you their fears, concerns, desires and needs.  But parents can inadvertently dismiss or belittle these expressions.  Well-meaning parents sometimes explain children’s feelings away, telling them you’re fine or you shouldn’t be upset, or saying that’s silly.  Even if you think it’s trivial or nothing to be worried about, respond to their feelings with respect.  Their emotional experiences are real and treating them as such makes them feel heard and cared for.  My favorite example of this is from a colleague whose young niece was crying after she found out she would never get to be a mermaid.  My colleague could have simply chuckled, or told the little girl not to worry, or even teased her.  But instead, this fellow MFT patiently listened to the girl’s grief that she would never get to become a mythical creature. For the little girl, these emotions were real, and so my colleague treated them as such.  Responding with compassion helped validate the child’s sense that her emotional experiences matter, and that she is worthy of attention and consideration. This process, repeated by people who care for her, will affirm her understanding of herself as valuable.

Adolescents (Age 12-17)

In adolescence, kids try to figure out who they are, where they fit, and what to do with increased independence and responsibility. Adults try to answer these same questions in their role as parents.

Understandably, parents’ fears around kids’ accountability, safety, and ability to make good choices increases considerably in this time.  In response, many parents go full in on lecturing their children.  As their worries grow, the speeches about what kids should and shouldn’t do get longer and more intense.  Alternatively, some parents don’t say much to their kids at all, often because they remember the lectures they endured as a teen, and how ineffective they were.

Instead of lecturing or remaining silent, ask your teen questions.  Be curious about what they’re doing and what’s happening for them.  Encourage them to reflect on their choices and options in different situations. Give them an opportunity to talk about how they feel without making light of it, or saying its just high school, it’s not that big of a deal, or, you just want to because that’s what your little friends are doing.

Take the opportunity to listen to what they’re saying, suspending your judgment and your fear.  Often when parents say they are listening, they’re really just waiting their turn to deliver more lectures. Parents will also say that kids give them one-word answers to their questions.  Sometimes this is because kids have figured out that if they open up, you’ll simply tell them what to do (or think or feel). Re-start the conversation by letting them know that you are genuinely interested in what they have to say.

You’re the parent: there’s a good chance you know more than them about how to handle different situations. (Although I’ve seen when teens are empowered, they can be pretty freaking smart and creative). But in the long term, simply imparting your wisdom is not nearly as useful as getting them to reflect on their choices.  This doesn’t mean that you don’t set expectations or hold them accountable—you do.  But you also give them enough space to start to question and learn on their own.

I have yet to meet anyone who felt they were killing it at this parenting thing.  Most parents feel doubt and uncertainty regarding the decisions they make for their children.  There’s no rubric to measure your parenting by, and so no way to know if you’re getting it right or not. But one practice that will undoubtedly benefit your kiddos is being attentively present and responding to their feelings and thoughts with compassion and respect.  When kids feel their feelings and thoughts are valued, they develop a confidence that they carry with them.  They internalize the message that they matter and are worthy.  They develop a strong sense of self that helps them explore, identify their own needs, go after what they want, and also be present for others.  There are few greater gifts that you could provide your children.