The Most Important Thing You Can Teach Your Child

If you examine all the things that young people and people of all ages struggle with, you find they are either defined by, or caused by generating more emotion than is necessary or helpful and what people do because of it, or to deal with it. Depression, anxiety disorders and anger problems are common among people of all ages, and start making their appearance at about the time of adolescence or even before. Violence, bullying, abuse, smoking, using and abusing alcohol or drugs, suicide, eating disorders, obesity, relationship problems, and divorce are all problems that arise because of what people do because they generate a dysfunctional amount of emotion, or because of what they do to try to deal with it..

One of the major reasons people generate too much emotion is that they have what is called an External Locus of Control. They believe that what other people say and do and what happens causes how they feel. This makes how they feel dependent on things they can't control, and makes feeling better depend on people and events in their lives changing for better, and they may not.

The important point is that having an external locus of control puts people at the mercy of events in their lives, and can make them feel like a victim with no hope of feeling better. That's never a good place to be regardless of age. Bottom line, it causes people to feel worse than they need to, for longer than needed, and to miss many opportunities to feel better.

Looking at things this way is understandable given that there is so little time, if any, between things happening and how people end up feeling. It's hard to imagine anything being in between. Not to mention the fact that everyone else seems to look at things this way. People will also contend that they would never have felt the way they did if the event hadn't happened. However, everyone has at some time thought something had happened, or imagined something would, and gotten all upset about it, only to learn later that it never did, and probably never will. You don't need a real event to get upset. The belief that events cause how people feel also ignores the observation that different people can have completely different emotional reactions, or much different frequencies, intensities or durations of the same emotion when exposed to the same event. A person could also think someone else is being critical when the other person is just joking, and get upset needlessly, or think the other person is just joking when he/she is really being critical, and simply laugh it off.

It's really what we think about events in our lives that causes how we feel. Thoughts cause feelings, not events. The formula for feelings is: Event + Thoughts = Feeling. It's like that algebraic formula we all learn: a + b = c, where a is a constant and b is a variable. If a stays the same, and you change b, c changes too. Likewise, if you change the way you think about an Event, your feelings will change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

We all have a host of cognitive choices that we make all the time, usually without being aware of it, that determine how we feel. For example:
1) How we look at things
2) What meaning we attach to things
3) What we focus on
4) What we compare things to
5) What we expect of ourselves, others and life
6) What we imagine will happen next
7) How much importance we attach to what does happen
We have a choice because there's always more than one way to look at things, more than one thing something could mean, more than one thing we can focus on, and so on. The way we make such choices is usually automatic because of prior practice and rehearsal, but they are not cast in stone. We can learn to make them differently. Therein lies the power we have to exercise more control over our emotional destiny.

The most important thing we can do for children is to start teaching them from as early as possible that they have all these choices, and that the way they make them, and not what happens, will determine how they feel. If they make them in some way that makes them feel worse than they need to, that's understandable. It's part of being human. They'll have a lot of company in doing that. However, they do have choices, and that gives them more control and power over how they feel than most people realize they have.

You can facilitate this learning by talking to children differently than most adults do. For example, instead of saying things like "Did he hurt your feelings?" or "Did that make you mad", you can say things like "Whatever you feel is perfectly understandable and part of being human, but....", "No one upsets you, you upset yourself", "They don't make you mad, you do", "You're responsible for how you feel, not others" and "It's your job to make yourself feel better, not theirs". You can follow with helpful reminders like, "It's your choice how you want to look at things", "It's your choice what you want to focus on", "It's your choice what you compare things to" and so on. Furthermore, because how we make such choices determines how we feel, it's also true that: "It's your choice how you want to feel".

When people first hear "It's your choice how you want to feel", they sometimes don't take it the way it's intended. It's intended to empower someone, but people often take it the wrong way. They think someone is saying, "It's your fault you feel the way you do" or "There must be something wrong with you for feeling that way". That's why it's important to always remind someone that the way they feel is perfectly understandable. They might also think you're excusing what others did, or that you're discounting the importance of some event to them. The latter case is especially true if they have lost a significant person in their life.

One of the simplest things you can teach them is to respond to what happens by saying "It's just an event", meaning that whatever happens, you still have choices to make that ultimately determine how you feel. People call events all kinds of things: problems, accidents, troubles, successes, failures, etc. What they call it does not change what happens. It just makes it easier or harder to deal with. Learning to respond with "It's just an event" is neutral and a natural lead in to "It's my choice how I look at things" and other such thoughts/comments.

The way we make these cognitive choices not only determines how we feel about what happens, but also about ourselves. Self-esteem is a direct product of such choices. We don't want children to make how they feel about themselves depend too heavily on what others think, feel, say or do, or on what happens. They could do a lot of things right and be the nicest person in the world, and things go badly, and others not like them. Too often people try to make young people feel better about themselves by piling on the compliments, but neglect to acknowledge or point out that to them in the end, they have some choices to make that they alone can make.

In addition to reminding them of their choices, you can actually offer them new ways to look at things and think, offer other possible meanings for what happens, suggest other things to focus on or compare things to. You can teach them to be more realistic in their expectations of themselves, others and life. You can teach them how to keep what happens in perspective and to not attach an undue amount of importance to it. Doing this is encouraging them to keep an "open mind".

It's also important to teach children from early on what they do and don't have control over, and to focus on and work with what they do, instead of fretting about things they don't. They don't ever really control what others think, feel, say and do. They only control what they do. For most people, that's a big enough job as it is. Teach them that If they try to control things they can't, they'll have more to get upset about. However, if they instead focus on and work on what they think, feel, say and do, they'll have a greater sense of control over their lives, which itself can help prevent many problems in the future. A classic example of this in action is when kids respond to name-calling with "I know you are but what am I?"

When children learn the real cause of their feelings, what their cognitive choices are, what they do and don't have control over, and to use all that new knowledge to their advantage to make themselves feel as good as possible no matter what happens, it's called developing an Internal Locus of Control. Teaching them to have one is the simplest, cheapest and most effective thing you can do as a parent to help them avoid so many of the problems adolescents and adults struggle with.

You also want to teach your children to NOT take unnecessary responsibility for how others make themselves feel. Other people can disturb themselves as much or as little as they want to. They have the same choices we all do. Would you want, for example, your teenage daughter to think she makes her boyfriend mad because she won't do something he wants. Would that be good for her to do? Does she even do that? Does taking responsibility for how he makes himself feel put her in a better or worse cognitive and emotional place to do what's best for her? Might he even use it against her? All you need to do is simply change the pronouns of the statements noted earlier.

Of course, if you're going to teach your child to have an Internal Locus of Control, you first have to develop one yourself. There's no better way to teach children to have an internal locus of control, and do a good job of managing their emotions than to model having one and doing so yourself. Of course, that means you'll have to stop saying things like, "These (You) kids drive me crazy".

One last point. People talk about taking personal responsibility all the time. Yet many who preach most about people taking personal responsibility for their actions, are the same ones who are quick to blame others for how they make themselves feel. So many things that go wrong in peoples lives happen because they react instead of respond to their life events. They do that because they generate too much emotion, and do that because they have an External Locus of Control. True response-ability is the ability to respond to life rather than react to it. To do that people need good emotional management. Developing an internal locus of control can be an important step in having it, and having true response-ability..

To learn more about this, and other important cognitive life skills to teach yourself and your children, go to my blog, or to