Anyone looking for a light, breezy read today might feel the urge to click elsewhere when I mention that September is Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month. But wait! If you stick with me, you’ll soon see that this is an article about health, hope, and happiness — and how you can achieve each of those things for yourself and your family.
Earlier this year, I shared the story of my son’s decision to take his own life, then provided insight on risk factors for self-harm and suicide in children and adolescents, and on what you, as parents, can do to prevent a potentially dangerous mental health situation from escalating. (Click here to read.) Now I’d like to back up a bit and offer guidance on cultivating a family environment that may help you to avoid reaching crisis conditions altogether.
At the outset, just to clarify what may seem like a basic term, I mean “family” in an inclusive sense. Sure, some of you may belong to a traditional unit of two parents and a few biologically related children. For those of you who belong to units that society deems “blended” or “broken,” however… First of all, let’s remove those unhelpful labels altogether. Your family is neither a mixed drink nor a malfunctioning vacuum that you’re regretting having purchased without a warranty. It is a family, plain and simple, no matter how many divorces or remarriages there have been; no matter which children are half-siblings or step-siblings or adopted siblings; no matter if, due to loss or some other trauma, aunts and uncles, grandparents, or other guardians have taken the place of parents.
Whatever the makeup of your unique family, it is entirely possible to develop a healthy, supportive, loving culture within it. So let’s explore exactly what that means.
Set the Standard
One of the most significant things you will ever do as a parent or guardian is to be the example you wish to see in both your children and your partner or co-parent. This idea applies to everything from your daily practices to your work habits to your communication style.
Say that you usually start your day with your face in your phone, the TV on in the background, and your attention divided between packing lunches and scheduling a dentist appointment. Or maybe you come home from the office only to keep on working straight through dinner, texting your colleagues about some super crucial report while mindlessly munching your meatloaf, then shooting off an email while brushing your teeth. And to top it all off, perhaps you launch into a heated pre-sleep spat with your spouse about whose turn it is to take out the trash.
When you’re in the moment, it’s hard to remember that your children will absorb these behaviors, assume that they are normal, and eventually begin to mimic them. Yikes. In this twenty-first century of ours, such conduct is, unfortunately, kind of normal. But that does not make it advisable or beneficial. You can set a different standard for yourself, and in doing so, establish a different blueprint for your family to follow.
Instead of waking up in a whirlwind of conflicting activity, for instance, make the choice to meditate for five minutes every morning, then take on each of the tasks you need to accomplish separately instead of doing one thing “while” doing another. Bonus: You can even get your kids in on the action, asking them to help you make their lunches.
When you return from the office — even if that office happens to be in your own home — leave your work at your desk. It will still be there in the morning, and if you truly must wrap something up before you go to bed, you can set aside a dedicated fifteen or twenty minutes to do it. In the meantime, you will have cleared the way to be fully present with your loved ones, which could mean making dinner together, engaging in fun, meaningful conversation at the table, having a homework hangout, or all of the above.
By operating in this consciously balanced way, chances are good that you’ll still get everything done, and possibly more successfully than you would have had you attempted to do it all at once. Better yet, you will be showing your children how you care for yourself and how much you care about them.
Disagree with Grace
As to arguments with your spouse, partner, ex-partner, co-guardian, etc., let’s face it: These things will happen, and there’s no need to place judgement or blame when they do. There’s also no need to try to hide them or to pretend that they didn’t happen. Disagreements are natural in any relationship, and especially in those of the personal variety. With that in mind, the best thing you can do for your family is to address them openly.
This doesn’t necessarily mean discussing adults-only subjects in front of your children. Certain matters may still have to be handled behind closed doors. But they can be handled civilly, without loud verbal brawls, violent language, or heated accusations — all of which young, impressionable ears are bound to hear. Modeling positive, productive disagreement management is an important part of parenting, and one that is often overlooked in favor of complete conflict avoidance (a.k.a. the “sweeping it under the rug” style of communication, which, as anyone who has ever used it knows, is bound to backfire).
Lead with Love
Above all else, the most essential ingredient of a healthy home is an atmosphere of play, gratitude, love, and joy. Stress, sorrow, pain, disappointment — such negative feelings and the situations that incite them are inevitable. We can balance them out, however, by creating an emotionally nourishing environment for and inspiring positivity in our kids. Set the electronics down and interact. Play board games. Grab the dog and a frisbee, and go to the park. Make a gratitude list together every morning, and read a book each night before bedtime. Simply be with each other!
No matter what their age, your children will soak these experiences up and carry them throughout their lives. From day one, you have the opportunity to be their superhero just by being the most candid, compassionate, connected version of yourself. So grab your cape, my friends. Duty calls.