Parents have a lot of ideas about what they hope and dream for their children's futures. But more than any material goal, child psychologists want their kids to grow up to be kind, to know how to resolve conflict in healthy ways and to know that, above all else, they are enough just as they are.
And they're drawing on their own research and professional skills to help their children develop those skills.
"The biggest priority for me as a parent, particularly a parent of young children who have yet to access social media and all of the things that come from that world, is just a sense of self-acceptance," Becky Lois, Ph.D., child and adolescent psychologist and co-director of the KiDS of NYU Foundation Integrated Behavioral Health Program at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone, tells TODAY.com.
It can be tough to be a kid these days when there's so much opportunity for comparison on social media sites and a temptation to hold yourself up against impossible, idealized standards, she says. "It's easy to fall into a trap where you're trying to meet a standard that you really can't meet as opposed to just understanding that who you are is enough."
For her kids, Lois says, "I want them to be able to be their authentic selves, to know who they are as people and be really comfortable with that so that they don't feel compelled to meet those unrealistic standards."
Leading with kindness and openness
Just as Lois hopes that her kids have kindness towards themselves, she hopes they approach others that way, too.
"I am really proud of my son that all of the teachers he's had have talked about how he's so kind and that he's friends with everyone in the class," she says.
For example, Lois' son is a huge Pokémon fan, and she encourages him to follow and celebrate his interests but also to understand that "other kids may not be into these things at the same level as him and that's OK," she says. She encourages her kids to approach others and their interests with the same mindset.
"The world can be really conflict-heavy and upsetting and difficult to navigate — especially for kids," Lois continues. "So I want my kids to feel good about who they are as people and also approach the world with that kindness."
Angela Narayan, Ph.D., whose kids are both in preschool, agrees. "A really salient issue for preschoolers is learning how to be kind to each other and also learning how to be empathic to each other," says Narayan, an associate professor at the University of Denver specializing in clinical child psychology.
Healthy conflict resolution
Kindness and empathy are two elements of another crucial skill: resolving conflicts in a healthy way. "Every day is an opportunity for kids to learn healthy conflict resolution strategies," Narayan tells TODAY.com.
Part of that comes naturally from parents modeling respectful behavior. "Kids are like sponges," Narayan explains. "They observe everyone around them, and they pay particular attention to the people that they love and know and trust."
Children are watching how those people, typically their caregivers, treat each other and resolve conflicts, she continues. "We need to model that kind of respectful behavior to each other and our kids."
But parents should also take opportunities to direct kids on what to do and what not to do in social settings, she adds. That might mean setting expectations about what to do at a birthday party where kids may be sharing toys, for instance. Or it could be pulling them aside in the moment to point out how well they're doing at taking turns and playing with kids they don't know, Narayan says.
In her work, Narayan encourages parents to "catch them being good," meaning to notice and praise children for "things they are doing well that are easy to miss because we expect them to happen."
Responding to negative emotions
For Kathryn Humphreys, Ph.D., each of her three kids tends to need support in different areas.
"But the common theme is to help them respond to negative emotions, like anxiety or disappointment, by thinking about things in a different way or acting in a way that doesn’t allow them to get in the way of enjoying this amazing life," Humphreys, an associate professor of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University, tells TODAY.com.
For example, she talks about being brave and making efforts to try new things with her child who is more shy and reticent. And with her child who is very social but sensitive to exclusion, "we spend more time thinking about how to respond to slights and finding alternative outlets," Humphreys explains.
"My hope is that they’ll have multiple tools in their emotional toolbox that they can apply when I am not there to support them," she says. Not every strategy they try will work for every situation, she says, "but I hope that they can experiment with different coping strategies — taking deep breaths, positive self-talk, asking a friend to talk or play — that they can use the ones that work best for them when they need it."
Asking for help
Lauren Quetsch, Ph.D., tells TODAY.com that she hopes her four kids develop "the ability to problem solve — and understanding that it’s OK to ask for help from other people."
A self-described go-getter who tends to do things independently, Quetsch, assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Arkansas, says she's learned over time to see the value in asking for and accepting help from others when she needs it.
"I hope that my children have the flexibility to realize, 'Yes, I can persevere, and I've got the capacity to do that,'" she says, "but also recognizing their limits and when they need help."
That might mean getting help with practical issues, like getting schoolwork done, or more complex emotional challenges that could use a mental health professional's guidance. For Quetsch it's about having the ability to "recognize our capacity on both ends," she says."I'm able to do hard things and I'm going to persevere through these hard things. But that doesn't mean I always have to do it alone."
Confidence in their ability to handle life
"In my parenting life and also in my professional life, I think a lot about what researchers called coping efficacy, but what I informally call handleability," Kathryn Hecht, Ph.D., a family and child psychologist based in the Minneapolis–Saint Paul area, tells TODAY.com.
This concept refers to "our confidence in our ability to cope with whatever life throws at us — both the good and the bad," she explains. And while it sounds a lot like resilience, coping efficacy is more about believing that, no matter what happens, you'll be able to handle life's challenges and less about having the actual ability to do so.
Having that level of handleability is "going to minimize the likelihood that, when a real major setback happens, you are completely sidelined by it," she says. And it's a "pretty essential building block for both confidence and bravery," Hecht continues, because it helps us recognize that we can do hard things, even though they might make us uncomfortable or anxious.
She's helping her patients and her 2-year-old daughter build these skills by guiding them through solving setbacks and disappointments on their own, in an age-appropriate way. "Giving kids the opportunity to figure out and practice coping tools will let them come out the other side and believe in their own confidence in that ability," she explains.
Maybe they'll stand up to the school bully, challenge themselves to take a more advanced class or go after a dream job even though they might not succeed. There's always a chance that taking those risks won't work out, but if you have strong coping efficacy, Hecht says, "you're going to do anything that you care about. And at the end of the day, you're going to feel good about it."