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“I need your best right now”: How to ask kids to step up

“I need your best right now”: How to ask kids to step up

These here are troubled times and many of us have some very troubled kids on our hands. It’s hard to shield them from the COVID-19 news, and as the kids get older we need to ask ourselves if it’s even wise to. 

“COVID-19 is contagious … and so is mood,” says author of The Elite and psychology consultant Dr Jo Lukins. “If we are overly anxious our children will pick up on those cues, which is unlikely to be helpful for them. Educating our children as best we can is important.”

Dr Lukins advises us to remind our kids that feeling worried and concerned right now is perfectly normal. The fact that we are “all in this together” is actually a really good time to appeal to our children’s sense of community and tap into their innate kindness.

“We each have a job to do right now to look after ourselves, so we can look after others,” says Jo.

Ask kids to step up during COVID-19

Ask kids to step up when things are down

Considering the stress that our society is currently under, it’s more than fair to ask kids to step up and give us their best right now. This is possible for kids of all ages, but especially true for older kids. In the middle of everyday battles with our adolescents, we can sometimes forget just how capable and understanding they can be. Right now, we are asking them to look beyond their own needs and care for the needs of others.

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“It is entirely possible to encourage our teens to step at a time of crisis because this aligns with their natural tendencies and stage of development,” says Rachel Tomlinson, Registered Psychologist and founder of Toward Wellbeing. “As our children develop their desire to become autonomous and responsible increases. This is particularly strong in our teenagers, a normal part of their development is to become independent. Part of that is learning how to make good decisions, problem solve and essentially step up their responsibilities in preparation for being capable young adults.”

Asking for our children’s best can take many different forms, but looking after the home and each other is a good place to start. Families will be spending a lot more time together at home over the coming months, so pitching in to make home as comfortable as possible is more important now than ever.

“Always think about the strengths and abilities of your child when you think about ways that they can step up,” says Rachel. “When a young person is able to step up, achieve and take responsibility they feel pretty good about themselves. Taking on appropriate responsibilities improves self esteem as well as self efficacy – the belief in themselves as being capable.”

Giving specific instructions

When we ask kids to step up to help or support, we need to be as specific as possible. Tween and teen brains are not yet wired to ‘see’ the big picture, so kids are unlikely to just pitch in and get things done simply because they need doing.

“The prefrontal cortex of the brain is still putting on a few of the finishing touches during adolescence,” explains Rachel. “It’s the part of the brain that deals with logic and reasons, so that’s why we sometimes scratch our heads or don’t understand why our kids don’t “think” before they act… it’s not their fault, their brain is still working on that area of skill.”

By asking kids to contribute and be responsible, and offering them specific examples of how they can do so, gets them practicing and using that part of the brain.

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Instead of, “please clean the kitchen”, try saying, “please empty the dishwasher, sweep the floors, and wipe down the benches.”

Instead of, “look after your little brother while I work”, try saying, “can you please spend half and hour kicking a soccer ball around the back garden with your little brother while I get this important report done.”

Instead of, “stop fighting with your sister”, try saying, “I know it’s frustrating spending so much time together, so I want you to each write down three things you love about each other before saying another mean thing.” Or something like that, anyway!

How to ask kids to step up and give their best right now

Helping out versus full responsibility

When we ask kids to step up, we are asking them to take responsibility for not only themselves, but the happiness of others. Having set chores to do is one thing, but taking full responsibility for an area of family life is quite another. This might be things like:

  • keeping the kitchen tidy throughout the day;
  • walking and feeding the family pets;
  • making meal plans and ordering food online;
  • keeping younger children occupied;
  • keeping the laundry from piling up;
  • stripping and washing the family’s bed sheets regularly;
  • dusting and vacuuming rooms used frequently.

The best thing about giving them reign over a particular area is that he kids will need to completely own it, no excuses.

“They will also feel a sense of pride in helping contribute to the family,” says Rachel. “So there are potential benefits of strengthening relationships with your teen by working together for the same cause.” She also notes that it will give us plenty of opportunities to appreciate our kids’ hard work and tell them how amazing they are.” Noted!

All in this… separately

One of the key pain-points for families right now is sibling conflict. Spending lots of time together can be kryptonite for sibling harmony.

“My kids don’t get along at the best of times,” says Mumlyfe reader, Jillian, whose family is one week into their self-quarantine after arriving home from a holiday. “Right now they are literally spending 24 hours together and the stress is diabolical.”

An obvious solution is to give the kids their own space at home, but in Jillian’s case, a tiny inner-city apartment that doesn’t even have a balcony is making that impossible. “We are literally in each others laps half the time, never mind trying to do work or schooling. We usually spend a lot of time out of the home because it’s just not big enough for a family of four, but here we are…”

How to ask kids to step up during COVID-19

This is exactly the time when we need to ask our kids to step up. Asking them to rise to support family harmony during such a difficult time might surprise you.

“Reading the kids the riot act had no impact whatsoever,” says Jillian. “I felt like I was simply being an angry referee all day, every day. It wasn’t until I sat them down and calmly asked them to help me, their father and each other out during this crisis that I started to see results. We agreed some ground rules together as a family and I’ve asked them to stick to those rules like glue.”

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One of the rules Jillian asked her children, ages 11 and 14, to abide by was to consider the other first before saying or doing anything. “How will this make Ryan feel?” she explains. “Will this make Ava’s day better or worse? Am I being selfish right now? What should I do to make this situation better?”

Jillian is very happy to report that while fights are still erupting each day, they are diffusing much faster. She gently reminds her children what was agreed as a family and they work to curb their temper and try to put themselves in the others’ shoes.

Getting buy-in

This collaborative setting of family rules is critical for kids of all ages, but especially adolescents. “If you can involve them in the process then they will be more engaged and have “buy in” or commitment because they have been given an opinion and a choice,” says Rachel. In order to ask kids to step up, Rachel suggests this approach:

  • Sit down as a family and talk about roles, what does everyone see as being their role and why?
  • Do they have any preferences for things they definitely “do” and “do not” want to be responsible for?
  • It’s important to also think about the emotional supports you provide for one another and how every family member can take responsibility for their actions and behaviours.
  • Talk as a family and set some ground rules/expectations in advance – times might get tense due to fears and worries, so try and do the negotiating beforehand when things aren’t so heightened.
  • Consider your kids’ strengths and your own when considering different activities they might take ownership of. Are they a great cook? Maybe they could scour the internet for recipes and get creative when cooking for the family? Are they really creative and could be in charge of entertainment for the family?

In other words, think of ways to utilise the kids’ passions and skills to help everyone out. Then regularly notice how amazing they are being right now.

How are you all doing right now? Will you ask kids to step up now you need them to?

Feature image by Annie Spratt; Heart by Kelly Sikkema; hammock by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič / all Unsplash