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Teaching children to embrace their differences

Everyone feels different at some point in her life. Rather than focusing on differences in a negative way, parents can teach their children to embrace their differences. This can be easier said than done — so here are some expert teaching tips.

Mom talking to tween outside

Differences come in all shapes and sizes. Your child’s difference may be a particular interest or talent he has, or maybe it’s his style sense or family structure.

“Some children, from an early age, feel emboldened by their differences and seem to celebrate them regardless of peer and family commentary or feedback,” explains Dan Gill, MSMFT, LCPC, staff psychotherapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. When kids are having a tough time appreciating their differences, however, Gill offers these tips for parents:

Recognize your child’s feelings

“While children may seem or act indifferent about how they feel when they are different from their immediate social group, typically they are masking deeper feelings of fear — of not fitting in and becoming isolated — and anxiety about how to cope, or how to quickly conform,” says Gill. “If they don’t learn to cope with these feelings, [such feelings] may become more pronounced in adolescence, a phase of life marked by extreme self-consciousness and by an urgency to identify with a particular group of peers.”

Celebrate your child’s differences — even if she’s different from you

“Moms need to start early in getting to know the uniqueness of their children,” says Gill. “Take inventory of unfinished business from your own childhood to see your child’s abilities and differences more clearly.”

Embracing traits that are different from yours is particularly important. Gill explains, “Because children cannot articulate well their future goals, many parents try to provide goals and aspirations for them. For example, a mom who perceives herself as a failed or undereducated ballerina may be the first to sign her daughter up for ballet classes. But she may also not pick up on cues from the daughter when and if that daughter expresses dislike for ballet after a few months of practice, setting the stage for a power battle that unfortunately devalues her child’s difference.”

Seek help when needed

Sometimes, even when parents are comfortable with and accepting of a child’s differences, professional insight can help everyone in the family.

“When life and environments change — e.g., divorce, moving to a new school or both — a seemingly simple tip to follow is to find others who have had the same experience and try to connect your child with these people,” suggests Gill. “Group counseling is often an effective way of finding comfort in differences. Most therapy groups send a clear message to the child: ‘You are not alone.’ They can highlight how a child’s particular differences help him overcome adversity. When groups are running well, the child also experiences himself as a helper — even a leader — within the group.”

Tell us

How do you teach your children to embrace their differences?

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More on raising happy kids

Boost your child’s self-esteem
Does your mother influence your body image?
Parents’ guide to praising your child

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