5 min read


Haley Jakobson

Everything You Need To Know About: Not Messing Up Your Kids

An interview with a child therapist.
Everything You Need To Know About: Not Messing Up Your Kids
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I sat down to talk to Stephanie Rojas, child + family therapist.

Millennials want to know how not to f**ck up our future kids (if they even want kids to begin with). I asked y’all your burning parenting questions via instagram before sitting down with Stephanie Rojas, a NYC therapist who specializes in family and children’s therapy.

When looking for your therapy match, it’s important that you feel your therapist can help you unpack your particular upbringing and experiences - and if you’re raising a family, you’ll want someone who can support you with that! If you’re in NYC and want our team to do the matchmaking for you, head over to our questionnaire and begin the process for free!

How do you talk to kids about sex and consent early enough that it is normalized and without shame?

“Talking to kids about sex and consent is extremely important, as uncomfortable as it is. They have a lot of questions, and often times when they start asking it is because other kids their age are talking about it. Even if parents feel that they’ve protected their kids from having this conversation, they’re probably going to come across it outside of their home, like on a website, movie, or book. Typically, going off your kid’s behavior is a good way to indicate if it is time to talk to them about sex. Maybe they’re joking about it, or getting curious about bodies or relationships. You can ask simple questions like “What made you think of that?” which helps keep the conversation focused on their own thoughts and feelings. An important thing to note is that this is not a one time conversation, but something to come back to over and over again.”

Stephanie encourages staying non-judgmental, calm, open-minded, and sticking to some facts about sex and consent that you feel comfortable sharing. She urges parents to push past the discomfort of these conversations and to focus on the incredible importance of them instead.

When I asked Stephanie her thoughts on talking about consent with kids, she admitted that, unfortunately, much of what she has come across in sessions is the aftermath of a non-consensual experience and is often navigating how to unpack that with her young patients. This is why starting the conversation young is essential. A good way to begin is talking to your kids about the difference between an appropriate touch and inappropriate touch. These conversations can start off really basic when first introduced, and then get a little more complex as you continue to come back to the topic.

“Once the seed has been planted, the conversation will start to grow from there, and as they become more curious you will be the person they want to talk to about it.”

Is “shushing” my kids insinuating that what they have to say isn’t important?

“I would say it doesn’t always have to be that way, unless it develops as a pattern. Giving an explanation is really helpful. For example, saying “We’re at the movie theater, so we can’t talk right now, but I really want to hear what you want to say. Can we talk after?” What they want to share is valuable and should be heard, and we want them to know that.”

What is the appropriate amount of time that kids should be on screens?

“Without putting a number on it, we want to monitor what they’re looking at and for how long they are looking at it. We don’t want them on screens during dinner, or while doing homework, or when it’s time to engage with others. Setting boundaries with “on screen time” and “off screen time” is helpful. And we have to remember that we are their models, too. Adults can be very guilty of being glued to their phones, often times as soon as they wake up. If we are going to request something from our children, we should be ready to do that as well.

Stephanie especially recommends being careful with screens before bed, as it can disrupt sleeping because of the effects of blue light on the brain. Stephanie and I agreed that it isn’t about time, it’s about intentionality.

How do you handle conflicts between your kids fairly? This is coming from a middle child.

A great question. This happens very often! Starting early on, it’s vital to tell each of your kids how important they are as individuals. Often times they can interpret having to share things with each other to mean that the other person is more important or more loved. I want to acknowledge that this is really hard for parents, and it’s not going to be perfect. Saying “you are both so special to me, I want to make sure that we’re always fair to each other, can you share this?” is a script that might help. Of course there is going to be pushback, like “No, it’s mine!” and that’s when you can introduce behavior modifications (positive or negative reinforcement) techniques, like saying “Alright, if we aren’t able to share, maybe we shouldn’t play at all.” So that they know that sharing yields a reward.

How do you talk to young teens who are already concerned with their weight and being attractive enough?

“At that age, they’re starting to look at themselves and compare themselves to others as they grow their social world. They want to be liked and are looking at celebrities and social media influencers as examples of people who are liked. I would say that acknowledging that as their reality is important and validating that this is their daily experience. Helping to guide them into seeing positive, unique attributes about themselves and reminding them they don’t have to look a certain way or like anyone else. And if they’re feeling discouraged, saying things like “that sucks, i’m so sorry that happened” is a way to validate their experience. This goes back to planting the seed early, encouraging positive self esteem and confidence early on will carry over as they grow. I have found that it is extremely important that when I’m working with kids and teens that I take myself back to when I was their age. As an adult, their problems might seem minor, but to them these things are huge. Digging deep and reminding yourself what it was like to be that age helps you ask yourself “what would I have wanted to hear from my parents right now?” Typically, most of us wanted to hear “I’m really sorry, that sounds so difficult.”

Stephanie also shared with me that parents should try and familiar themselves with their school’s policies on bullying and cyber-bullying, too.

How to shelter kids from resentment during a divorce?

“When parents are going through a separation, it is a kind of trauma for their children. A child is losing a life and routine they are used to. It is a roller coaster of emotions. Children should not be the person a parent goes to to disclose information about their other parent, because no matter what is happening in real time, a child is typically always going to love their parents. Even though they may act out or their behavior may indicate differently, as with studies of a parent who is abusive, a child will usually go back to that parent. Being mindful about conversations you’re having about your ex-partner and trying to maintain an amicable relationship with that ex-partner is important. Allowing them to process this change and the loss of the life they used to have and letting them continue to explore and talk about it is essential during this time. Having your child see a therapist during this adjustment is a great way to seek support for them.”

What do I do if my kid is having a meltdown in public?

“Oooh! There are a couple ways to handle it. Definitely avoid yelling or having a volume challenge. You can speak in a firm voice and model the behavior that you want them to have. Speaking to them calmly and acknowledging that they are having a hard time can be helpful, and then asking them to take a minute to regulate their emotions. This can be done through deep breaths, taking a walk, naming the feeling, taking a break to have some tea. These are all things we can model to our kids when we regulate our own emotions. We can use a feelings thermometer, asking them to level down from a 10 to a 6, so you can have a conversation. Naming the feeling, validating it, and then creating a solution with each other is a great way to show you are a team. They are trying to communicate something to you and want to be heard.”

What to do if you’re experiencing a depressive episode?

“My hope would be that the parent would be seeking therapy and psychiatric services. Making sure they are implementing self care and meeting their own needs. Using the metaphor of the oxygen mask on an airplane, you want to be taking care of yourself in order to be your best self when taking care of others. If it’s appropriate and your kids are at the age to understand, having a conversation with them about depression and your symptoms can be helpful. Again, if it’s appropriate, they can even help support you. For example, they might watch a special show with you. Having a plan of coping strategies to share with your kids is a supportive tool, too. It speaks volumes if a parent is able to voice what they are experiencing.”

Stephanie and I went on to talk about my own experience with my mom’s mental illness growing up, and how it was extremely normal for us to talk about depression and the symptoms of it. There was no shame around these conversations or any secrecy, and I always knew that Mom had to take her medicine at 5:00 every evening to make sure she was feeling stable and healthy. When I was diagnosed in my early twenties with clinical depression, I wasn’t blind-sighted. It was difficult, but it wasn’t shameful, and a game-plan was already in place.

What should partners agree upon before deciding to have a child?

Stephanie asked me what my thoughts were on this question, and we came up with some ideas together. We agreed that morals and values are important to discuss. Making sure there aren’t any deal-breakers between the two of you, what family values do you want to uphold? I brought up the point that I would want to know what my partner’s parents did that they liked and did not like, and go over what our responses might be to disciplining our child’s behavior. What behavior might you revert back to when our kid throws something at another kid on the playground? What’s your gut reaction, and what’s your goal reaction? Are we going to parent as a team or will there be two different answers if kid our wants something? I don’t want to assume that i’m right in the way I want to parent, because I might over complicate the situation - I want to know my partner’s creative solutions! Stephanie mentioned that it would be fruitful to inform your partner on ways in which your own parents informed your parenting as a way to help them understand why you might react a certain way. Making sure that you have a plan and are on the same page is important, because your kid will inevitably want to test you, and knowing what the response you’ve agreed on together ensures you are not divided in your parenting. You will get triggered by your children, and knowing what they are beforehand is good, but you won’t always be fully ready. It will be in the moment, and the way you can prep for that is by knowing your coping tools, like  taking a break and having your scheduled moments of self-care. No matter how many books and manuals you read, you’re not going to perfect.

My five year old son is a perfectionist, hates failing, and becomes upset with himself if he does. He hits himself at times and says “stupid brain.” I think we are supportive parents and quite relaxed and never put pressure on him. He has choices and we respect them, but I don’t know how to help him be okay with failure and not be so hard on himself. Is this normal, age appropriate behavior?

“This would be considered concerning behavior, because children should be allowed to make mistakes. This seems to be something he’s placing on himself, and that the parents are doing the best they can to allow him to be himself. Children often want to be the “best,” (at playing, drawing, etc) and it is important for them to know that they are allowed to make mistakes. This is a great time for positive affirmations to come in as reminders of their worth, while also normalizing not having to be perfect. You might look for some kids books that explore making mistakes, and this might also be a situation where getting some support from a therapist could be helpful!”

My son is two and intentionally manipulates us to get what he wants, for example: he has slept well in his own bed for months and then I went away for the weekend, and while he slept absolutely fine that weekend, he has sat up crying for me for the first hour of bedtime ever since. If his Dad checks on him, he says “goodnight Dad” and lay down. If I go in, he clings to me and stands at the door screaming until I hold him. He also hits me and other kids without provocation, ignores me when I’m asking him to do something, and laughs when he is told that something he did was painful. Which behaviors are normal and which are not?

“Two years old love to test and often manipulate to get their way. Firm boundaries are important at this time. Going back to behavior modifications, reminding them what behavior you want to see from them and what you do not. Instead of saying “be on good behavior,” you want to be extremely specific with your cues. Like “Right now we are all sitting down quietly.” Bedtime routines are challenging, and it’s okay to have a setback. Something was disrupted, and that can trigger separation anxiety. Reminding your son that he is safe and that Mommy is always going to be there will encourage getting back on track with the sleeping routine. Perhaps introducing a transitional object like a toy or blanket that reminds him of Mom and that Mom is still there could help. It might be rough during the first couple attempts, but with consistency progress will be made. Hitting is also normal behavior! and it’s okay to have rocky moments, but consistency in boundaries and setting limits is key to progress.”

How do I overcome the feeling of wanting to be “completely healed” before I have a baby?

“Experience is the best teacher. I read a quote recently, “if we wait til we are ready, we’ll wait for the rest of our lives.” You can prepare as much as you can, but the best practice will be when you actually have your child. You’ll make mistakes, you’ll be scared, and you’ll learn as you go. And there are so many support groups out there for parents, you do not have to do this alone!”

For all the parents and parents-to-be out there, I hope this was a helpful read! As someone who can’t wait to have kids and is equally terrified, I walked away from this conversation realizing I really don’t have to do it without outside support. Because people are so nervous that they are bad parents, they forget that asking for help will directly quell that fear! If you’re starting a family and are interested in finding a therapist to guide you in the process, don’t hesitate to reach out to Stephanie or fill out out our questionnaire.

Special, special thanks to Stephanie for answering these questions so thoughtfully and with such wisdom! If you’re interested in setting up a phone consult with Stephanie, don’t hesitate to tap on her name to learn more!

If you’d like to submit an idea for our “Everything You Need To Know” series, or ask questions for upcoming articles, follow us on @findmywellbeing and be on the look-out for our Q+A series in our stories. You can also DM us with article ideas!

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About the author

Haley Jakobson is a writer of plays, poetry, and creative non-fiction. In her writing Haley explores mental health and wellness, sex and trauma, queerness, and bodies. When she isn’t scribbling on the subway, she is hanging out with the MWB team as their Digital Content Manager, and acting as the Artistic Director and co-founder of Brunch Theatre Company, an inclusive platform for emerging theatre artists to join the conversation. A poet in the millennial era, Haley reaches an audience of 11k+ readers on her instagram page. Haley lives in Brooklyn and is a gemini.

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