Parents often ask us, “what is the best strategy to help my child practice ACT at home?” My first answer is always to educate yourself on what it is. Attend parent workshops, do some reading, or listen to a podcast. And learn the strategies that help us defuse from a difficult thought, allowing us to move forward in a direction that we value. In order to teach our kids something, we need to understand it and embrace it ourselves.
Although there are many great strategies to teach your child, it is much more important how you teach them. How can you set up their environment so that they can naturally practice these skills they already know? How can you provide opportunities that encourage them to use the language and strategies they’ve been taught at school and by you? How can you go beyond just teaching a skill, and instead teach present moment awareness as a whole? And there are so many ways to answer these questions.
You can start by setting up opportunities to practice during routine activities, and then model it. I can never say this enough. Children are always learning from their environment, and you are the most important piece of that environment. When you are having a difficult time regulating your own emotions, or are feeling nervous, model the use of strategies and communicate it. Use ACT language to help them better understand what you are feeling, and why you are responding the way you are. For example, when I am feeling nervous about public speaking, I am noticeably anxious. I might tell my children, “I’m super nervous about my presentation tomorrow, and I’m sorry if you can notice that in my mood. Talking in front of people makes me nervous, and I feel it in my tummy, and my hands, and sometimes I talk too fast. But that’s because I’m worried about making mistakes and what people might think of me. I know this is a story I am telling myself, and I’m working on strategies to calm my nerves and defuse from these thoughts because this is important to me.” After giving an explanation of what I am feeling and why, I will suggest some known strategies, “I don’t want to miss out on things that are important to me, so I’m going to put that thought on a leaf and let it float down the stream, then I’m going to practice deep breathing so that I am present and I don’t miss out on what’s important. Do you want to help me practice?” In moments like this, it is not a sign of weakness to have big feelings, it is a learning opportunity for both you and your child. Normalize these feelings, and work through them using the strategies you want to see your child use.
Throughout your everyday activities, there are many ways to model ACT yourself, and have your child practice. Set goals as a family, and committed actions to help move you closer to those goals, and then post them somewhere so that you can check in as a family. Validate your child’s feelings, and use acceptance and diffusion phrases when your child is having a hard thought, or a hard time moving away from a preferred activity. You might say, “I know you are feeling upset and that’s ok. But what strategy can we use right now?” Additionally, set up opportunities outside of these situations to practice present moment awareness. Mindfulness activities can be worked into many parts of your day, such as on the way to school, when energy levels are high, or as part of a bed time routine.
It is also so important to remind your child of their strategies before they face something difficult and you know they’ll be needed. As a family, we recently had the opportunity to do this together. My 11 year old daughter is fearless on a race track, but that’s because she is confident there, and according to her, having a helmet where people can’t see her face also helps immensely. But she also plays the piano, and getting up to play in front of an audience is not an environment she feels comfortable in. On the way to her recent concert, we talked about strategies she could use before getting on stage. As I suggested she take a deep breath and focus on her music sheets, her five year old brother also suggested she count to 10 before starting, or do a “5 finger breath.” Prior to getting on stage she was noticeably nervous, but she got up there, and I watched her take a few seconds to focus on her breath before starting. She then played beautifully, and I was overwhelmed with emotion and pride, knowing that once again my children are learning to face their fears through the use of ACT strategies. Practicing these strategies outside of the big events where they are needed, allows our children to encompass acceptance and commitment training in a way that will generalize to so many other aspects of their lives as they grow.
sFrom an ABA perspective, we know we need to reinforce the behaviour we want to see continue. So do not forget to validate feelings and reinforce your child when you see them using ACT language and strategies. As a community at OBA, we are all working together to create the best versions of ourselves and our children. A version that is psychologically flexible and able to navigate the world in a way that is mindful and values based. It takes a village, and as staff, we are always here to help you and your family!