The Power of Affirmation

The Power of Affirmation


by Judith Xavier, Focus on the Family Singapore

Parents can build up or tear down their children.  

Do you remember the most recent conversation you had with your child? What words did you choose to convey your thoughts? What were the emotions evoked in your child? And what was the outcome of that interaction? Often, we get caught up in the hectic pace of life, and our words are more orders than encouragement, and our tone can get tense and curt. Undeniably, this has an effect on our children.

As parents, our words are powerful. They leave an indelible mark on our children; while we might forget the conversations we have had with them as we get busy with adult responsibilities, our words sometimes, linger on in the memories of our children and are carried on into their lives as an adult, impacting how they perceive themselves and the world around them. For example, a young adult who has poor body image may have faced regular critical comments from their parents about their weight and appearance. Another, who is a perfectionist and displays highly self-critical behaviour may have endured constant criticisms about not meeting certain standards in their growing up years.

Conversely, using words of affirmation can have a long-lasting positive impact on your child. A child who’s is regularly affirmed and encouraged, is likely to have greater self-awareness, confidence and resilience, and build positive healthy relationships with others. They are also more likely to practice positive-self talk and keep a healthy perspective when weathering the challenges that are part and parcel of adult life.

Over the course of this week, observe the way you speak to your children. Do you find yourself using more positive or negative words and phrases? How do you handle a situation when your child has fallen short of the standards you set? Do your comments focus mainly on the academic area of your child’s life? Once you understand where the gaps are, you can begin to change the quality of your parent-child conversations. Use words of affirmation and praise when your child has shown good effort. By this, they will know that you see and value what they have done. Perhaps your child has a personal passion in a specific area such as sport, art or music. Affirm their hard work and talent when they showcase it to you – a parent’s praise is priceless!

Even in discipline, it is possible to be consistent and firm, and still extend grace to your child who needs it. This doesn’t mean you should be a permissive push-over – that certainly won’t help your child either. Take the time to discipline your child rather than just handing out punishments; this requires a conversation about their wrong-doing, and how they can set it right, and listening to their thoughts on the situation – you can practice even with a young child who understands right from wrong. As a bonus, your child will likely internalise this process and practice it on their own as they get older.

Often, poor parent-child communication indicates a bigger and more long-standing problem in the lives of the parents – a chronic lack of self-care. Here, the analogy of securing your own oxygen mask in an airplane, before tending to your child, holds true. Make the time and find healthy ways to cope with the stresses you are under, rather than pushing them aside. When you are relaxed and have a healthy perspective, you are more likely practice affirming your child on a regular basis, rather than reacting to them with anxiety and even anger.

The great news is that it is never too late to start a family culture based on affirmation and encouragement. Take small steps today, by using positive words with your child and yourself!

Copyright © 2016. Focus on the Family Singapore Ltd.


Helping Children Become Successful in Future: Self-Control

Helping Children Become Successful in Future: Self-Control


by Dr Shen Li Lee

In the late 1960’s, Walter Mischel, a professor of psychology in Stanford, conducted a series of experiments on children that are now famously known as the “marshmallow tests” (you can read the full details of the study published in Developmental Psychology). The marshmallow test was a study on self-control in children age 4-6 years old. The children were placed in a room by themselves and given a marshmallow. The children were given the option that they could either eat the marshmallow now, or if they were willing to wait while the researcher stepped out for a few minutes, they could have a second marshmallow when he returned.

They tracked the children into adulthood and found that the children who couldn’t wait were more likely to have behavioural problems at home and in school. They had “lower SAT scores, struggled in stressful situations, had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships“. The children that could wait 15 minutes had SAT scores, on average, 210 points higher than the children who could only wait 30 seconds.

Children with Greater Self-Control Become Healthier and Wealthier Adults

Similar results were found in a New Zealand study on self-control in children where the researchers “assessed the self-control of more than 1000 people born in Dunedin between 1972-1973 during the first decade of their life and then examined their health outcomes, wealth outcomes and criminal conviction history at age 32.

Even after accounting for study members’ differences in social status and IQ, children as young as three who scored lower on measures of self-control were more likely than children with higher self-control to have the following outcomes as adults:

  • Physical health problems (including poorer lung function, sexually transmitted infections, obesity, high blood pressure, bad cholesterol, dental disease)
  • Substance dependence (including tobacco, alcohol, cannabis, and harder drugs)
  • Difficulty with financial planning (including savings habits, home ownership, investments, retirement plans)
  • Difficulty with credit and money management (including bankruptcy, missed payments, credit card problems, living from paycheque to paycheque)
  • Rearing a child in a single-parent household
  • A criminal conviction record

Read the full study.

The Kit Kat Test

After reading about self-control and future success, hubby decided to give Aristotle our version of the Marshmallow test. After dinner, we gave Aristotle 5 nuggets of Kit Kat and told him that he could eat them now but if he could wait until we finished washing the dishes, he could have another 5 nuggets of Kit Kat. It took us about 25 minutes to finish cleaning up (I waited until we were down wiping down the stove and the sink before I told him we were done :-p).

Our results? Aristotle, passed the test. Not that I would have expected anything else given what I know of his nature. Hercules, on the other hand, would probably have a tougher time delaying gratification. Since he is only 2.5 years, he is still a bit young to be put to the test. Nevertheless, he wanted in on the action. His results? Forget being able to tell him to wait – those little nuggets of Kit Kat were in his mouth before we could give him the instructions.

Don’t Worry, Self-Control Can Be Taught

If you did decide to try the marhmallow test and lamented at your child’s inability to wait, fret not! The good news is that self-control can be taught  and the children whose self-control improved with age, also had better outcomes as adults. “Even those who already have above average self-control — could reap later rewards from universal interventions designed to improve such skills, especially in childhood but also in adolescence”.

Indeed, Mischel discovered this fact when he “taught children a simple set of mental tricks—such as pretending that the candy is only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame—he dramatically improved their self-control. The kids who hadn’t been able to wait sixty seconds could now wait fifteen minutes”. According to Mischel, “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”

The results are clear, if you want your children to be successful in future, help them develop their self-control. And if you want to know more about how to teach your child self-control, there is a chapter devoted to it in Welcome to Your Child’s Brain by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang.


Activities to Help Children Improve their Focus and Self-Control

Activities to Help Children Improve their Focus and Self-Control


by Dr Shen Li Lee

According to Ellen Galinsky in Mind in the Making, children need focus and self-control to help them achieve their goals. Unfortunately, focus and self-control isn’t something they naturally develop as they grow up, it is something they need to practice in order to get good at it.  The following are some activities recommended by Galinsky in Mind in the Making that you can do with your children to help them improve their focus and self-control.

For babies and toddlers:

  • Observe your baby to see what helps him to calm down and follow his cues.
  • Use the method that works best for your baby. A commonly recommended technique is to hold your baby until he cools down – so when your baby or toddler loses it, the best thing to do is be present, not walk away.
  • Acknowledge your baby’s successes.

Pre-schoolers and older children:

  • Encourage your child’s interests – it might be a lemonade stand (these are easy to do in this day and age of technology) or a desire to learn martial arts. Helping your child cultivate an interest in something he cares strongly about will help him develop focus.
  • Play focus games like “I Spy”, guessing games, jigsaw puzzles, musical chairs, etc. These games require your child to pay attention.
  • Read stories to your child because listening requires focus. You can also play listening games, e.g. guess which song this is.
  • Play computer games that promote focus.
  • Watch TV programs that encourage children to pay attention. Select age-appropriate, meaningful and educational programs (children over two can learn a lot from such programs). Use the subjects covered as a launching platform for further discussion with your child.
  • Play sorting games with changing rules. E.g. Sort random objects by colour, shape, and/or size.
  • Play pretend and make up stories.
  • Play game with rules, e.g. “Simon says”.
  • Do Stroop-like exercises (see below)

Stroop Test:

When presented with a chart like the one shown below, we have a tendency to read the words. The aim of the task is to say the colour of the ink that the word is printed in rather than reading the word. In the example below, the first line would be: green, purple, yellow, red.

The stroop test is a good one for adults as well. It is one of the exercises included in Ryuta Kawashima’s “Train Your Brain: 60 Days to a Better Brain“. There is a Stroop test app for iPhone/iPad. You can also do the stroop test online at cognitive tests.


Self-Control Precedes Success

Self-Control Precedes Success


by Dr Shen Li Lee

“Self-control precedes success” was what one of my school teachers always used to say. The real meaning of the adage used to fly right over the top of my head. It wasn’t until I learned about Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow study that I finally understood what she meant.

“The ability to delay gratification is critical for a successful life, predicting higher SAT scores, better social and cognitive functioning, a healthier lifestyle and a greater sense of self-worth.” – The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control is the Engine of Success


How to Develop Self-Control

Self-control is a component of the executive functions. According to Diamond and Lee (2011):

  • Diverse activities have been shown to improve children’s executive functions; these include – computerized training, non-computerized games, aerobics, martial arts, yoga, mindfulness, and school curricula.
  • To develop develop the executive functions, we need repeated practice and to constantly challenge them.
  • Children with worse executive functions initially, benefit most from these activities.
  • To improve executive functions, focusing narrowly on them may not be as effective as also addressing emotional and social development and physical development.

To use the muscle analogy, self-control can be strengthened with regular and consistent practice. To avoid the plateau, we need to keep the range of activities diverse and challenging. Here’s what we came up with…


Self-Control - Mindfulness

Image Source: Pinterest

A number of studies link mindfulness to enhanced self-regulation skills:

To help us practice mindfulness at home on a daily basis, we’ve been exploring a number of mindfulness apps. It is tricky with G2 because he fidgets a lot. It’s a process of trial and error as we search for the programs that work best for him.


According to a study by Dickens & DeSteno, 2016being grateful helps to increase self-control and reduce impulsive behaviours:

What we found was that people who had higher levels of gratitude in their daily lives were more patient and less impulsive when it came to those financial decisions.

That suggests that the more you regularly experience gratitude, the more self-control you have in various areas of your life.

The gratitude project was something I did with G1 a couple of years back. Now that G2 is older, it’s time we get him to do it, too.

Zones of Regulation

The Zones of Regulation is a cognitive behaviour approach for helping children self-regulate their behaviours, emotions, and sensory needs. The goal is to help them learn to recognise their feelings and level of arousal and adjust them appropriately.

Musical Training

The research linking musical training and self-control isn’t quite as conclusive as I would like to it to be, nevertheless, it looks positive:

Logically, it makes sense that music would hone self-control because it is a subject that requires conflicting actions to occur at the same time. When playing a musical instrument, both hands are often doing different things simultaneously. It’s kind of like rubbing your tummy and patting your head, only more complicated. In a choir, singers need to follow their own tunes and rhythms that may differ to the other singers around them. Having been in a choir before, I can vouch for how challenging that can get.

Even if you’re still doubtful, we figure it’s worth a shot given the numerous benefits of learning a musical instrument. At the end of the day, there is still much to be gained even if it isn’t self-control.

Drama and Acting

Self-Control - Drama and acting

Image Source: Pinterest

When G1 was little, I read a lot about Tools of the Mind and how make-believe play can help children develop self-control. As G1 grew older, we started looking into drama and theater since it is essentially an extension to the concept of make-believe play. The rationale is that taking on a role requires the child to inhibit their impulse to behave as they normally do. In drama and theater, the child is now required to convince the audience of the authenticity of his character.

Learning a Second Language

Experience with multiple languages also can affect the development of self-control. Bilingual children do better than monolingual children on attention control tasks that require shifting attention from one feature to another, such as sorting cards according to color and then switching gears to sort the cards according to shape (Bialystok & Martin, 2004). Switching back and forth between languages may help bilingual children learn to think flexibly and shift their attention (Zelazo et al., 2008). – Zero to Three

Being bilingual strengthens self-control because of the frequent need to switch between languages.

Like music, the link is not fully understood and further research is required. Do we need to be fluent in the second language? Does it make a difference if the language was learned in childhood versus adulthood? We don’t know. What we do know is that a second language offers numerous cognitive benefits to make it worth while our time and effort.


Self-Control - Mindful Yoga

Image Source: Pinterest

Children who exercise have better self-control than those who do not:

  • Overweight sedentary children, ages seven to eleven, had improved self-control after being randomly assigned to three months of aerobic exercise for twenty or forty minutes per day.
  • Fit nine and ten year old kids in the top 30 percent on fitness had stronger cognitive control in a demanding attention task than those whose fitness level was in the lowest 30 percent.
  • Fit children have greater volume in the dorsal striatum, a brain region involved in cognitive control and the resolution of conflicts among competing potential responses.

Maintaining Self-Control

Coming back to our muscle analogy, just as muscles suffer from fatigue and require recovery time, self-control stores can also be depleted. There ways we can restore it but before we even get to that, the first step is to recognise that our levels are low. Having a conscious awareness of our psychological state can help us decide when we need to apply the following…


If children are required to perform two consecutive tasks that require lots of self-control, they will usually perform worse in the second task. Taking a break in between the tasks can help improve performance in the second task.

Low on Fuel

The brain needs glucose to maintain self-control. Activities that require self-control can cause glucose levels to fall below optimal levels. Replenishing glucose supply with something sweet can help restore self-control.


Self-affirmation – thinking about our positive traits – can replenish self-control (Schmeichel and Vohs, 2009). Teaching children to think about what they pride themselves on and the things they hold dear can be a good self-control booster.

Abstract Thinking and Practical Logical Reasoning

Another way to improve self-control is to think abstractly or to use practical logical reasoning. So what do we mean by abstract thinking?

  • Seeing the whole forest rather than the individual trees.
  • Thinking about the why rather than the how.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find out what they meant by practical logical reasoning, but I did find a few definitions:

  • Practical reason: the general human capacity for resolving, through reflection, the question of what one is to do.
  • Logical reasoning: the process of using a rational, systematic series of steps based on sound mathematical procedures and given statements to arrive at a conclusion.

The first sounds a lot like “the meaning of life” thinking and the second like “Sherlock Holmes” thinking. I’m not entirely sure how this works for children, but perhaps this is where philosophical discussions can be helpful.

The Scent of Self-Control

There is documented evidence that scents can affect well-being, so perhaps there is a smell for self-control? At the very least, some smells can help indirectly by targeting the areas that promote self-control:

  • Cinnamon – sharpens the mind
  • Pine – reduces stress
  • Vanilla – elevates mood
  • Peppermint – greater cognitive stamina, motivation and overall performance
  • Jasmine – relieves depression and uplifts mood

Manage Stress and Elevate Mood

Feeling stressed can sabotage self-control, therefore, anything we can do to manage stress levels will help.

  • Meditation helps kids deal with stress
  • Exercise
  • Nature Immersion
  • Listen to music
  • Being Grateful

We’ve all heard how laughter is the best medicine – well, it’s true. Doing things that elevate your mood has a two-fold effect. Not only does it reduce stress, it also increases self-control.



Raising Socially Competent Kids

Raising Socially Competent Kids

by Focus on the Family / Judith Xavier


What is EQ and why is it important?

For decades now, well-meaning parents have focused their efforts on building and nurturing their children’s intelligence quotient (IQ), believing it to be a prerequisite to successful lives. While it is likely that a higher ability for reasoning and logical thinking is one factor in determining success, experts have in recent years suggested that a strong emotional quotient (EQ) plays an even more significant role in achieving personal significance. In a much talked-about research study by the Carnegie Institute of Technology, communication, negotiation and leadership skills (all hallmarks of a strong EQ), were identified as the main factors in the financial success of individuals. EQ or emotional intelligence is acknowledging, understanding and managing emotions – both one’s own, as well as that of others.

The good news is, an individual’s EQ can be nurtured and cultivated. Here are some ideas to get you started on building emotional intelligence in your children.

RELATED: When Your Child has Trouble Making Friends

Increase Empathy and Caring 

The sound moral development of a child is necessary to ensure that they have a healthy concern for others, as well as a strong sense of justice and willingness to follow social rules to ensure order and harmony within a community. To inculcate these values, engage your child via a hands-on approach, rather than merely telling them what to do.

  • Maintain high standards on consideration and responsible behaviour. 

Decide as a family your family rules and guidelines on how you will treat others – including family members, friends and figures of authority, amongst others. Find opportune moments to share with your children on how they have benefitted from someone else’s consideration, as well as praise them when they exhibit these same positive values.

  • Teach kindness. 

Kindness is a basic yet greatly underrated value – and every child would benefit from learning to be kind to others.  Often, families get absorbed in the hectic daily pace of life, and acts of kindness received can remain unacknowledged and opportunities to show kindness to others can pass by without being acted on. One way to overcome this is to schedule acts of kindness. For example, your family can set a target of ‘one act of kindness’ per month, and identify another family in your neighbourhood or circle of friends who could use encouragement or practical help, and then, meet that need. This might include offering to baby-sit for a new mother or cooking a weekly hot meal for an elderly neighbour.

  • Serve the community. 

Volunteering offers a host of benefits, including better mental and emotional well-being for the individual. Being part of an organized effort to achieve a greater good enables one to feel connected to the wider community, and recognize that they can play a significant role in it. Volunteering as a family, is a good way to introduce your children to the concept of giving back to society.  This offers them the opportunity to step out of their comfort zones and see the hardships and challenges faced by others in society, as well as give of their time, money and skills to help others.

RELATED: How to Help Your Child to Stop Feeling Inadequate

Harnessing the ‘Negative Emotions’

Being an emotionally healthy child includes understanding and managing their own emotions and feelings – including the negative ones that make them uncomfortable. Often, children may not have the maturity or language to express their feelings, and act out or widthraw into themselves as a result. Parents play a vital role in helping children identify their emotions and share them effectively following these steps:

  • Remind yourself its ok to feel angry, sad, upset, irritated or disappointed.
  • Remember that this upset feeling will not last forever. In a while, it will pass.
  • Tell someone else that you trust about your feeling – explain why you feel this way. If someone has hurt your feelings, tell that person how it made you feel.

For young children, building a library of emotional language that they can draw on is useful. Cut out images from the newspapers and magazines that depict people with different facial expressions. Discuss with your child, what kind of emotion that person could be feeling and why. Then ask your child if they have ever experienced a similar emotion, and to share their experience with you. In this way, children learn from a young age that their ‘negative’ emotions are not to be ignored or buried, but can be managed successfully and with positive outcomes.

Perhaps the most powerful tool that a parent has in their arsenal is themselves – being a positive role-model for your child is an invaluable gift that you can give them. As your child watches you live out the principles and values of emotional intelligence, they will experience firsthand the benefits of high EQ, and begin to apply these ideas to their own lives.

Copyright © 2016. Focus on the Family Singapore Ltd.

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