For many parents, August brings the beginnings of a new school year, and many accompanying changes: outgrown clothes, new school supplies, and another grade level. Even with these clear markers of change, it can be hard for parents to perceive the incremental growth that their kids are experiencing; they might be performing their morning routines more independently, or making friends more easily. As hard as it is to see such growth in our children during times of change, it can be that much more difficult to see everyday growth in others in our lives: siblings, friends, love relationships, and colleagues.
Several months ago, I received a thoughtful gift from one of my younger brothers. At the time, I expressed my gratitude, and then placed the gift in an appropriate spot for display. It is only now that I am realizing how cavalierly I reacted to his truly considerate present. As I have reflected on my response, I have noticed that I sometimes do a poor job of recognizing and celebrating the man that my little brother has become.
I wonder how often we all fail to appreciate and praise our loved ones for who they are in the present, rather than the person they once were?
As a therapist, I see this with my clients. I see parents struggle to make sense of their growing children and acclimate to their new maturity. I see partners struggle to trust growth and change in one another, fearing that if they risk trusting again they will be hurt or disappointed as they had been in the past. As hard and at times scary as it is to perceive growth in our loved ones, the joy and satisfaction that comes with recognizing and celebrating growth in others can be very rewarding.
So how does one recognize and appreciate the growth in their loved ones? Here are a few ideas that I have found to be helpful:
In our fast-paced lifestyles, we sometimes forget to stop and look around. By reflecting on the actions of those around us and wondering about how they compare to what they have been, we can notice positive growth. We can begin by asking ourselves some questions:
- What (new) actions are they taking in the present?
- How do these actions differ from the past?
- What actions have they taken in the past?
- How have I experienced these actions?
- In what ways have I benefited from previous actions?
- In what ways have I been hurt by previous actions?
- How will our relationship change in the future, based on their new actions?
With children, our responses to their efforts to grow have a strong impact on their ability to continue their positive. If a child is now able to take care of a task, such as do laundry or cook a snack, stepping back and allowing him or her to do so can help lead to greater growth. If the child is able to master higher levels of an activity, you can encourage this by helping obtain supplies, learning more about the activity, and creating opportunities for your child to engage in the activity. They can develop higher self-confidence in the process. Parents may also need to provide support when the child struggles, helping him or her to be okay with failing and making mistakes. Using exploration and question asking, you can work with your child to see how the situation unfolded and create solutions to fix and prevent the problem in the future.
When growth seems to falter or recede, it can help to begin by asking questions of your child. For example, “I’ve noticed that for the last two weeks you have been leaving dishes in the sink instead of placing them in the dishwasher. Do you have any thoughts as to why that might be?” Asking a question rather than telling them what they have not done opens the door to dialogue and a chance to problem solve together about changing the behavior. This might also provide an opportunity for positive growth to occur.
With our adult relationships, we often become conditioned to behavior over time, which makes seeing growth more difficult, especially since adults do not have the same kind of physical markers of growing out of clothes or starting a new grade level that kids do. This is why reflecting on their present actions to catch growth and change is an essential starting point. Once we see change, we can consider our responses.
Just as with children, our response will depend on whether the growth is positive or negative. Positive growth may be difficult to trust, especially if the change has been a long time coming. Once we recognize the change, it will be important to explore the past behavior and how we have experienced that – What thoughts and feelings have we had? What did we dislike? Is this the change we had hoped for or were we wanting something else?
A positive response from us to positive growth from another can be quite useful in helping to encourage positive growth. When people see that their efforts are unnoticed, unappreciated, or met with skepticism, they can become discouraged and abandon their efforts. When responding to positive growth in another, it is important to find ways to notice and encourage it.
With negative changes in an adult relationship, we can also begin with question asking and curiosity. It is helpful to state what you notice, how you feel about it, and then what you propose as a solution. You may need to set and maintain boundaries to best care for yourself, such as with abuse, manipulation, or disrespect. Even when we do, it can be helpful to consider if the situation is actually positive but we are struggling with change itself, or if we have let some negative aspects of change eclipse positive ones.
People change every day and we sometimes fail to notice. By being intentional, we can recognize the change, consider how we think and feel about it, and provide thoughtful responses. Ultimately, we love others well – our children, partners, siblings, friends, and colleagues – by recognizing their achievements and effort. If we praise and encourage them, they will continue to flourish. Not only will we get to watch incredible human beings reach fuller potential, but we will also find great joy in knowing them along the way.