Pay attention, parents: The way you behave can have a powerful effect on your children’s emotional growth.
YOU used some colourful language driving the kids to school this morning. Last week, you had a heated row with your partner in front of them. It happens. No-one’s perfect.
“Parents are human and make mistakes,” says Dr John Sharry, parenting author and director of Solution Talk.
“Everybody swears. Everybody gets annoyed with their kids at times. Some families tend to be polite around each other — that’s their rule. Others tend to be more robust but they still love each other.”
But parents should be the leaders in the family and try to model good behaviour, says Sharry, who believes the “rule of respect” is crucial —respect between parents and with the kids.
So what should you not do or say in front of the children?
It’s not good for children to hear their parents say ‘I’m dying for a drink’, says child therapist and parent child coach Helen Sholdice.
“If children see parents reaching for a drink to enable them to manage better or to alleviate anxiety, they absorb the message that alcohol is a coping mechanism.
A parent getting tipsy to the point where behaviour is altered can be scary for a child, she says. “If parents are drunk, there’s no-one available for the child to turn to. Depending on the child’s age, that can be very frightening.”
A parent saying ‘I’m fat – I must lose weight’ communicates to children that weight defines who they are. There’s plenty research showing that ‘fat talk’ or ‘diet talk’ isn’t helpful, says Sharry.
“Talking in terms of healthy goals – doing more exercise, eating more vegetables – is more effective in communicating about these issues.”
“Kids want to do what Mommy does. It’s more appropriate to speak positively: ‘I want to feel fitter and more comfortable in my clothes so this is what I’m going to do.”
Parent coach Marian Byrne cautions against commenting ‘you’re so pretty, you’re so slim’.
“Either avoid praising physical attributes or maintain balance – give at least as much praise to their character (‘you’re so kind, so thoughtful’).”
Byrne advises not rowing in front of kids about how you discipline them, about money or about anything that’s personal to the relationship of the couple. “But if kids never see parents arguing – or positive conflict resolution in action – they won’t know how to engage or assert themselves in their own peer and romantic relationships.”
A 2009 US study of more than 200 families with five- to seven-year-old children found constructive marital conflict was linked with an increase in children’s emotional security.
Because kids listen to parents’ tone of voice in disagreement, it’s vital to avoid any put-down of the other partner or aggression towards them. “If the child hears courtesy in your tone, they won’t worry that the row’s going to affect them.”
If anger during a discussion is getting out of hand, go to a private place, advises Sholdice. “It’s good to express anger in a healthy way but many of us haven’t been taught to do that. We raise our voices because we feel nobody’s going to hear us.” It’s important not to take anger out on anyone else or to be negative or cruel. Express feelings but use assertive communication – speaking in terms of ‘I’ and your own feelings.
Sharry believes it’s helpful for children to see parents having a loving relationship that involves affectionate kisses and cuddling.
“In concrete terms, it means parents are getting on well and are supportive of each other – that provides the backbone of security in the family.”
But there’s a degree of taste and balance. “It’s inappropriate for parents to have sexual activity in front of kids.”
“Children need models more than they need critics,” says Sholdice, who asks whether we can afford to gossip because which one of us hasn’t done something wrong at some point.
She distinguishes between ordinary conversation about neighbours, friends and family and malicious gossip.
Sharry also sees a difference between gossiping about “public categories”, like X Factor or Coronation Street and being over-critical in front of children of people they know.“It makes children feel insecure – maybe you’ll gossip about them.”
Children need to know their parents get sad, says Sholdice, but parents should guard against burdening or frightening their kids with their depth of feeling. “If a parent says ‘you’re Mummy’s little helper’ or ‘you’re cheering me up and making me feel better’, it can make the child feel responsible for what the parent’s feeling. This is inappropriate because a child can’t carry that burden. It’s a reversal of roles.”
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