One of my earlier memories of childhood takes place in the car. My parents were talking about “grown up” things and obviously did not want me to overhear. I remained quiet as a mouse, straining my little ears as hard as I could in order to try and eavesdrop without attracting attention. My mother paused, turned around, and said to my father, “her antenna are up.” Forever after, this became a family joke. My parents would try to talk as quietly as possible, and I would strain as hard as I could to overhear. Even as young as I was, I was desperate to know more about being a grown up and I watched my parents and listened constantly. This has resulted in a plethora of both positive and negative outcomes.
As adults, I do not think we appreciate the sophistication of children’s perceptions. We assume they are not interested in what we have to say, or narcissistically believe that what we are talking about they will not understand. And of course, there is some truth to that. The problem is that since kids are always learning and developing, they may understand some of what you say, but then fill in the gaps with whatever makes sense in their minds. This can cause confusion for them and embarrassment for parents when kids speak up about inappropriate things in public.
We also often fail to realize that our behavior drastically impacts our children’s ability to self-regulate emotions, manage anger appropriately, or even just behave in a socially acceptable manner in a variety of situations. Kids take their social cues from adults, particularly their parents, and while no one can expect parents to be perfect all the time, it’s worth taking a look at our habits, language, and social interactions with others to assess the messages we are sending our children.
Many parents who enter my office with concerns about their child’s ability to manage anger appropriately have difficulty making the connection between their own anger management and that of their child. If you yell at your child (which we all do sometimes), we can expect they will yell back. If we spank or hit our children as punishment, we can expect they will hit us and others. The message “do as I say, not as I do” is often lost on children. If they see us do something, they often assume they can do the same.
So next time you get angry with your child for getting angry, take a deep breath, step back, and decide how you might like for them to act next time. Then try that. As with any new skill or behavior it may take many times for your child to alter their response, but with consistency it becomes more and more likely that you will receive the outcome and behavior for which you are looking.