In our practice we don’t work directly with children. But all of our clients, and all of us, were once children and our sense of self was shaped during those formative years. As therapists we have a unique perspective on what children need to best engage in the world, especially as they grow up.
So how can we best help our children shape their sense of self?
Trust. Through trusting them, demonstrating trustworthiness, and instilling a sense of trust.
We’ve all heard a parent say, ‘If I don’t put my foot down, they’ll think they can get away with it.’ As parents this can feel true. Many of us focus on raising well-behaved children, meaning that our child’s behavior should align with our expectations. Concern arises though when we don’t pay attention to the inner world of our child.
What if, instead of thinking that our child wants to get away with as much misbehaviour as possible, we try and trust them? What if we give them the benefit of the doubt? Instead of getting frustrated when they challenge our expectations, what if we try and understand the emotion or motivation behind the behaviour? This doesn’t mean not setting limits, or enforcing them when needed. It means trusting that our child is inherently good and just wants to be happy and loved.
Children don’t “misbehave” because they are “bad” or hoping to manipulate you. Children can challenge our expectations for many reasons, like seeking connection with us, or not knowing how else to express their emotions, or testing their independence. Responding only to the behavior overlooks what is really going on… and we miss out on an opportunity to really connect with our child.
One of the popular films at the Hot Docs documentary festival last week was (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies. One man describes refusing to tell his children about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny because he was so distraught upon waiting up on Christmas Eve as a child and seeing his parents putting presents into his stockings. He felt betrayed.
Sure, most of us might agree that the benefits of upholding these myths and traditions outweigh the potential negatives. But what about the other lies we make, even the little white ones?
As parents we really do construct reality for our children. They absorb messages in ways we may not even realize. So when they hear us being dishonest, even if we think they are small or insignificant lies, they have an impact.
Some examples are making up excuses not to attend events, or saying something positive to someone directly but then criticizing them later, coming up with creative explanations that feel easier than the truth, saying we’ll be back in five minutes but then getting side tracked, or incenting our child with a reward and not following through. While we may think we’re protecting others, or ourselves, it sends a message to children that it’s not okay to be honest about what they feel or think, or to honour their own inner experience. And not keeping our word can instill insecurity about relying on others and impact one’s overall sense of trust in the world.
Often at the root of anxiety, depression, relationship difficulties, or low self-esteem, is self-doubt and uncertainty. One of the key outcomes of therapy is to help us learn to trust ourselves. It’s about learning to listen to our own emotional experiences, connect with our needs, and to act on them.
As a parent or caregiver we are in the best position to start nurturing that self-trust in our children at an early and foundational stage. The more we show we trust our children, and are open to listening to their feelings and experiences, the more they learn to trust their own internal state. Not only will this help them now, but also when they grow up, especially in their relationships with themselves and others.
One of the mistakes we make as parents may come from good intentions. Our child is running toward the playground and then trips and falls, and starts crying. Our response may be to tell the child that he’s fine and it wasn’t such a big deal. We may even tell him not to cry. Unfortunately the message received is that his emotional experience isn’t valid. Instead, a response that instills trust would be to acknowledge that he must have been upset or surprised by the fall, and to ask if he’s hurt.
Similarly if a child expresses disappointment over something we dismiss or brush off, he doesn’t learn to trust in his own emotional reaction. This doesn’t mean we have to give in to the expectation, like wanting a new toy, but it means acknowledging the emotional reaction and saying something like, “It is hard not to get something you want right away. Maybe you can remind me for your birthday.”
If we deny our child’s reality or emotional experience, even inadvertently, it can erode confidence and trust and even induce feelings of shame. On the other hand, if we respect and trust our children’s experiences, it will build inner confidence, security, and self-esteem, now and for the future.