It happened again. I say again because it seems like I can’t make a trip to the grocery store or walk in a park or sit in a restaurant without it happening. This time my husband and I were taking a walk around a lake in a local park when we heard a woman shouting. We looked toward the angry shouts and saw the source of her rage; her two or maybe three year old son who was hot, crying, and obviously distressed. Her answer to his tears was to frighten and sadden him even more.
I want first to say that I have to believe that this mother was doing the very best that she knew how in that moment. She was also hot and was obviously distressed herself. She was trying to get her young child to move more quickly to the air conditioned car and was probably too hot and tired herself to want to pick him up and carry him.
I fundamentally believe that the overwhelming majority of parents love their children tremendously and do their very best to raise them in the best way they know how. Most often, when stressed as parents, we move habitually to patterns our parents may have used to raise us, even if those patterns weren’t effective. How many of us have said we wouldn’t raise our children in some of the ways we were raised, only to hear the same words out of our mouths directed toward our own offspring? We are human, after all.
This is all by way of saying that I get that parenting is a tough job. I get that our busy lives can stress us to the breaking point and that children acting up can make us reach, or breach, our breaking points many times even in one day. How we interact with our children, though, is not something that should be dependent on our stress level, or what else we happen to be busy doing at any given time.
Our children are humans too, just little tiny ones who are trying their best to please us, often with very little idea how that might be best accomplished. The most pleasing sight to a young child is the smiling face of his or her parent, and the most frightening sight is an angry, displeased face. The most frightening sound is an angry, enraged voice.
Harsh words do harm children, there’s no getting around it. Calling our children lazy or stupid or ugly wounds them in ways that often do not heal. As children grow, their young brains are still developing and are sponges that soak in and cement the messages we give them about themselves. If you tell a young child he or she is lazy, that essentially becomes a parent-sanctioned self-definition that the child is likely to carry for the rest of his or her life.
If you tell a child he or she is stupid, don’t worry about saving money for college because he or she is less likely to feel equipped to compete in school. In fact, prepare for housing a child who has dropped out of school for quite a while because that child will be doing exactly what his or her parent told him or her to do: not believe he or she is capable of learning.
If you yell and shout and call your child names, you will teach them how to behave abusively toward you when they are older. If you strike them, you teach them how to hurt others. If you send them away to their rooms when they are in pain, you teach them how to ignore the pain of others.
When your children are upset, hold them. When they cry, dry their tears. When they fall, offer them a hand and an encouraging word. When they are afraid, comfort them. Be the source of love, not the source of fear. When your children fail, give them permission to fail again because that means it is okay to try again. If they believe it’s not okay to fail, why try? When they make a mess, love the mess so they know that when they themselves are a mess, you will love them too.
Parents, pay attention to your children. They are not your possessions. They are loaned to you by the universe to care for and raise up to be loving, responsible adults and the best way to do this is to show them loving, responsible adults. When you are aged, becoming like children again yourselves, and are depending on your children for care, you will be glad you did.
If you are struggling as a parent or family, family therapy can help you to learn positive parenting and coping strategies that will reduce conflict and stress. Family therapy is not a judgmental process, but a healing and helping process. Indeed, we have been there ourselves.
Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC, is a therapist who specializes in individual, family, and couples and marriage counseling in Denver, CO. She provides services through Maria Droste Counseling Center.