Why Your Behavior is Such a Powerful Influence on Your Kids
How You Can Use It to Improve Their Behavior and Make Your Life Better
I recently began seeing a 14-year-old teen (I'll call her Jeannie) in weekly psychotherapy. She was brought in by her parents who reported that she is negative, complains constantly, becomes sullen or angry when corrected, bad mouths her peers, is argumentative, and unhappy.
The parents seemed genuinely concerned and had used a number of disciplinary tactics that weren't working. Everything they tried was met with a quiet and stubborn refusal to talk, or outbursts of anger. They were concerned that Jeannie was spending more time in her room, and her behavior was getting worse.
After several sessions with Jeannie, it became clear that some of the struggles she was having with her parents were normal developmental issues common in adolescence.
With more sessions, however, an additional pattern began to emerge. Her parents seemed to regularly engage in the same unwanted behaviors that they were observing in Jeannie.
Mom and Dad argued a lot without much resolution, very often in front of the kids. Mom would become quiet and sullen and retreat to her room when she was upset. Both parents complained a lot about each other, about other family members, and about friends and co-workers.
Mom in particular was often on the phone with one of her friends talking about all the things that were wrong with her job and her boss. She regularly participated in office gossip, and Jeannie often heard her “trash talking” her peers.
Jeannie felt that both of her parents were unhappy, especially her mom. Rarely did they have family time that was fun, and Jeannie found it more peaceful to be in her room when she was home where she didn't have to listen to the negativity and fighting.
You see the obvious, right? Jeannie was channeling her parents’ behavior and feeding it back to them.
The Mirror Problem
This goes on all the time. One of the great challenges of parenting is that kids soak up who and what you are and mirror it back to you in their attitudes and behavior. A parent can hardly have a feeling or emotional reaction to something that a child doesn't observe or feel and react to themselves.
Kids are mirrors and imitators. They reflect back to you how you behave and what you feel by imitating it. In fact, they are hypersensitive to everything you feel and do.
Younger children in particular are tuned in to every emotional shift you have, or any emotional shift in their environment, and they react to it. They may not know exactly what they are reacting to because of their youth and inability to analyze it.
Adolescents are a bit more savvy and often know what they’re reacting to, and they have a lot to say about it given the chance. If they can’t verbalize it and be heard, they act it out just like Jeannie was doing.
Kids, regardless of their age, are like emotional barometers that tell us where we are and how we feel.
That really makes parenting hard sometimes. When you are struggling the most, your kids are more reactive.
Why Modeling is Important
What you model is by far more important than any parenting strategy you could use. If you are consistently negative, unhappy, depressed, anxious, angry, disappointed, blaming, frustrated, or any other negative you can imagine, you can count on your kids imitating and reflecting that right back to you.
Taking care of yourself and dealing with your own issues is a must. In fact, it's a priority and one of the most important and powerful parenting strategies there is. It’s also a priority for you.
Here are some things you can do.
Check your mood.
If you are depressed or anxious chronically, and can't seem to get a handle on these feelings, then by all means seek some counseling so that you are not carrying that alone.
Sharing these problems and working to find solutions with someone experienced and qualified can be of great help.
Once you take that step, you will begin to feel better and gain some momentum.
Attend to your marriage.
If your marriage is in trouble, and you and your spouse argue a lot with no resolution, then seek marriage counseling.
Couples sometimes really don't realize the impact that marital discord can have on their kids. It's very anxiety producing and undermines their basic security. What may seem like just a spat to you can be scary for your kids.
You are also modeling what a relationship should be like, not to mention you are likely unhappy yourself.
Marriage is actually the most complex relationship we enter, and it takes a lot of work to make it work. It can be wonderful and fulfilling, but only if you work through the problems as they arise. A third party can help a lot with that.
Get clear on yourself.
Have a heart to heart with yourself. How do you behave in general? Do you complain a lot? Trash talk peers or family members in front of your kids? Are you negative in general? Are you unhappy overall?
A little self awareness can go a long way toward helping you identify and change behaviors that are not only having a detrimental effect on your kids, but on you too.
You may not even realize how much negative thoughts take up your mental space, but by observing carefully what you think about over a 24-hour period, you can gain some real insight. This awareness can give you a place to start for making changes.
Make a list of the new behaviors you wish to cultivate, and begin daily using them. For example, if you have a habit of complaining about your life within earshot of your kids, change that habit to talking about things you like, or things you enjoy.
Engage your kids in chats about things they like to do, or people they like, or activities they would like to engage in or learn more about.
Better yet, practice listening to their problems and negative feelings and help them find solutions. That way you are teaching them to be proactive about their emotional life rather than succumbing to helpless complaining.
Replace the habit of negative conversations with positive ones. As you become the initiator of more positive conversations, even those that solve problems, your kids will gravitate toward you and the connection between you will become stronger.
This does not mean you should just act happy when you’re not. It means being proactive about trying to solve the problems that are making you unhappy.
Criticism is a killer. If you are criticizing other people all the time, you are wasting your emotional energy, and you are likely making enemies along the way.
If you criticize yourself all the time, you are wearing yourself down and keeping yourself paralyzed in the same old patterns.
Be kind to yourself. Pick one habit to change at a time, and give yourself credit for all you do and all you are.
What do you have in place to relieve stress?
Stress management is important for everyone, but especially for parents because your kids feel it. The Catch 22 is that being a parent, working, housekeeping, finances, grocery shopping, and everything else you have to do makes for stress, and sometimes a huge amount of stress.
I have the most empathy for parents because it’s really not easy to manage all of that, and even worse for single parents.
Read and Research It
See if you can come up with anything you think could help you manage stress. If you like to read, read about it. Check out blogs online that are focused on the subject. There are many ideas and techniques people use.
Attend to the Basics
At a minimum, take a look at your diet, sleep, schedule, downtime (if you have it), and environment. Examine each of these areas and ask yourself if what you are doing in each is the best and least stress-producing.
For example, if you live on junk food (high carb, high sugar foods), you are creating internal physical stress that keeps you tired and cranky, and actually impairs your ability to think. If you are running to the grocery store every day or every other day to get what you need for dinner, you are wearing yourself out and wasting valuable time. If your house is cluttered and you can't find things you need quickly, you are frustrating yourself and again losing time.
Get down to the essentials and see what you can do to create the most efficient schedule, get enough sleep, eat better food, plan ahead with meals, and stay organized enough to have what you need at your fingertips. Most important, schedule in downtime, even if it's just 30 minutes.
These are just some of the basics you can tackle. Have your kids and spouse participate so that all of you are on the same page. Just a little change can make a huge difference.
What You Have to Gain
The best way to change any pattern of behavior is to create replacement behaviors. The reason why this works is that when you identify a new replacement behavior and you engage in it regularly, you will automatically begin to drop the old unwanted behavior.
Just by practicing the new behavior, you are training your brain to use it and eventually you won’t even need to apply effort. It works.
You get 3 great benefits by making these changes:
1. You're modeling what you want to see back.
You are now modeling the behavior and attitudes you would like to see coming back from your kids, and you will. Maybe not right away, but over time. They will feel the shift, feel more connected to you, enjoy being around you, and change their behavior to match yours.
2. You're improving your own state of mind.
You will feel better! You may change your entire outlook about things, and may also find yourself seeking out new experiences you enjoy or that are beneficial to you.
You may make new friends, turn relationships around that were not going well, drop relationships that were unhealthy, enjoy your job more or get a better one.
Most importantly, you will feel and be more in charge of your life.
3. You are lending your kids your strength.
You are also showing your kids that they can take charge of their lives through taking charge of their emotions, behavior and attitudes. As you turn things around, they realize they can do the same in any situation.
You can even talk to them about your conscious choice to make these changes and how you went about it. It's a great lesson for them, and they will imitate your strength
The Take Away?
The great thing about imitation is that you can use it to your advantage. Give your kids the right things to channel and they will.
Now it's time for your thoughts and ideas. What do you think about this subject, and do you have any experiences, stories, or anecdotes that can help other parents?