Children Learn What They Live

by Annie Kaszina on December 1, 2006

A reader wrote to ask: “My husband says that our
children are not affected by our fights. I worry that they are. Who is
right?”

Sadly, she is.

How can her husband possibly know that their children are not affected?

Children may be resilient. But they are not insensitive.

You may try to hide what goes on in an abusive relationship from your children, or you may try to minimise it.

Not only will they register what they see or sense, they will also feel isolated by the dishonesty that is being practised in the hope of ‘protecting’ them.

Denial, which is slightly different from minimization doesn’t work either. “He may have said a lot of horrible things, but he doesn’t mean them” will not convince a child; although it will undermine a child’s sense of reality.

Nor does explanation make it any better. “He had a difficult childhood’ is neither emotionally convincing nor useful. Especially if you want your children to grow up taking responsibility for their own behaviour.

Children do have extraordinary powers of resilience. All of us do.

But it is much easier for children to access those powers if they meet with honesty and respect for their feelings.

Children learn what they live.

When they live in a situation in which their feelings are denied, even for the best of reasons, they learn that their feelings are unimportant.

That belief which beds down in their belief system and becomes a given – or fact-may leave them vulnerable to abusers for the rest of their life.

At the very least it leaves them vulnerable, until they learn to uproot it.

Years ago when my daughter was quite small she came to me and said:

“I’ll never have children.”

She sounded terribly upset but her 6 year old mind was definitely made
up. I felt pretty uncomfortable. Our home life was strained. I tried to present a façade of normality to her, but maybe this was a reaction.

Sometimes I can be like a dog with a bone. I started asking her why she had made her decision.

Eventually it came out that she’d been told, in the playground, that in order to give birth to a baby your whole tummy had to be opened up – ‘unzipped’ was the word she used.

That vision had terrified her.

Had I dismissed her fear and her decision, she might have got over it. Equally, she might not have.

Over the years she might have forgotten how that fear came about, but known that, for her, having children was too terrifying an option to contemplate.

That’s what happens.

We pick up a ragbag of diverse notions over the years that take root in our unconscious as powerful limiting beliefs.

Beliefs that children see acted out most days in their home, without any credible explanation other than the sense they can make for themselves, become incredibly damaging and deep-rooted.

When children live in a situation that is less than ideal but their feelings are honoured at least by one parent, they stand a better chance.

They can cope with parental fallibility, provided that fallibility is acknowledged.

Children need their truth to be acknowledged.

I also believe that admitting and apologizing for the ways, both large and small, in which we fail them is valuable. When we do that we validate their feelings, and we take responsibility for our own actions.

And we own our own vulnerability, which is a thousand times better than trying to conver it up.

When we do this, we provide our children with some of the resources they need if they are to become truly resilient.

Our children don’t need us to be perfect.

They need us to be good enough, but they are generally prepared to set the bar far lower than we might do for ourselves.  They need us to be honest, and available, and provide them with as much emotional security as we possibly can.

In the main, they are likely to be forgiving of our frailties, provided they know we not only have their best interests at heart, but are prepared to listen to them.

Maybe your own experience of childhood was one of hurt, anger and frustration because your feelings were disregarded by your parents.

If that was the case, it may be hard to believe that your children are willing to put their love and trust in the fallible being that you are. Give them that opportunity honestly and consistently and they will.

Let go of trying to be the perfect parent, providing them with the perfect childhood.  You can’t do that.

Stop striving for perfection.  Understand that good enough really is good enough.

Children learn what they live. When you parent them with as much honesty, care and respect as you can, you give them the best environment you possibly can.

That is the best that could possibly be asked of you, in the difficult circumstances  you face.

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