Parents sometimes underestimate the impact of their negative behavior on their children. Arguments with their spouse in the presence of children, profane language while driving, or losing temper over children’s nagging can all shape the way children act throughout their life.
I recently visited Mrs. Dania Dbaibo Darwish (BBA MA PCC), a Certified Professional Coach and Clinical Psychologist, who is also the founding director of Strides with DDD – a hub for self-development in Beirut. Dania offered suggestions on how to behave in front of children and how to set good examples for them.
1- What are the “Dos and Don’ts” in front of children?
The way ‘right or wrong’ applies to skills and habits, also applies to behavior. On one hand, if you want your children to be respectful, you should show respect when around them. If you want to encourage the habit of reading, you need to have it as an established habit yourself. Let them see you do what you want them to do. On the other hand, parents shouldn’t send their children conflicting messages. They can’t ask them not to scream at their siblings when they are doing it themselves in front of their children. Act and behave the way you would want them to. Become the ideal role model for them to imitate. “Practice what you preach” and “walk the talk” of everyday life.
2- Why is it important to well-behave in front of children?
Children learn through rewards and/or punishment, and also through observation, which is a form of latent learning that gets expressed when there’s a need for it. It applies to acquiring skills as well as learning appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Children watch us and learn from our behavior like sponges. Everything is stored for the right moment. If they see us reacting aggressively to a problem, for example, they will react the same way when facing a similar issue. This can be explained by the mirror neurons we all have in our brains and that store information and bring them out later in similar situations.
3- What can be the impact of parents ‘misbehavior on their children
Children carry the weight of parents misbehaving with them all their lives. During childhood, they start setting a “model for the world”, where they either see the world as a peaceful and calm place to live in, or as an insecure and aggressive place to be in. Parents can help their child grow with self-confidence, or on the contrary, with issues that lead to major problems later on (i.e. social anxiety, addictions, attachment issues, etc.). Parents have the most difficult job to appropriately raise their children because they will be influencing their children’s behavior for life; and all of their future relationships for that matter. Parental mishaps can adversely affect a child’s healthy development on all levels (personal and professional).
4- How can you tell if a child has issues due to his/her parents’ behavior in front of him/her?
It is possible that children get depressed, and depression in children is expressed differently than adults. They can become angry, hyper, or even aggressive. For instance, a child who repeatedly hits his or her friends has either learned this conduct from his or her parents, or is being mistreated at home (i.e. parents showing favoritism to another sibling); hence, his or her anger searches for a scapegoat in what seems to be a safer environment (i.e. school environment). The frequency and the intensity of this behavior can be a sign of probable alarm signals coming from home.
5- What is the first step to take when a child shows signs of psychological issues?
If a child is facing issues, a psychologist always starts by meeting his or her parents to look into the family dynamics at home. We need to see if parents breed negative behavior perhaps indirectly through their interactions. We assess the whole system at home as a first step before we start the actual work with the child. This helps in providing a better picture on what is going on exactly. Parents can be unaware of how their interactions are backfiring on their child, so we have to psycho-educate them. It could be that the child has a difficult personality that drives the parents’ negative behavior to start with. We often meet parents that have children who behave completely different from one another (one is problematic and the other is not). Parents can be using the same parenting style with both, but the badly-behaved child triggers the parent to use harsh language towards that child for example. They’re all living under the same roof, but the results are different for each child. A thorough assessment is needed in most cases.
6- What is your best advice for parents, vis-à-vis their behavior in front of children?
Parents should serve as the role model for their children at all times. When you’re interacting with them, imagine there’s a video camera documenting your moves in a reality TV show, and be as mindful as you can that your words and actions are being absorbed. Most of us exhibit our best behavior when we are in the spotlight. It is not an easy task to do if your energy reservoir is depleted, therefore, no matter how stressed you might be, you need to have time for self-care and to recharge your batteries before you start interacting with your children. Only when you are in a good state of mind can you deal appropriately with your spouse, or children. Here’s a tip for working parents: on your way back home after a long stressful working day, it is important to “detoxify” your mind, put on your favorite tunes and ignore the peak-hour traffic, and try to relieve the stress you’ve been carrying with you from the day through breathing deeply and repeating some positive thoughts. When you reach home, you will have more positive energy to spend quality time with your partner and children. Taking some “me” time on a regular basis is crucial. “Behave well with yourself to behave well with your kids” is a handy motto to adopt. Before you know it, children will grow up and leave your home for different reasons (education, work, or marriage). Enjoy them while they’re still in your nest.