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Cultivating Honesty in Our Children by Modeling It
Three months ago my son came to me while I was cleaning up the kitchen after dinner. "Mommy, I need to tell you something," he said. He walked me up to the bathroom and there it was, dangling from the top shower faucet... the broken shower head. He said, "I was trying to adjust it and I think I pulled too hard and it broke. I'm sorry Mommy". For a moment, I was stunned, then naturally a little upset. But most of all, I was impressed that my son honestly came to me to tell me about his mistake. He trusted that it was safe for him to do so. I looked down at him and said, "Well, you're going to have to help me fix this one. I do understand though, my son, that it was an accident. Maybe next time you can just call me and I can help you adjust it until you get tall enough to do it more easily". He said, "okay I'll do that Mom". And that was that. Of course, he had to shower in a shower with no real shower head for a few days (natural consequence), but he used his allowance money to replace it and helped my bonus Dad install it (the best he could at least).We are modeling day in and day out to our children. We communicate what is acceptable, and what is not. We show them how safe or unsafe we are emotionally, and in that communicate how open they can be with us. Yet, we want our children to grow up to be honest with us... to be able to tell us anything, especially the things that may be scary to come to us with. If we want our children to be open and honest with them, we must not only be honest and open with them, but we must also make it safe for them to be open and honest with us.
NLP teaches us that we all as parents have grown up with different backgrounds in different generations, and therefore with a different upbringing, what open and honest means may look different to us than what it looks like to our children. This is the first thing to recognize. In a family where it is commonplace to keep secrets big and small, a child will learn that certain things just should not be told. In a family where "brutal honesty" meant spitting mean and judgmental things in the name of being "honest", a child may learn that honesty hurts. Neither of these things is necessarily true. We can cultivate open, compassionate honesty by learning and practicing the following things with our kids.
- Talking about the emotionally hard moments in our lives with our children so that they see that we are human Often times we as parents shield our kids from negative emotional moments in the attempt to either be "strong for them", to shield them, or because we feel that these are "grown up problems" and it's not appropriate for us to make our problems their problems. The thing is, when we hide our emotions from our children, we are inadvertently communicating to them that it is NOT okay to have any other emotion than a positive one. We are telling them it's not okay to feel sad, mad, stressed, anxious, or frustrated. While I do agree that we should put some boundaries around what we share with our children when it comes to adult matters, it is okay to share when we are having "big feelings" ESPECIALLY when they don't have to do with our kids. Sometimes, it's actually healthy to share with our kids' difficult emotions that are because of circumstances that have nothing to do with them. This helps them know that they are not the cause of all of our negative emotions. A way that I might share with my son is "Hey son, I didn't get a lot of sleep last night so I'm really tired and I may be a little more cranky than usual this morning". Another thing that I have expressed to my son during stressful times is, "Hey son, Mommy had a tough day today and I'm feeling a little stressed (or sad). I think I'm going to need a little quiet time when we get home.
- Learning to regulate our emotional reaction at the moment, or remove ourselves when it is too hard to do so. We are human and our children are going to do things that bring up anger and frustration in us. However, if we want our kids to learn how to regulate their emotions when they get angry, frustrated, or stressed, we have to model it for them. If we constantly are yelling, screaming, stomping, and (basically throwing a temper tantrum), then they will learn that this is the way to get what they want. I also get that for some people the emotion can come so fast and without warning that it can unexpectedly erupt like a volcano. But this typically happens because we are not connected with the full breadth of our emotions. I have had to learn to recognize the gradations of negative emotion. For example, for me, before anger comes agitation, before that comes irritation, before that comes frustration, and before that comes annoyance. Learning what each of those feels like in my body helps me to take self-care actions BEFORE I get to full-on anger and even rage. Even more useful, I can communicate these gradations to my son so that he can also take action accordingly.
- Being willing to express honestly what we are feeling, in a way that is not harmful, In these moments, it's okay to tell them how you feel. However, when practice regulating your emotions when those strong feelings arise, helps you be able to do this without traumatizing them. When my son broke the shower head, before he showed it to me he said "Mommy, don't get mad okay?" My response to him was, "I cannot promise not to feel mad, but I will promise to stay calm however I feel". When he showed me the shower head, he asked "Are you mad mom?" I said to him, "A little, but I'm more frustrated because I wish you had just asked me to help you."
- Being willing to apologize if we fail to self-regulation and act in a way that creates emotional harm in our kids. Being that we are human, I don't believe I will ever be perfectly regulated. Sometimes I am caught off guard, and sometimes I haven't sufficiently buffered with my normal self-care activities to be able to emotionally regulate in those moments when my buttons are being pushed. However, what I have learned is that re-establishing that connection as quickly as possible helps to mitigate any harm I've done when I fail to keep my head calm. One of the biggest ways to do that is to acknowledge and apologize when harm is done. As parents (and as adults) we can be very prideful. Somewhere along the way, some of us learned that grown-ups don't apologize to kids. Nothing should be further from the truth. When we acknowledge and apologize we model accountability and integrity to them. We also model empathy and compassion. The apology I teach my son is a three-part apology (and I use it with him). I apologize for ____. That may have made you feel ___ (and how did it make you feel)? Next time I will ___(insert new promise for behavior or communication). This has worked wonders for both of us and consistently helps re-establish our connection.
These are a few simple practices to begin integrating into your communication with your children. If you find that you are having trouble, a communication coach, conscious parenting coach, NLP coach or therapist may be beneficial to help navigate those challenging moments. It's also very useful to expand your toolbox by learning new ways to communicate consciously. This is why parents join my NLP training. In my NLP certification training, I teach trauma-informed communication techniques and discuss exactly how to use them with your children. Parenting is a challenge, but when you have to parent AND model emotional intelligence it can feel insurmountable. This is why you take it one practice at a time and be compassionate with yourself.
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