Kids are not the ones who necessarily need to sit down with a therapist. When parents gain the tools to manage stress and their own emotions in a healthy way, they’re better prepared to be there for their children. Kids react to their environment. When the adults are able to put children’s needs before their own, that’s when we see children behaving differently. They feel nurtured. (Lisa Marie Bobby, PhD. Cited in Step by Step. Lauren Paige Kennedy. Web MD. Jan/Feb 2018, page 45)
You’ve probably noticed that when I write a dialogue, it is between a mom or a dad and me.
Where are the children? Why haven’t I included any conversations with children in my articles?
I very much enjoy conversations with teens and children, but I rarely meet with them as a therapist. I know that many of my colleagues do excellent work with youngsters, and when I do family therapy, I find young and older children’s contributions truly insightful and valuable for everyone.
That’s one of the really nice things about family therapy: everyone really gets listened to. I slow the conversation down and make sure that what each person says sinks in to all of the listeners before they respond or rebut. Even when, or especially when, the speaker is a child.
I listen for what each person is saying, but also for how they’re saying it. Are they drifting into tangents, harping on the same thing at length, alluding to something that is ambiguous and may be misconstrued rather than being forthcoming? Are they being judgmental, accusatory, critical, or downright nasty? Is anyone being ignored or singled out?
How are the listeners reacting non-verbally? Are there looks of disdain, anger, amusement, or eye-rolling mockery? Smiles of understanding or agreement? And when the speaker, especially when the speaker was a child, sees those reactions, what does her face look like? If she appears sad, does anyone care? These are the dynamics that I watch for in family therapy.
When I work with parents, I help them learn to monitor their non-verbal messages. I work with them on becoming sensitive and responsive to the facial expressions and body language of their children. I invite them to talk about what thoughts and feelings are behind their reactions and responses, and the manner in which they express themselves to their children. Sometimes, to help them realize that they may come across very differently from what they intend, I tell them this story:
I was a supervisor of graduate students in a Counseling Masters degree program. The agency we worked at provided family therapy gratis on the condition that the family signed a release allowing us to videotape every session for training purposes. Only once in many years there, I showed an excerpt of their session to the parents (not to their children). Before I showed them the segment, I asked the father if he remembered criticizing his youngest son during the previous week’s session. He said he did. I asked him if he thought he had been harsh. He said no, he’d been firm but not harsh. Then I showed them the video. The father began to cry. He said he had no idea that his facial expression and tone of voice had been so fierce and he deeply regretted it. It was that rude awakening that led him to become more conscious of his demeanor and to deliberately modulate his tone.
The way that parents react and respond to their children and to others in their lives has a significant impact on their children. The mood, the attitude, and the behavior of a child often mirrors that of a parent, and is always influenced by it.
David Code, who wrote the book Kids Pick Up On Everything: How Parental Stress Is Toxic To Kids, has made a career of pulling together the evidence from a handful of labs around the world, which have suggested that parents’ levels of chronic stress can seriously impact a child’s development. There’s no time when parental stress doesn’t affect a child.
Code suggests the most critical thing that we can transmit to our kids is not our ever-present, undying love – it’s actually to provide them with a sense of calm and the absence of stress, which he says may be more powerful than declarations of love. This is what will ultimately help their growing brains wire normally, without having to accommodate for some vague sense of impending danger as they develop, which may or may not exist.
And creating a stress-free (or low-stress) environment should start with the parents, and their relationships with each other, friends, and family. Many people mistake that, says Code, and errantly pour their energy into helicoptering their kids. There’s another body of evidence suggesting that over-parenting leads not only to stress and depression in the parent, but it does a disservice to kids by taking away the very thing they need the most – the freedom to be kids, to play, and to develop as they will.
“We [parents] have to get back to being social. For example, I have never seen toddlers more satisfied or happy or fulfilled than when their parents are blabbing away with each other or with friends on the couch,” he adds. This bubbling, happy prattle of parents talking with each other is music to a kid’s ears. It’s how they know times are good, and no threats are present. The brain is saying to itself, “If mom or dad is happily yacking away while I play, then times must be good. No need to pump any stress hormones or turn the stress genes on here.” (How Parents' Stress Can Hurt A Child, From The Inside Out. Alice G. Walton, PhD. Forbes, Jul 25, 2012)
In his famous letter to his son, the Ramban teaches us that the way in which we express ourselves determines how well our words will be received.
The Iggeres HaRamban begins with the words,“Divrei chachamim b’nachat nishma’im—The gentle words of the wise are heard [more than the shouts of a king of fools]” (Koheles 9:17).
What exactly does it mean to express yourself “b’nachat”?
It means that you are in a state of nachas. You feel safe rather than threatened, feel tranquility rather than unease, feel concern rather than resentment.
Your feelings are reflected in your child. Your child will feel safe, tranquil, and calm. And your conversations are more likely to be pleasant and productive.
Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with specialties in marriage, relationships, and parenting.