In my book, “Keeping kids in the home and out of the system,” I describe three critical roles parents play in their children’s lives. The first position is a role model, which begins immediately after the child leaves the womb. Children do what you do, not what you say. Years ago, Dr. Montessori warned parents that “The child is sensitive and impressionable to such a degree that the adult ought to monitor everything he says and does, for everything is literally engraved in the child’s mind.”
The parent as a role model has not changed even in the world of technology. Sure, kids are more distracted due to the expanding social media platforms; however, parents continue to be the most influential drama series in a child’s life. Once the child is school age, other models will become more visible, but the parents will continue to be the dominant role model. It does not matter what role an adult is in; they must recognize that children have heightened sensitivity to what they see and hear. I often remind parents of this fact when they describe their child’s troubling behavior. Although I am empathetic, I often ask where did the child learn the behavior. Usually, the problematic behavior is blamed on the non-reporting parent.
Recently I counseled a family in which the father engaged in a verbal dispute with his daughter. During the argument, he called her derogatory names, and she returned his insults with name-calling. Both were committed to their positions that the other provoked their behavior. It was clear that both relied on the same behavior when confronted with conflict in that they both spoke the same expletive language.
Unfortunately, in a parent-child relationship, there is a physical, emotional, and fiduciary power imbalance. Accordingly, the child loses. It is not just a loss in the moment of the battle; instead, the verbal dispute is traumatic and will have lasting consequences. Parents must commit to being a good role models for handling conflict to avoid trauma, and when children are older, they will not rely on threatening words and behavior to address conflict.
Although aggressive behavior in children and adults appears to come out of nowhere, angry outbursts often result from repressed anger. Novaco (2010) reports that childhood trauma can result in repressed anger. Repressed anger is unconscious and avoided and can lead to mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.
After a traumatic event, some children will internalize the action and repress their feelings. When triggered, the person will react in what appears to be inappropriate behavior at the moment. To avoid repressed anger, parents must begin early to demonstrate and permit appropriate expression of negative emotions. When children get angry, parents must pay close attention to what their children are trying to communicate.
Modeling positive behavior and being attentive to children’s needs is not the same as condoning misbehavior. If a child is acting out, address the behavior using age-appropriate strategies immediately. However, understanding the acting out behavior allows parents to assist the child in learning additional skills so that profanity and name-calling are not strategies used when in conflict. Remember, parents, do the best they can in any given moment with their resources. Knowledge is a great resource.
Montessori, M. (1970). The Child in the Family. Discus/Avon
Novaco, R. W. (2010). Anger and psychopathology. In International handbook of anger (pp. 465-497). Springer, New York, NY
• Lisa Hill, Ph.D., is an associate professor in criminal justice at California State University, East Bay and a licensed marriage and family therapist. She also worked for county and federal probation departments for three decades and wrote a book based on that experience. She and her husband live in Tracy and have four children. Contact her at email@example.com.