Children are more inquisitive and better informed than ever before. But how many adult conversations should we expose them to? Mother-of-three Gemma Harrison reports on some of the do’s and don’ts of parent-child dialogue.
I’m not a great fan of dancing around a problem. When my husband and I don’t see eye-to-eye, we get it out in the open until it’s resolved.
Of course, there’s a whole Richter scale of discord that ranges from a disagreement over what to have for dinner to an acrimonious argument over, well, anything.
But there’s one thing we do always agree on: ‘not in front of the children’. We try our best not to display our displeasure at one another in our children’s presence.
However, a study from Washington State University Vancouver in Vancouver, Canada, recently published a report that takes a rather different view.
Researchers have found, apparently, that it can be better for children to see their parents’ emotions being expressed rather than suppressed.
Dr. Sara Waters, assistant professor in human development at WSU, says: “Our study shows that when parents are trying to suppress their negative emotions, children pick up on that. They know something is wrong. The danger is that children can very easily think it’s their fault that their parents are acting in this stifled way.”
According to the report, witnessing a heated exchange between parents is no bad thing.
And it’s a viewpoint shared by the Cambridge, UK-based writer and psychologist Terri Apter.
Dr. Apter says: “Arguing is something we grown-ups do, and our sons and daughters need to witness people – even people close to them – arguing, expressing anger, standing up for themselves, opposing one another, and (in many cases) coming together again.
“As children get angry, and they fight with each other and their parents, they extend their interpersonal education. They learn about conflict resolution.”
My Mum, bless her, was clearly a pioneer then. She and Dad used to go at it like two US presidential candidates: barely-concealed fury, barbed sarcasm, and bitter recrimination. Half a day later, my parents were OK again; all genuine sweetness and light.
Of course, no parents would share details of their marriage in front of the kids.
However, older children will need you to be honest when a sensitive subject comes up.
And that means careful handling, especially in the event of an impending marital break-up.
Dr. Apter says: “Children – and girls, in particular, are shrewd observers of the emotional weather. They see through the façade of persistent calm.
“When they come to understand that a parent’s calm façade covers up for more complicated feelings, they’re likely to accuse them of dishonesty, which to them is a betrayal.”
So, based on the battlefield that’s been my home for the past 20-odd years, here are some guidelines for handling some of those warts-and-all conversations with your children:
It’s how you talk about it that counts. When your child asks you how much Daddy earns, don’t say: “MYOB (Mind your own business)”. Instead, try: “Why do you want to know?” Be honest about your means but never hint that their expensive tennis/ballet/singing lessons might be the reason why you can’t afford a weekend trip to Adventure World in Abu Dhabi.
Death and serious illnesses are just part of life, which children must get used to. If a relative is sick, maintaining an artificially cheerful front can be counter-productive, as can being evasive and vague. At best, you’ll confuse your children; at worst you’ll be accused of ‘not telling the truth, Mummy’.
If you’re having a bit of a downer, or just having a ‘bad hair day’, then say so. Expert psychologists say children should understand that there are reasons why parents or adults in general feel the way they do. It’s OK to feel a bit rubbish some days and, more importantly, to learn how to feel cheerful again.
(Sources: WSU, Canada; Psychology Today)
*This article is not intended to be used as a substitute for seeking professional advice.