Children may be the smallest people in the family, but they sure notice a great deal about what is going on in their families. I am often amazed about the observations that children and teens can make in counseling with me about what's happening with the adults. So, what are some of the things they notice?
They notice if there is substance abuse going on. Children as young as 6 have told me that they worry about mom or dad's drinking. Teens are smart and are savvy enough to know if parents are using pot, prescription pain meds, or something more. They get scared when parents are driving them while intoxicated or high on substances. The worrying about parents' alcohol and drug use can make them depressed, anxious, have difficulty studying or enjoying their time with friends. What kids know about substance abuse in their families can make them feel scared, different, or isolated. These worries about substance-abusing parents can take a child or teen off track developmentally from what they should be focusing on.
Children and teens know many things about how the relationship is between their parents. They notice how you treat each other, and if you are affectionate, kind and relational with each other or not. They notice if you spend the evening together or ignore each other. They notice if you like each other, and have date nights. Children notice whether you treat each other with respect, or you badmouth each other.You actually give your children a template or script for their future relationship or marriage, whether positive or negative.
Children notice all the little nuances of your parenting style. They know if you have an anger problem, or you don't follow through, or if you can be manipulated. They crave fairness andreasonable limits and rules that are consistently enforced. Be careful not to play favorites if you have more than one child, because children can tell if you favor the child that looks like you, or has your same birth order, or your gender. It's best to make each child your favorite. Be honest about what you are feeling----if you are mad, sad, hurt, tired, or overwhelmed. Your kids can read your non-verbal cues anyway, so don't bother. You can role model being honest about your emotions, and coping with negative emotions in a healthy way.
Children also take notice on how you deal with money. I've seen a number of children who worry about their parent's finances. If your spending is out of control, or you buy things when you are feeling down, be aware that the children are watching.
The kids are also watching how we eat, manage our weight, and our fitness. Our example is more powerful than anything you can say.
Are you a faithful spouse or are you looking for affairs? Are you able to resolve conflict in a mature way, or do you scream and tantrum? Are you responsible with your choices, or selfish? Do you hold on to resentment and grudges, or are you able to forgive others and apologize when you are wrong? In these areas, and in many others, your life is your lesson for your children, and school is always in session.
As I continue to learn from my patients who are children, teens, and families, being someone's parent is a huge job that should remind all of us to keep working on our own growth and maturing. The children are definitely watching. All children and teens deserve parents who are stable, can be counted on, kind, loving, and interested in what the children are doing. Being an adult who your children can respect is a wonderful goal that can keep us in touch with becoming our best self.