Monday, June 11, 2012
Our children look to us to figure out "how to feel" and "how to be." This developmental process is called social referencing. It happens all the time! Adults play a huge role in teaching children how to feel, what to feel, and how to cope with their feelings.
For example, we've all seen toddlers glance at Mom's face while deciding whether or not their bruised knee is worth crying about after a fall. If the physical and emotional hurt is minor, and if other business is more pressing (such as continuing their play,) the child will jump up and recover quickly. If adults show signs of being upset, worried, or emotional about the fall, the child quickly judges that this boo-boo is a Big Deal, and responds accordingly. This type of thing happens all day, every day, in the lives of children, parents, and teachers. It's part of the child's development, and an integral part of the relationship between parents and their children.
Children are astute observers and sharp-eyed parent-watchers. They receive many verbal and nonverbal messages every day from us, and integrate their perception of these messages into their worldview. It becomes a part of them. These messages can be positive or negative, helpful or unhelpful, healthy or unhealthy. A great deal of the time, adults don't even know that they are sending any messages at all. We're so focused on the child, and so busy with the details of life that we often don't have the self-awareness to realize what we're telling our kids through our actions, behaviors, facial expressions, tones of voice, and body language. And this is the problem: when we're unaware, we can often send messages that are negative, alarming, or inaccurate. For instance, if a mom, out of habit, sighs loudly every time her child makes a small mess (even when the setting/situation makes messy play appropriate and fairly easy to deal with) that gives the child the message that messy play isn't ok, and that their desire to explore messily must be a bad thing. This mom might not have even been thinking anything at all about the messiness of the child's play, but her non-verbal communication conveyed the message to the child without her being aware of it.
Whew- we parents have so many opportunities to "get it wrong!" But don't worry: we have ENDLESS opportunities to get it right! We can't be completely aware of what messages we are sending our kids 100% of the time. And we can't be sure exactly how they are perceiving our communication. But when it comes to some of the truly important things, it's a good idea to work on self-awareness, and strive to be in control of what we are teaching our children. It might be a good idea to simply pay attention for the next couple of days, and observe yourself and the effect you have on your child through your small moment-by-moment responses.
A good example of this is related to trust. We want our children to learn to trust. A sense of trust is a basic cornerstone of a happy life and of healthy relationships. Of course, we also want our kids to become able to judge who is and who is not trustworthy. This comes with time, experience, and guidance. But when adults show nonverbal signs of fear and insecurity to their children, the kids quickly begin to believe that the world is not a safe place, and that people are not to be trusted. This kind of message can have lasting effects, and sometimes parents aren't even aware that they are communicating fear to their children. Ask yourself: what nonverbal cues and behaviors might convey to my child a sense of trust and confidence in the people around us? And conversely, what kinds of behaviors convey the opposite? What can I do to make sure I'm giving my child an empowering message instead of a fearful one?
What examples of Social Referencing have you noticed in your family or with other people? What kinds of messages do you want to give you child, and how can you adjust your verbal and nonverbal messages to accomplish this? Look for examples around you today, and share some of them in a comment!
Bottom line: Perfection in parenting isn't necessary or possible, but striving for self-awareness is very important. This can help you be in control of what you are teaching your children about themselves and their feelings.
Posted by ANNIE CASTLE DECKERT, M.ED.PSYCH.