"Underneath Your Child’s Misbehavior"
Paula Marchman M.A., L.A.P.C.
When I ponder the blessings of parenting, I begin with Adam, as written in the book of Genesis, and how the Scriptures describe his walks in the garden with God. How engaged every aspect of his senses must have been with all the beauty he beheld! Can you imagine how every second was full of total presence and mindfulness? Adam must have felt understood in the deepest sense of the word and greatly loved.
Adam responded to God not only with his human ears but also with the heart and soul of his being. This is how our children listen to us. Children, when we capture their attention, are models of “active listening.” They listen with their eyes, their minds and hearts, as well as their ears. Children need to belong, and they learn how to belong as they grow. They discover that certain responses from others give them a feeling of belonging and connection. Through our relationship with them they also experience God’s presence and love in their lives. Children are tuned into the tone of our voice, the gentleness of our face and eyes as we look into their faces. We begin to communicate with them long before we even open our mouths to speak.
Children need safety from their parents, which allows them to thrive and experience childhood. Our children need to know that we “know them,” their strengths, their weaknesses, how they express themselves, how they learn, play, and cry. It is important that each child realize his or her uniqueness and the traits that make him or her like no one else in the world. As parents, we are called to encourage them and recognize their efforts rather than to demand perfection. Comparisons can lead children to believe that their worth depends on being better than others, while encouragement helps each child to appreciate his or her own unique qualities.
When we teach our children that their thoughts and feelings are important, they experience the gift of truly being understood and heard. Giving another human being our whole attention is a healing form of Christ’s love. With this giving, our children also learn how to communicate their needs and desires in a healthy way and come to know themselves better. As children experience positive regard for their feelings, they grow in self-awareness and self-esteem. When they believe their feelings are worthy of respect, they learn to respect others’ feelings too. “Good listening requires that we be sensitive to the needs of others. We cannot be sensitive unless we have anchored our lives in the love of Christ,” writes Fr. Anthony Coniaris in his book, Making God Real in the Orthodox Christian Home. Family dinner hours and meetings where every child feels heard and respected for his or her ideas help our children experience being a valued individual within the framework of a family.
Parents have a great influence in building positive beliefs in their children. When children have positive beliefs about themselves they practice positive behaviors. These behaviors then reinforce the beliefs about themselves, which strengthens the desired behavior.
We must be intentional and purposeful in our lives because the society we live in doesn’t nurture this way of communicating or parenting. In fact, it drives us to the other side of the paradigm. We are encouraged to stay busy, strive for material gain, and fill our time with so many worldly distractions. These distractions not only tug but painfully jerk our focus from each other and onto what the world tells us is important.
I once counseled a family with a 15-year old son during a period of time when he was “acting out” with behaviors such as skipping school, smoking, and stealing with his “new found friends.” We were into our third session when he spoke the words that will forever be engraved in my memory. He said, “You know, I hear you, Mom, every night as you sit at the kitchen table with your Bible talking to God. As I lay in bed I can hear you pray for all of us one by one. I know you want what is best for me; I hear you, Mom. I know how much you love me and I love you too. I understand why you are so worried about me, and I see the problems with what I’m doing, and I don’t want that either.” Their eyes connected and the room lit up with this amazing clarity and warmth. We all knew that they were back on the path together, and it would be the path God has chosen for this boy’s life.
This family did not freeze. They took action when they realized that their son was in trouble and they needed extra help. They looked at their resources: family, friends, church, and professional counseling. They were proactive, and it helped them get to a healthier place.
The mother “preached” to her children daily by being a living example, a powerful guide in the way she chose to live her life. Instead of nagging, she faithfully shared her values and beliefs by her words and actions. She was not critical or condemning but firm and genuinely concerned for her son’s welfare. Most importantly, she did not get stuck on his bad behavior. She knew his God-given gifts and looked beneath the bad behavior by speaking to his heart and encouraging him to honor himself. This is huge even when your children are very young. We hold the mirror that tells them who they are in their early years of development. Children need to know that we love and honor them, but as their parents we are called to provide them with a consistent and appropriate structure that allows them to grow and develop in a healthy way. Parents need to be firm yet loving, honest yet kind, with their children.
Every family needs a leader, and it should not be a child. Fathers and mothers need to take their rightful place in the family as leaders, protecting and nurturing their children. Children need church traditions, healthy family interactions, and boundaries to feel safe enough to grow and thrive. They need faithful and present parents who realize the importance of validating the fears and hurts that lie beneath their children’s misbehaviors.
We as parents guide our children in discovering their God-given talents, by being attentive when we communicate with them and by encouraging them to grow in their uniqueness in God’s Kingdom.
Paula Marchman is a Christian counselor in private practice in Atlanta where she resides with her family. She also organizes and teaches programs in Marriage & Family for the Metropolis of Atlanta.