The Penn State story of abuse, secrets and lies is unfathomable,
and naturally, this makes parents concerned about their own
children and their ability to keep them safe.
It isn't helpful to live in fear or become untrusting, but we
can take this opportunity to become more conscious of our
Even a disturbing story like this can be an opportunity for
greater parental awareness; to really look at how available we are
to our children when they are struggling with something, big or
Loving parents always want their children to feel safe enough to
tell them everything, but sometimes, unknowingly, parents send
messages that they are unwilling to listen or that their children's
instincts are wrong.
Here are three simple ways to bolster your communication skills
in the home in an effort to help children feel safe and heard:
1. Allow your children to decide when they hug and/or
kiss other people.
Kissing and hugging is very intimate - if your children don't
want to hug or kiss someone, don't force them.
These people may be relatives and loved ones to you, but the
children may not yet fully trust or know these people. We respect
our children by allowing them to find this place of comfort in
their own time.
Children listen to their internal instincts and they naturally
follow their heart. When we force them to override these feelings,
they may begin to question their inner knowing.
Why do we force our children to kiss and hug?
Because we had to kiss our relatives when we were little? Did we
like doing it?
Because we want to demonstrate that we are good parents?
Because we are worried about how the recipient feels?
But what about how the children feel? Who is listening to what
feels right for them?
If my children are not interested in hugging or kissing, I
usually suggest a high five or a wave; any type of acknowledgement
of hello or goodbye. There are so many respectable options that
demonstrate manners but do not force intimacy.
This can be tough for families who believe that we should all
hug and kiss simply because we are related.
But forcing a child to offer intimacy to someone they are not
comfortable with can cause them to question their own inner voice -
the one that guides them in their daily decision making.
Once they get to know someone and develop a relationship, they
may be willing to extend themselves in a more intimate way.
And when they come in for that hug or kiss it will mean so much
more, because you know it's coming from a place of trust and love
rather than from expectation.
2. Listen instead of lecture
When a child tells you they don't like someone or they are
uncomfortable with someone, listen and even ask them to tell you
Most of the time it's something simple, nothing to worry about,
but regardless, allow them to express themselves; let them share
what they are feeling.
Sometimes a child will express discomfort with a family member
or babysitter and instead of listening we tell them why they
shouldn't feel that way.
"That's not true, Uncle Joe loves you - he just wants a
"Don't say that about Rhonda - she's wonderful, she's so
good with you; we all love her."
You shut down their ability to share what they are
feeling. Again, most of the time it's just little things, nothing
of great concern, but it's important to give them a safe place to
share without being told why they are wrong.
You can try:
"It sounds like you don't want to hug Uncle Joe, talk to me
about why that makes you uncomfortable."
"It sounds like you are frustrated with Rhonda, tell me
Usually all they need is an opportunity to be heard, a place to
discuss and process. They may not need any help or
assistance; they just want to share their feelings with someone
But in the extreme case where they are asking for help, they
need to know that they can share without being shut down or told
why they are wrong.
3. Offer love and understanding, even when they are
When kids act out or are disrespectful, it is a very natural
reaction to be angry with them or treat them in the same way they
are treating you.
But instead of role modeling how to be an adult, we end up
acting like a kid.
We all do it at one time or another, it's a reactive response,
but our job as parents is to be more conscious. When a child is
acting disrespectfully or demonstrating negative behavior, they
need to be shown the opposite.
We may need some space and time to calm down first. We may need
to be assertive and firm if they are disrespectful and consequences
may be necessary.
But after that we can still show love. Guilt-tripping and grudge
holding are immature, and it's not behavior that you want to
Sometimes when children are hurting, they act out. When they
have lots of feelings going on inside, they act out. When they are
confused, they act out.
With that in mind, it is important to continue loving behaviors
rather than turn away or punish by withholding love.
When one of my children is really pushing limits or being
inappropriate, I am firm with my expectations, but I also make it a
point to offer a few more hugs that day - a few more kisses, a few
more smiles and best case scenario, some alone time together.
Extreme acting out is usually a sign that something is going on.
The majority of time its everyday stuff that can be challenging for
children - school work, friend issues, and feeling overwhelmed.
But this is when they need support the most - they are feeling
empty and confused so that's all they have to offer. We need to
come from a place of love and offer something different.
And if children are struggling with something big like abuse or
they feel shame and fear for some other reason, they need to know -
by action, not words - that unconditional love is available.
They need to know that no matter what they say or do, your love
remains, and no matter what happens, you always see who they really
Click here to hear Cathy and Todd continue this discussion on
Cathy will be talking about this blog with WGN's Bill
Moller this Saturday at 10:20 a.m.
Cathy Adams is a certified parenting coach, yoga instructor and mother to three girls.
See more of Cathy's stories here.
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