Reflections on Penn State: Opening up communication in the home so kids feel safe

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 parenting.

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 small.

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 more.

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 hug.”

“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 more.”

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 they love.

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 disrespectful

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 teach.

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 are.

Click here to hear Cathy and Todd continue this discussion on Zen Parenting Radio.

Cathy will be talking about this blog with WGN’s Bill Moller this Saturday at 10:20 a.m.

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