The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


September 20, 2012

Sarah Coyne: Kids can learn to discuss problems

JOPLIN, Mo. — There’s something about conversing with an angry 4-year-old that makes one wish for the silence that can only be found at the bottom of the ocean. The absence of reason, the abundance of needless distress and the ever-increasing volume involved in such an exchange can be exhausting.

If we follow the wisdom of countless elders, we should know the simplest way to teach a belligerent preschooler the correct way to interact with others, even under angry or frustrating circumstances.

We should know that our kids learn from watching our discussions. They learn from observing their world. There’s a lot of time and brain development that lies between little ones and reasonable conversations, but during those in-between years, they’re absorbing everything we do and say.

Only, we parents have a tendency to hide our most frustrating discussions and emotions from our kids. We might be following a self-imposed rule of “no arguing in front of the kids” or we might just be prone to privacy, but either way, we do our children a disservice by concealing our difficult emotions behind closed doors and perfect facades.

There’s a difference between fighting with a spouse with raised voices and hurtful words, and calmly discussing our problems to reach compromise or understanding. The latter is something our children can benefit from witnessing. The former will only exacerbate our children’s inclination toward yelling when they’re confronted with an upsetting situation.

Obviously, there are some things kids don’t need to be burdened with, but it’s not necessary or beneficial to hide all of our uncomfortable interactions from their view. They need to see it to imitate it.

And it goes further than just parental disagreements. Even the youngest children are capable of feeling sadness, irritation and confusion. They can struggle with as much anger and disappointment as we all do, but without the benefit of years and experience to help them manage those feelings.

Instead of feigning indifference when something goes wrong during a normal day, it’s okay to be honest with your kids about your emotions in order to help them work through their own.

If your grandmother’s crystal vase was shattered on the tile floor, the sadness you express will show your children that tears are normal. Your ability to show your feelings outwardly will help your kids feel more comfortable with their own emotions when confronted with sadness, and eventually learn to handle their feelings without melting down.

If the afternoon’s frustrations have built up to intolerable levels, it’s fine to tell the kids that you’re feeling angry. When you admit your limitations and tell them you need a few minutes alone to calm down, you’re demonstrating a healthy coping technique. By being honest about your feelings and showing ways to work through them, you’re teaching your kids how to do the same thing when their own frustrations mount.

The things we hope our kids will learn from us — things such as responsibility, kindness and the ability to put the dirty clothes in the laundry hamper — can be so consuming that we forget the negative things they’re absorbing as well. They’re witnessing our tempers, heartbreaks and frustrations.

And as long as that’s the case, we might as well embrace it for all it’s worth. By admitting weaknesses, accepting difficulties, practicing transparency and modeling healthy expression, we’ll eventually get to someplace wonderful with our kids — someplace far away from the silence of the ocean floor, and closer to loving, volume-controlled discussions.

Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog, http://thisheavenlylife.

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