From a very early age, children look to their parents for safety, security, guidance, and answers. When an infant gets scared, they cry until they are picked up and comforted. When a toddler becomes frightened, they toddle over to their parent for refuge. When a young child is uncertain, they read their parent’s facial expressions and body language to ascertain the answers. And once they obtain these answers, a “monkey see, monkey do” mentality is then adopted.
Children rely heavily on their parents as they learn how to act and behave. Some of this education is spoken and verbally taught, while the rest may be unspoken and absorbed from watching on the sidelines. Young boys may learn that it is either okay or not okay to cry simply by viewing their fathers. Teenagers may learn that foul language is appropriate or inappropriate by listening to the vocabularies of their parents. Young girls watch their mothers and absorb information about how to dress and what type of makeup to wear.
Interestingly enough, emotions can fall into both categories. Emotions can be verbally taught to children, as parents dutifully teach what mad, sad, and happy means. On the other hand, young children can also learn a great deal about emotions simply from watching their parents. A vigilant child closely watches their parents’ reactions in response to various situations and conflicts. If a parent manages stress with tearfulness and anxiety, a child absorbs this information. If a parent handles conflict with anger, a child will pick up on this. If a parent responds to adversity with calm and assertiveness, a child will make note of it.
After a child absorbs and gathers information about emotions, they begin to practice it. If a child grows up in a household where angry and aggressive emotions predominate, they will soon begin to emulate them. If they become frustrated with a peer, they may begin to act aggressively, perhaps yelling in the peer’s face. Despite the fact that a parent may intervene and verbally redirect the negative behavior, the damage is already done. The child has gained valuable information from watching their parents and has adopted it into their own practice.
So what does all this mean? Parents need to be mindful of their emotions, words, and actions to avoid teaching their children negative behaviors. Most of the time, parents are not even aware that they are passing along negative tidbits of information. Parents may downplay a curse word here, an angry outburst there, or an emotional episode every now and then. However, if these emotional reactions occur often enough, they will undoubtedly reappear at some point in the future from their offspring.
Parents need to be in control of their emotions and aware of how they respond to different situations to ensure that they are nonverbally modeling the right types of behaviors. Interestingly enough, a child’s absorption of information that occurs from watching their parents can be more powerful than verbal words that are spoken to them. If a parent tells their child to respond to adversity in a calm and collected manner, but models anxiety and chaos, the child receives a mixed message. Which message do they listen to? As the old adage says, “actions speak louder than words.”
Children learn from their parents the moment that they are born and look to them for protection and guidance. Verbal and nonverbal instruction is paramount to a child’s upbringing. In order to raise better behaved children, parents need to remember the adage, “monkey see, monkey do.” Parents need to be especially mindful to model and effectively manage their own emotions to ensure the best behavioral outcomes in their children.