As far as children are concerned, a little known fact that I learned from working with families is that parents are in a very strong position to influence their children’s behavior. I said that it is “little known” because parents are often not fully aware of how powerful they are when it comes to making changes to their children’s lives.
When it comes to their influence, parents often under-estimate the power of praise, of special time with their kids, of listening (without lecturing). Most of all, when it comes to negative outcomes (such as talking back, defiance, physical aggression, and anxiety-laden behavior), there is a lot parents can do before they seek professional help. One of the keys is to figure out if modeling is involved: for example, is there an anxious adult in the family, does anyone at home use aggression to solve problems, is one or both parents addicted to screens, do parents model negotiation and cooperation to resolve conflicts?
Another area where parents overlook their own influence is how mum and dad interact with each other, and the kind of message that their communication with each other conveys. For example, if children watch how one parent ignores the voice of the other parent, they might learn that they can ignore that parent too. Or if children watch how one parent uses disrespectful speech on the other, they might think that it is OK to talk that way to a family member or friends.
A more profound effect that parental communication can have on children relates to how these children will relate to their future partners when they grow up. Children often pick up and internalize unwritten rules about gender roles and responsibilities from their own parents. So, if they grew up in a home where, for example, dad was distant and mum was over-involved, there is a very high chance that they will repeat these roles with their own partners when they grow up.
The messages that are important for parents to consider are two-fold. First, if there is something in your child that you wish to see improved, a good place to start is to first look around in your family to see if someone is functioning as a walking example of the very thing you wish to see changed in your child. Second, bear in mind that how one parent relates to the other serves as a powerful lesson on what your child can expect from and will relate to his/her future partner. So, the next time you respond to your spouse, think this: is this how I wish my child to relate to his/her future spouse?