How to Break Up with Your Anxious Life
Meeting the Need for Reality Part 3
By the time my Dad was in his fifties, our family knew it was difficult for him to hear conversations in large gatherings, and accommodated him accordingly. But years later, his hearing got significantly worse, making it hard for Dad to hear us anytime, and especially on the phone. He didn't tell us this, and because he got tired of saying, “What?” and “Excuse me?” he started pretending he could hear us. I began to think Dad was struggling with dementia, because his responses -- based on what he thought I’d said – didn’t make sense.
I was an adult when this happened, so I had the tools to get to the bottom of what was really going on. I was able to tell him to stop guessing with me and others, because it made us jump to the conclusion that something was off with his mind and not his hearing.
Here’s a lesson for those of us who are parents and all others who lead youths: When children observe a reality, but adults try to hide it or simply don’t acknowledge it, kids may come up with their own story about what is going on. And it will probably not be accurate.
Heartbreakingly, children will often blame themselves for realities that they can’t explain. A mama, not wanting to burden her kids with adult problems, might not share the reason she is feeling sad, and pretends that she isn’t. But her children pick up on her emotion and may think she’s withdrawing because she’s upset with them.
I was deeply affected by clinical psychologist Dr. Jill Hubbard’s book The Secrets Women Keep: What Women Hide and the Truth that Brings them Freedom, which I read as research for my own book on friendship. Hubbard writes this:
Many adults … live under the myth that it is better not to bring up an uncomfortable subject with children so as not to upset them…While we do need to protect children and avoid dumping adult burdens on them, not acknowledging the obvious is craziness. And when we lie, pretend and alter reality, we actually do more damage to children’s ability to process life, causing them to doubt their own perceptions, to distrust what they hear, see, and think.
My daughters are both teenagers, and I’ve definitely not always found balance between acknowledging reality appropriately and giving their little brains TMI. But because I read Dr. Jill’s book, Jeff and I have tried our best to deal with reality in real time. For example: When they have heard us fighting (which they, of course, have), we don’t say, “Everything’s fine,” in sing-song-y voices. Instead, we tell them the truth:
“We are having a disagreement. Mom (or Dad) got hurt feelings because Dad (or Mom) said something unkind/forgot to do something important, etc. We are talking it out and we’ll be okay in a little bit. Did our yelling upset you? Did you feel scared when we raise our voices?”
This has not always been easy or fun. Even harder and less fun has been when the kids have told us the truth about us. Our first born, Sophia, once said we would fight less if we would both stop trying to prove exactly who said what and let some things go. True, darling daughter. We’ll work on it.
I’ve written in past weeks about how God wants to meet our need for reality. God is a truth teller, and brings things into the light. He is not conflict-avoidant. Sometimes, God reveals truth so we can reconcile and heal. Sometimes, God reveals truth so we can protect ourselves; as Proverbs 27:12 says, “The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and pay the penalty.” As parents, leaders and teachers, I believe we need to follow God’s example.
This is one application for Ephesians 6:4, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” Can you think of anything more exasperating to a child then lying to them, hiding truth from them, or insisting a situation is safe when it is not?
John Mark Comer, in his book Live No Lies: Recognize and Resist the Three Enemies that Sabotage Your Peace, writes: “There is no perfect parent (surely not this one), but when children are brought up in a loving relational mix of trust and taught to live in congruence with reality, as a general rule, they thrive.”
So here are some tips I’ve learned both from experts and my own experience, about living in congruence with reality, and giving that gift to my girls.
Validate kids’ emotions and physical pain. Avoid calling a child melodramatic or over-sensitive, even if you feel they are being so; kids have big feelings, and we can't expect them to regulate like adults. There are volumes of books on how to do this well, and many are worth reading! (I love How to Raise an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman, Phd.) Not only will your child’s future spouse thank you if he can express emotion, you will also help him live in the reality of his own humanness and give him a lower risk of anxiety and depression.
Admit your own emotions and physical pain -- and how they are affecting you in the moment. Tell your kids, “I’m crabby because I didn’t get enough sleep.” “I had a tough conversation with one of my friends, so I’m feeling a little distracted. It’s not you.”
Listen to your kids’ observations about people. Christian parents tend to fear their children being prideful, judgmental, not-nice, and unforgiving. But being humble, kind and forgiving doesn’t mean failing to name bad or dangerous behavior. They can be kind at school and still name behaviors like bullying, gossip, being “cliquey,” or causing drama.
Listen to your kids’ observations about you and how your family functions. Liv has pointed out an obnoxious habit I have of saying, “I never get to do anything fun,” or “Nobody loves me!” when people don’t like my ideas for weekend plans. She says it’s not funny and seems like I’m trying to make her feel guilty. Ouch. I’d like to tell her to go to her room, but instead I have to own that she’s correct. Her observations are not always so right-on, and sometimes they are ill-timed. I’ve learned to say, “I’m not asking or feedback right now.” But I never just totally discount what she sees in me.
Don’t force them to “love” people just because they are family. Don’t force intimate relationships or proximity with your friends if your kids don’t like them. I know this sounds harsh, but ignoring our kids’ instincts about adults is one of the ways abuse happens. Over 90% of child victims know their offender, with almost half of the offenders being a family member. (Source: meganslaw.ca.gov). We want our kids to trust their radar. If they don’t feel safe spending the night at Aunt Amy’s, don’t make them. If they don’t want to sit next to Uncle Bob because he drinks too much, validate that! “You’re right, Uncle Bob can be hard to be around when he’s drinking. Come sit by me instead.”
Acknowledge the loss of family members due to death, divorce or other relationship conflicts. Our girls have lost an aunt on one side and an uncle on another in our siblings’ divorces. Painful though this is, we don’t pretend like those people never existed, wipe our fun memories of them out of our family remembrances, or fail to acknowledge painful circumstances around their breakups.
In closing, keep two primary goals in mind as you raise kids “in accordance with reality’”
One: You are helping your kids have accurate perceptions and protective instincts, which will increase their emotional and physical safety in the world.
Two: You are reducing their risk of mental health and mood disorders. When we make children doubt their perception of reality, illness ensues. When we teach a child that her perceptions are trustworthy, their mind actually becomes more trustworthy. What a beautiful legacy of love to pass on.
Bonus read: Here's a good working definition of gaslighting, which I've written a lot about in the last couple of weeks. From https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/long-term-effects-of-gaslighting
Examples of gaslighting
Countering: This tactic involves an abusive person questioning someone’s memory of events, even though they have remembered them correctly.
Withholding: This describes someone who pretends not to understand something, or who refuses to listen.
Forgetting: This involves an abusive person pretending they have forgotten something, or denying that something happened.
Trivializing: This refers to an abusive person making someone’s concerns or feelings seem unimportant or irrational.
Diverting: This technique occurs when an abusive person changes the subject, or focuses on the credibility of what someone is saying rather than the content. Some people also call it “blocking.”