Three Ways our Assumptions Affect Relationships with Children

Larissa Dann.                      

Here is a challenging idea: the way we think about children, and the assumptions we make about their intentions, will shape our response to them.  Ultimately, our presumptions influence our relationships. 

When we are upset with our children, we think we are responding to their behaviour. Behaviour is what our children said and how they said it; what our children did and how they did it. 

My question is: are we actually reacting to their behaviour, or what we think their intention is behind the behaviour?  Do we have a preconceived notion of what drives children, and could this be impacting upon the way we relate to them?

The way we think about children can affect our relationship with them.  Three beliefs that can influence our response to our children are outlined below.

1.         Our belief on the nature of children

If we think that children:

  • are naughty by nature.
  • deliberately want to press our buttons.
  • can’t be trusted.
  • always try to ‘win’ over us.
  • when given an inch, will take a mile.
  • deliberately manipulate us.

then we will have little choice but to react defensively – even aggressively. How can we respond as we might wish, with respect and concern, if we have an underlying view that children cannot be trusted? We have sentenced them as guilty before we have given them a fair hearing.  And, sadly, the more we believe this of our children, then the more we act on our beliefs. And the more likely our beliefs may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

2.         Our attribution of intent

When we ‘attribute intent’, we make assumptions about the reasons for our children’s behaviour. There is a saying: “to assume makes an ass out of u and me”. 

Problems occur when we assign a deliberate negative intent (or ‘hostile’ intention) to our children’s behaviour.

Let’s take the example of Sam, a 6-year-old boy who is playing in the sand pit and does not come into the house when he is called.  His mother is annoyed, and tells him he is ‘ignoring’ her.  When she says this, she implies that Sam is ‘deliberately’ and ‘intentionally’ not responding to her request.  She may then make assumptions about the reason for him not responding.  She might think:

  • “he just wants to make me angry”; or
  • “he doesn’t like me”; or
  • “he just wants to ‘press my buttons’”; or
  • “he wants to show me that he’s the boss”

In all of these presumptions, Mum has taken Sam’s actions personally.  If Mum acts on any of these assumptions, she will probably blame Sam, react defensively, and say or do something that will impact badly on their relationship.

3.         That children do not misbehave, but instead behave to meet a need.

Imagine if our fundamental parenting principle was that children do not misbehave.  Imagine we were guided by this understanding: that children behave simply to meet their needs.  Our response would be very different.  We would stop blaming, and instead help our children search for the underlying issue.  We would not take their behaviour personally.  We would trust our children.  We would know they were innocent and competent.  We would recognise that our disagreements with our children were a result of our needs conflicting with theirs.

Our relationship would be one of respect and warmth.

In Sam’s situation, he may have been so engrossed in his game that he simply did not hear his mum. Alternatively, his behaviour of continuing to play meant he had needs that might include:

  • Competence.  He is enjoying building the best sandcastle he has ever built.
  • Relaxation.  He has only been home for half an hour, and after a busy day he needs to regroup.
  • Solitude and reflection.  He is looking for peace and quiet after a day at school and after-school activities.

He did not ‘ignore’ his mum.  He simply behaved in accordance with his need at the time.  If mum understands that there is no negative intention, but just innocent behaviour, she will change the way she responds.  Her ability to look beyond Sam’s behaviour to his need will enhance their relationship.

Understanding Ourselves

Understanding ourselves - how we think of children; what we think their intentions are; and whether we could simply believe they behave to meet a need – will influence our relationship with our children.

To do this, we may need to look deeper.  What has shaped our values, our beliefs, the way we react to our children’s behaviour?  We may be influenced by the way we were parented, by our friends, our culture, or our partner.  Books such as Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel, and When Your Kids Push Your Buttons by Bonnie Harris, are useful resources in our quest to understand ourselves, and then to understand our children.

Blog post: 27 April, 2015. Updated 2017.     Image used under license from Shutterstock  

© Larissa Dann. 2015,2017.  All rights reserved

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