Yes, we want children to express themselves—thoughts, feelings, frustrations. Yes, we want them to know we’re ready to listen, even to what we’d rather not hear. Yes, the more open they are, the better. No, they can’t express themselves however they wish.
Adolescent boys are notorious for one-word answers and wordless grunts. A full sentence can be an explosion of self-revelation. The common charge against them is too little expression.
Adolescent girls, as a group, are more expressive, with dramatic flair from looks and tone punctuating their words. The common charge against them is too much expression. Their picture is often labeled “attitude.”
Nobody would deny that open communication sustains good relationships. So what could be the problem with full and free expression? The answer lies not so much in the word full, but in the word free.
“Let children express themselves” often carries the unspoken addendum “no matter how it’s done.” The reasoning is that connecting with a child’s innermost feelings is more important than putting any limits on the airing of those feelings. Let a youngster vent lest she feel her opinions and views don’t matter. In short, any kind of expression is better than no expression.
In a nationwide study of strong families, parents drew a straight-line correlation between expression and respect. The more respectful the expression, the more of it will be acknowledged, however tough it is to do so. The style of expression softens or hardens its substance.
“Mom [Dad], I don’t at all get why I can’t have the freedom all my friends have. Their parents trust them. I think you just want to show me who’s boss. My friends don’t even think you love me. I never thought I’d look forward to the day I can leave here.”
Rough stuff. If it’s said calmly without rancor, though, few parents would shut it off. Most would try to dig to the bottom of it, assuming it hasn’t been excavated twenty-seven times previously.
When pushed by emotion, expression can get real unpleasant. My most regrettable words have burst forth during a surge of frustration. When kids are frustrated by our discipline, they’re not reluctant to let us know what they think. And what they think most likely isn’t said diplomatically. It’s expression all right, but it’s nasty expression.
A popular television show features family life in all its exaggerated stresses and strains. The oldest son is irritable, openly disdainful of his parents’ ways and short on tolerance. Mom and Dad absorb it all with an attitude of “we’re just enduring until he grows up or moves out, whichever comes first.” The message to parents: Accept expression, however ugly, because that’s how kids are at that age.
Even if you allowed all-out airing, how long could you endure it? Few parents can absorb unrestrained expression and not eventually reciprocate with their own unrestrained expression, as do the parents in that sitcom. No matter how valiantly we might pursue patient listening, something within us bristles at being the target of unbridled words and feelings.
Teens are particularly quick to accuse parents of stifling them. “You don’t listen to me” often can be translated, “You don’t agree with me” or, “You didn’t change your mind in my favor.” To convince a child that you’ll always listen, you’d better be willing to always agree. “Are you saying you’d like to go to the mall unsupervised with your friends? Of course, now I’m hearing you.” “Let me see if I’m on your wavelength. You want to use the car to take five of your friends to the big-time wrestling matches three counties away? Well, sure. Never let it be said I’m not an open-minded father.”
What’s expression, and what’s disrespect? Try an experiment. Suppose that your teen sprinkles her self-expression with rolled eyes and peevish sighs of “Yeah, right” and “Whatever.” Can you suppose that? For one month, copy her style with your boss, best friend, or pastor. If they should say something you disagree with, merely respond with a “Yeah, right. Whatever.” At the end of the month ask, “Do you still like me?” Will you hear, “Well, I do appreciate your willingness to be so open with your feelings. I feel it adds authenticity to our relationship. All masks are gone.”
Isn’t venting feelings healthier than stuffing them? That’s one theory that goes back to Freud, who called it catharsis. To be sure, pent-up, percolating agitation can be destructive to the mind and body. But is the reverse true? Does letting the agitation spill freely—in words or action—relieve it? A body of studies says no. For one, venting can become a habit, a habit that gains traction with every frustration. For another, while the venter might afterward feel some sense of relief, usually temporary, the ventee doesn’t. He feels emotionally slammed. Harsh feelings must be harnessed by civility.
Freedom of expression is not an absolute right. It’s conditional upon respect. It benefits a child’s character far more to learn respect than to learn to give voice to every oral impulse. The best communicators let children express themselves, up to a point.
You could talk to your child like a counselor: “What I’m hearing you say is that I’m not hearing you.” See, even when “you don’t listen,” you’re actually listening therapeutically. Tricky stuff, this psychology.
This blog is a selection from Dr. Ray Guarendi's Advice Worth Ignoring: How Tuning Out the Experts can Make You a Better Parent. Click the image below for sample chapters.