Words matter, but from a child’s point of view, actions matter a lot more. Take for instance a newborn baby. A young baby will learn when you’re happy, sad or frustrated and they’ll do it all from facial expressions, posture, touch, or the tone of our voice. Similarly, older children learn more from what we do, and how we treat others, than what we say.
Below we look at the importance of modelling respectful relationships, and how our relationships (good or bad) affect our children.
Children will model what they see – positive and negative
Have you ever noticed how sometimes when you come home in a really great mood and find your partner is in a bad mood, you can adapt to their mood really quickly without either of you saying a word? It happens in families, relationships and workplaces all the time. It also happens when children see their parent’s relationships. They may feel sad if you are sad, happy if you are happy, and they may model the relationship you have with your partner – positive or negative.
Impacts of your relationships on children
If you and your partner are respectful of each other and listen to each other with the aim of understanding the other’s perspective (and avoiding anger) then your child will know the home is a safe environment. They will also likely model these behaviours in their current and future relationships (with partners, friends and their own families).
However, if a child sees a parent (or step-parent) be violent, or insult, threaten or dominate their partner, then this can also have a lasting impact on the child. It can affect their ability to cope, make them feel scared, nervous, and anxious, or like they’re “walking on eggshells”. Being around abusive relationships can have a big impact on children of any age. Young children can revert to earlier behaviours such as wetting the bed or sucking their thumb, or show signs of separation anxiety. School-aged children may feel guilty or blame themselves, which can impact their self-esteem in the short and long term. Teenagers might act out by skipping school, starting fights, or abusing drugs or alcohol.
As adults too it’s not uncommon for children who have grown up around disrespectful or abusive relationships to be at risk of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. They may also be at risk of repeating the behaviour they witnessed as children, which can create a cycle with their own children and families.
So it’s important to always be mindful of the impact your relationship has on your whole family.
How can you help model a positive and respectful relationships for your children
- Remember that relationship abuse is not only physical. Recognise abuse in all its forms, and make sure your relationship is an equal one where no one is afraid of, or dominated by, the other.
- Show your children that you actively listen to your partner and other family members.
- Model mutual respect and show children how you and your partner value each other. This includes not speaking negatively about your partner, even when you disagree.
- Show children how to disagree respectfully. Don’t diminish the other person’s viewpoint – even when you don’t share it. Show your children that both partners have a right to their own opinion, and are in control of their own decisions.
- Show children you love and support your partner by offering verbal or physical signs of affection so your children (and your partner) are aware of how much you care.
- Talk to your partner directly, rather than behind their back, and don’t “bad mouth” them to the children.
- Spend time as a family doing things you like together (and separately with just your child or partner), to show all family members that you value them. This can be hard when so much of our time is taken up with work and chores, but it’s important to schedule family time into your routine.
- Spend some time alone too. Most partnerships benefit from some time apart too – give each other space to do things alone or with friends.
- As well as modelling a healthy relationship, talk to your children about what a healthy relationship is. Having this kind of conversation will help your child recognise the signs of an unhealthy relationships and help them avoid one in their future.
Remember, children of any age are like sponges. They take in everything they see and experience, good or bad, and they learn from it.
“Remember, children of any age are like sponges. They take in everything they see and experience, good or bad, and they learn from it.”
Those experiences shape not only how they see the world throughout the rest of their lives, but also how they interact and behave with others as they mature.
MensLine Australia has professional counsellors available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, providing confidential and anonymous information and support for all relationship issues.
Call us on 1300 78 99 78 or access online counselling.