As parents, we often assume we know what our kids are thinking, or it never occurs to us to ask. We are often surprised and humored by the various things that slip out of their mouths, which are evidence of what is going on in their little minds.
A few weeks ago I was driving in to town with my kids. I noticed the yellow hue of my son’s teeth in the rear view mirror and glance back to see the nasty fuzzies growing on his teeth. Ewe. So I casually ask him how long it has been since he brushed his teeth. He stated, “2 weeks.” I’m thinking “2 weeks???!!!???” and I’m totally horrified. At first a choke a little and forget that I’m driving, then have to self-correct to keep from running off the road. Sheesh.
So I’m experiencing a huge parenting failure. As I see it, I have 3 options:
1. I could whip the car around and head home prepared to put on my best drill sergeant parent act and attack my son’s face with the toothbrush ASAP.
2. I can shame my son for his failure to care for his body and project all of my negative feelings on him.
3. I can put my counseling skills to use and figure out his motivation.
I went with option 3. So I tell him, “You know, buddy, when my teeth are dirty it really bothers me. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth and feels gross. I can’t imagine going 2 weeks without brushing. Does it bother you having dirty teeth?” He says, “Yeah, it’s gross.” So I prompt, “Then why not brush?” He says, “Because I want my teeth to fall out. Then I’ll get money.”
Wow! I never saw that one coming. I had the opportunity to explain to him how gum disease is a slow process blah, blah, blah. I also inform him that the payout for dirty teeth is only a small percentage of what it will be for clean teeth.
Point being, thoughts motivate behavior. If he believes his teeth will fall out and he’s going to make a bunch of money, he’s motivated to avoid caring for his oral health. However, once his thoughts were corrected, he now willingly (most of the time) brushes his teeth. And I’m a lot more consistent with making sure he does so!
Kids don’t think like adults.
Kids process information in different ways than adults. They are just beginning to form logical thoughts. Through trial and error, they are forming conclusions about the world around them. They are also prone to misbeliefs such as “magical thinking” and feeling invincible. They tend to believe that they can fix problems that are beyond their control and tend to feel guilty when they fail to fix problems. We see this commonly with children who experienced divorce in their family. They believe they have the power to get mom and dad to fall in love again or to fix the problems that caused the divorce. When their attempts fail, they feel responsible.
Kids also have misbeliefs that because they are young, they are invincible or that they have superhero strengths. It is fun to see the wild ideas that kids come up with for how they are going to save the world and what they would do if a bad man came to hurt their family. But we know the truth is that children are vulnerable. These false beliefs help them to emotionally deal with things that are beyond their control.
What are they thinking?
So how do you know what your kids are thinking? How do you know if they are forming false conclusions about the world around them? How do you know if they have internalized false beliefs that could impact them into adulthood? Have you experienced traumatic events that may have impacted how your children view life? Here are a few tips:
1. Ask open-ended questions. Try to avoid questions that begin with “why,” especially if your child might feel blamed. Also try to avoid using “yes, no” questions, as they shut down the question.
2. Play games with your child. Kids communicate through play, especially younger children. They will communicate through play things that they may never have been able to verbalize. If they communicate something that has you concerned, you make want to seek guidance from a professional training in play therapy, as you can’t take everything communicated in play at face value.
Playing things such as “Feelings Candy Land” or “Feelings UNO” with your kids can allow them to openly communicate feelings as part of a game rather than being put on the spot. Simply pick a feelings word for each color and have them tell about a time they felt that way during their turn. (IE, I like to use red for angry, yellow for happy, blue for sad, and green for scared.)
3. Keep an open dialogue with your kids. If your kids aren't comfortable talking about petty issues, they probably will be more uncomfortable talking about the deeper issues. However, if you are in the habit of talking daily with your kiddos, they will respond better to your prompting questions or may openly ask you about what is on their minds. They are relying on your experience to help them make sense of the world! This is why table time is so important. Taking 15 minutes to sit down and eat with your kids can make a huge impact in your relationship with them.