Remember your first job interview, or meeting your partner’s parents for the first time? We all want to make a good impression on others. ‘First impressions last’, as the saying goes.
But how about your children? Sometimes parents build up a particular picture of their kids – not so much a first impression, but an overall impression that may in fact be outdated, incorrect, and not good for the relationship between parent and child.
YOU SEE WHAT YOU EXPECT TO SEE
Have you ever noticed that after something’s been pointed out to you, you start to notice it everywhere? Something that also happens, although it may be harder to realise, is that we tend to pick up on and remember things that go along with what we already ‘know’ or believe to be true.
For example, if you think of somebody you know as being always on time, you’ll disregard or even forget about those one or two times they were late. On the other hand, if your friend who’s ‘always late’ starts showing up on time, but accidentally slips up, guess which of those things will tend to stick in your mind?
Psychologists call this confirmation bias, meaning that we’re more biased towards noticing and remembering things we agree with, because we find that easier and more comfortable than changing our mind.
HOW IT WORKS WITHIN A FAMILY
It’s easy for parents to feel like they know their children inside and out. But the fact is sometimes our kids don’t behave the same way around us as they do around others.
- Many kids have different ways of behaving at home than they do with their friends or at school. Sometimes they feel more comfortable to be their ‘real self’ either at home or outside the home. Sometimes there are different rules and expectations in different settings. Maybe they interact differently with different people.
- They may be changing as they get older.
- They may have gone through particular phases at home, either as young children or teenagers, and as a result, the parents have attached a particular label, positive or negative, to the child.
- The child may share some physical or personality characteristics with a parent, sibling, or family member such as an aunt or uncle. Sometimes it’s easy to conclude that they’re ‘just like so-and-so’ in other ways too – even when they’re not.
In all of these situations, a parents’ impression of their child or teenager can be very different from what other people think.
[Side note: of course adults can also attach labels to partners, ex-partners, grandparents etc and these can be equally difficult to unstick!]
IT CAN GO EITHER WAY
In some cases, the parents’ impression of their child may be more accurate than other people’s impression. In other cases, the personality the child or teenager shows others outside the home may represent who they really are. Most times, it’s a bit of a mix.
Sometimes, you hear about a child or teenager who misbehaves at school or gets in trouble with the law, only to have mum or dad insist that their child ‘would never do that’. Or the shy child who’s more talkative at home, or the one who’s overwhelmed by their older siblings but much more confident around their friends.
In some families, you may see a particular interest or skill is either discouraged or encouraged and the child or teen acts accordingly when their parents are around, even though that’s not the way they’d naturally behave when they’re with others.
This is something I used to see all the time when I was the director of a programme that prepared kids for college. I used to do an interview with each applicant as part of the selection process. First, I’d talk to the whole family. Then I would talk to the teen on their own. And it was always interesting to see the change in the kid’s personality and their ability to express themselves when the parents weren’t in the room!
‘IT’S JUST PERSONALITY’
It’s important to respect the fact that everyone, adults and children, will have their own unique personality. You may be an extrovert, while your child or teenager is an introvert, or vice versa. Some people like to rush into new experiences, others are more cautious. What’s important is to avoid the temptation to decide that your child or teenager has a particular ‘personality’ and that it’s locked in stone, especially if you let this colour all your interactions from then on.
ARE OTHER PEOPLE BITING THEIR TONGUES?
It’s time to ask yourself, very honestly, have you ever had some people mention that your child seems different when they’re not with you? For many parents, it’s a real challenge to see another side of their child – and when I say see, I mean metaphorically more than actually seeing it for themselves. After all, you may never actually SEE your child behave differently, because the whole point is they don’t act that way when they’re with you!
It’s also possible that, depending on how you would react, other people may find this hard to talk about with you.
- The parent of the child or teenager who dotes on their child, or is extremely strict, may have a very difficult time believing their child has done something wrong at school.
- The parent who is convinced their child is ‘a little terror’ or ‘dumb’ or ‘clumsy’ may only notice and remember incidents that seem to ‘prove’ this is correct, and not believe anyone who tries to suggest otherwise.
So let’s just say that, as you read this, you’re thinking about your own child or teenager. Since you’ve known them literally their whole life, you know everything there is to know about them, right? Well, maybe – maybe not. And this can be a good thing, as they discover their own likes and dislikes, opinions and interests. The trick is to be able to let go of the parental reins sufficiently so that they can develop their own personality, while still offering guidance and setting boundaries when you need to.
AWARENESS IS A GREAT FIRST STEP
A real red flag for any relationship communication is if you find yourself saying or thinking things like, ‘he always…’ or ‘she never….’, because it tends to lock in a certain dynamic between people. It can make it harder for positive change to occur. And let’s face it, allowing for people and relationships to change is just as – or perhaps even more – important between parent and child as it is for any other relationship.
Whether the relationship’s hanging by a thread or solid as a rock, improving our understanding and connection with each other is always a good thing.
There are ways for parents to manage both their expectations and the way their child is acting inside and outside the home, if one of these is proving to be a problem.
But for any parent, the first thing is simply to stop and consider: are you only seeing one side of your child or teenager?