This week’s guest post is by featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope that you find it useful and look forward to future posts from Esther.
“They Believed Me.”
I recently heard the British journalist John McCarthy say these words. McCarthy was kidnapped and held
hostage for 5 years– some of it in solitary confinement. When asked how he recovered from this terrible
ordeal, he spoke about the help he had received from professionals and family and friends. He noted
how important it was that they knew and acknowledged what a terrible ordeal he had undergone.
McCarthy is now involved with Freedom from Torture, an organization that helps survivors of various
forms of torture and abuse. He explained that some survivors of abuse aren’t believed initially. He
stressed how important it was to have others believe him.
What in the world has this to do with parenting? A lot.
Our relationships with our children are filled with times when we choose to believe or choose to ignore
or choose to outright reject what they tell us.
Our children tell us daily how they feel: happy, frustrated, scared, confident, confused, excited, hurt.
They tell us what they think they can or cannot do. They tell us what they like. Sometimes they can
express these things in words, sometimes in frowns or smiles or body language. When we don’t listen,
or when we listen but don’t believe them, they may express themselves with fists or temper tantrums
or, as my son did on one memorable morning, by barricading himself in his room because he didn’t want
to go to kindergarten.
My son complained he was bored. I could understand why some of the kindergarten curriculum was
boring, but it wasn’t like he had mastered everything on it, the teacher seemed nice, and he was making
friends. It was hard to believe it was that difficult for him to go to school.
I know I’m not the only parent who has struggled with believing a child.
First of all, it is hard to actually listen to a child because of all the other things we have to do as
grownups: work, responsibilities, worries, self-care.
Then, it’s hard to believe a child when what they tell us doesn’t mesh with our own view of reality. Since
we know more about the world than they do, we assume our view is accurate and think the child must
And it’s hard when we are afraid of what might be asked of us. We are afraid of the broader implications
for ourselves and others if we accept that the child is telling us the truth.
And, of course, sometimes children deliberately lie to us.
What can parents do overcome these barriers to believing our children?
- Establish times when we are available to listen to our children without other distractions. These
might be dinnertime conversations where each person shares something about their day. Or
bedtime routines. Or a weekly date with each child.
- Get to know your child. Learn about child development and temperamental differences. Get to
know your child’s world. Visit daycare and school. Talk to teachers and other parents. Talk to
your child’s friends.
- Resist the immediate urge to fix the problem (see You Don’t Have to Fix It). Believing what they
tell us does not mean that we can or should do something. Believing and validating how a child
feels may be enough. Even when it isn’t enough, it conveys trust. Our trust allows a child to tell
us more about the problem. Trust can give us time and patience to investigate further and
- Even when we suspect a child is lying, it may be worthwhile to look at what is behind the lie. Is
the child afraid? Feeling helpless or overwhelmed? Dealing with some larger complicated issue?
- Don’t be afraid to seek outside help. Know that it may take time and effort on your part. If the
recommendations don’t make sense to you, keep looking for more information and help.
The Whole-Brain Child by Siegel and Bryson is an excellent resource for understanding how children
think and grow. It explains strategies parents can use to help children understand their emotions and
fears. And strategies to help children deal with those feelings.
And my son? After several conferences with teachers and staff we sought an evaluation from a child
psychologist. The psychologist told us, “he says he’s bored because he is bored.” We believed the
psychologist and so did the school. Some changes were made that helped. It wasn’t smooth sailing for
the rest of his childhood but we all survived. He now has a college degree and works as an engineer.
Esther Schiedel is parent to three adults, grandparent to three boys, and a Certified Family Life Educator. She provides parenting education through classes and workshops through LBCC and through her business, Sharing Strengths. She became interested in parenting education when she became a parent and had a need for more information and support.