Open Book: A Parent's Guide to Self-Disclosure with Kids
Do we dare reveal more of ourselves?
Posted Jan 25, 2011
I've told kids and adults I've worked with as a therapist about how I quit Little League because of my fear of dropping a fly ball in front of everyone. My story about the time I climbed a mountain in twenty below zero temperatures with the help of my two good friends is another in-session favorite. I will often answer questions about my preferences: my favorite restaurants, my dislike of those who dare cut me off in traffic. At times, I will share my reactions and feelings with patients. I've gotten angry, and I've even let my eyes well-up and fought the urge to wipe at them.
Though experts in the field differ in opinion, it is my belief that self-disclosure is not inherently bad practice. It is a tool that, well-wielded, can play a powerful role in creating positive change. It can also be a powerful tool for parents.
When done well, a parent's willingness to reveal themselves helps kids not only learn something to do (or not to do), it also (and perhaps more importantly) teaches kids about authenticity -- being direct, honest and open with others when it matters. In short, parents who self-disclose appropriately (and we'll go over the guidelines in a moment), are teaching kids how to connect with others.
Communication is inevitable between two people who are in each other's presence. To assume you can present a true blank slate to another person (even if it's for a valid, therapeutic reason) is complete fantasy. You can easily prove this for yourself by doing an activity I first experienced during my training.
Sit across from someone, preferably someone you know, but it doesn't really matter. A stranger is fine (and has its own interesting aspects). Make eye contact and hold it. The only direction (other than maintaining your eye-lock with each other) is to NOT communicate anything for one minute.
You (and pretty much everyone) doing this will fail. Someone will smile, and the other will at least flinch. One person might sniff, and the other will break eye contact ("Hey, I'm nothing to sniff at! What is she thinking about me?"). Neuroscientists have documented in recent years that our brains are wired for communication, and therefore you will react to each other, and whether you intend a message or not, one will be received. And just like in "real" interactions, communication has little to do with intent, and everything to do with impact. What people do in response to you is what really matters, regardless of what you wanted.
Since self-disclosure is inevitable, instead of avoiding it, parents can benefit from conscious, mindful doling out of sincerity.
We hestitate to self-disclose due, ultimately, to fears of rejection and exclusion. As parents, we might fear losing our ground as authority figures. Again, we are wired for communication, and that wiring has to do with our innate need for social connection (and therefore our avoidance of being shut out in the cold). When our clients, students, patients or our children are struggling to adapt to change or the demands of life, a well-timed, authentic self-expression, story, anecdote, or even a mere genuine gesture, can tip the balance in a positive direction.
What are some examples of times where parental self-disclosure might be helpful? Consider the following:
* Your eight year old is scared about going to a friend's house for the first time and you remember a time when you went through something similar
* A teenager is struggling against peer pressure and there was a time when you let peer pressure get the best of you
* You've forgotten to follow through on something very important to your twelve year old. You're tempted to give excuses, but you know there were times when adults let you down when you were young.
* Before moving on with your busy day, you pause to look your child in the eye and tell them how sincerely "cool" or "awesome" they are for no reason other than it's how you feel and you want them to know it
Here are some guidelines to consider in upping the authenticity and injecting self-disclosure in your interactions with kids.
* What is the developmental level of the child? Teens have the reasoning and comprehension skills to handle more self-disclosure from adults. The key question to ask is whether the self-disclosure will give them a "hook" to hang their experience on. Will it guide and support, or will it confuse and make them feel as though you're pressuring them in some way? Are they ready to hear this? Am I burdening them?
* Is this a "teachable moment?" If your child is really upset, often the last thing they want is a lesson, lecture, wag of the finger, or shimmering nugget of advice. Check in with yourself to verify this. Think of a time when you were really upset and someone starting trying to "teach" you. Did you respond by saying,"Hey, thanks! That's just what I needed"?
* Remember that authenticity is the root of connection. Our social brains know when someone is speaking from the core, and we tend to take note. A well-timed, and well-considered story about one's self takes the focus, at least temporarily, off of the the child. With decreased focus on themselves, there's less distortion, more openness to messages from the outside. They lower their defenses just a bit, and, helpful messages can get through. Even if it's merely a smile and an encouraging word about what their efforts mean to you; how they've impacted you in that moment. When those with less "power" in an exchange feel the "dominant" one humbling, sharing, giving of their true selves, there is a creative, and perhaps curative power there.
* Self-disclosure can be disarming during a conflict. It's hard to argue or take issue with someone else's experience. Kids may not feel your disclosures apply, but they rarely push back and challenge your experience as inherently false. If you're genuine and giving your kid the message that you're not trying to have them feel differently, you're just sharing something about yourself, it can go a long way toward them seeing past the conflict to the connection between you.
* Be a good self-disclosure "gambler." As the Kenny Roger's song says, you have to know when to hold 'em, and when to fold 'em. In therapy, and in relationships with our kids, you need to read your audience and know when you're going too far with self-disclosure. My bottom line as a therapist is to give myself at least five to ten seconds when the impulse to disclosure crosses my mind. During my moment's pause, I ask a simple question, the answer to which determines whether I reveal my inner landscape, or keep it well-fenced in. Who's needs are being met right now? Theirs or mine?
* Keep it "Q and A." Quick and authentic, not question and answer. Kids, particularly older ones, don't sign up for interrogations. Get in and get out with what you have to say. Keep it meaningful, genuine and from sounding anything like a sleep-inducing neverending story. (That may have worked when they were four, but not any more.)
We should not deny our children access to who we really are. Again, we're communicating our true feelings whether we want to or not. When we're willing to mindfully reveal ourselves to them, we show them how to give to others. What greater lesson is there?