What is your child thinking? Ever wish you could read their minds?
Every day, there is a tug of war going on in your child’s mind and heart. No, it’s not “should I play video games or do my homework?” or “should I hit my sister or not?”. The conflicts go deeper; however, they are related to many behavioral dilemmas they face each day.
Psychologist Erik Erikson proposed that children develop psychologically through basic inner conflicts. As you parent, a huge part of your job is to seek to understand your child, and knowing their inner conflicts will help you with that task.
Inner Conflict #1: Trust Vs. Mistrust
One of the first tests a baby faces is feeding. According to Erikson, an infant will learn to trust if the parent consistently meets their basic needs. Infants must first learn to trust the parent before a wider sense of trust can develop.
As kids grow, this trust vs. mistrust continues to rage. They are constantly running into it as parents give them reasons to trust or mistrust them.
Be a parent who keeps their word, who your child knows is always there for them, who can be depended on to provide and protect.
Inner Conflict #2: Autonomy Vs. Doubt
According to Erikson, self-control and confidence begin to develop between 18 months and three years. It starts with toilet training, a child’s ability to feed and dress themselves, and the opportunity to make simple decisions. If a parent is over-controlling or over-protective at this stage, a child may develop dependency and doubt, but a parent who positively reinforces good autonomous (the freedom to govern themselves or control their own affairs) behavior at this stage increases a child’s confidence in their own abilities.
A child who is dependent on Mom or Dad for every decision does not learn to be responsible in childhood and eventually later will not be able to make the right decisions without an unhealthy dependency on their parents.
Inner Conflict #3: Initiative Vs. Guilt
Erikson explains that in order to mature, kids from 2-6 years of age should learn to be assertive and take initiative. If children are not given opportunities to be responsible and do things on their own, a sense of guilt may develop because they could come to believe that everything they are doing is wrong and unacceptable. If their sense of initiative fails to develop, then creativity, the ability to dream, and imagination may be stifled and replaced by a sense of inadequacy, dullness, apathy, disinterest, and false guilt.
The antidote? Encourage your child to be creative, imaginative and dream.
Inner Conflict #4: Belonging Vs. Abandonment
Children must develop a sense of belonging to their parent(s). In the early years, children often go through a stage where they are afraid of being abandoned. This “clinging” phase requires a parent to give a lot of attention, physical touch and reassuring words. This does not mean that you can’t leave them in someone else’s care, it simply means that when you are with them, you give them the assurances they need to know you are always going to be around for them.
Abandonment issues are fostered by parents who are always working and are not around or who push a child away when they need physical touch.
Being there consistently for your kids is so, so important. Parenting is not something you can do on the side; it takes TIME.
Inner Conflict #5: Acceptance Vs. Rejection
One way that we show love to our kids is to accept what they want to give. Don’t ridicule or reject when a child gives you a gift– whether a physical one or a gift of talking. Listening to a child talk and share his or her feelings fosters acceptance.
When we give our kids our time, we are helping to develop a sense of acceptance.
Inner Conflict #6: Intimacy Vs. Detachment
Learn how your child wants to be physically touched. Some like to cuddle, others like to be nearby but not touching. Some like to be tickled, some to just hold your hand. Learn what fills their love tank. Children hunger for appropriate touch. Without it, they feel separated, alone and detached from a parent. Intimacy also includes listening, eye contact and playing with your child.
Inner Conflict #7: Confidence Vs. Inadequacy
Let your child try lots of things. Encourage them when they succeed and when they fail. Be affirming, and spend more time building strengths than pointing out weaknesses. Focusing on your child’s failures and constantly criticizing will cause them to develop feelings of inadequacy and inferiority.
Inner Conflict #8: Courage Vs. Fear
Some fear is healthy–fear of danger and strangers–but irrational fear about every little thing, like the dark, people who love them, etc, will cause a child to grow up fearing way too many things in life.
A child imitates what they see. If you are afraid, they will be fearful. Of course, you should not scold your child for being fearful. Let them talk through it and tell them the truth that combats those fears. Talk to them about “what-is” instead of the “what-ifs.”
Inner Conflict #9: Sharing Vs. Selfishness
The first step in overcoming this struggle is helping your child understand real needs vs. desires and wants. Then teach them that it brings more joy to give than to receive. Again, remember that the child will do what they see you do. If you don’t give cheerfully to others, then your child will learn not to give.
Inner Conflict #10: Learning Vs. Ignorance
The parent is the first and most influential teacher in a child’s life. You can accept that role or abdicate it to others who may not always have YOUR child’s best interest in mind. Always answer your child’s questions truthfully, encourage them to ask why and to learn about everything around them.
When you send your child to school, you delegate the responsibility of teaching some subjects to their teachers. But that does not mean that you are not their teacher. They are learning much more from you than you may think.
Inner Conflict #11: Love Vs. Hate
Help your child understand and handle feelings of anger. Instead of saying, “you shouldn’t get angry,” talk through it with them. Instead of hurting others or himself, teach them to understand why they are angry.
The best way to help your children overcome anger is to overcome your own angry feelings, statements and actions.
Inner Conflict #12: Positive Vs. Negative
Long before most children learn how to say YES, they learn the power of saying NO. Find ways to correct through affirming instead of criticizing. Focus on the positive. Look for ways to continually deposit affirmation into your child’s emotional bank instead of constantly making withdrawals through putdowns, criticisms and harsh punishments.
The Tug-of-War Doesn’t End
Although it’s important for children to start learning early how to handle these inner conflicts, these tugs-of-war will be battles for years–in elementary school, during the teen years, and even in college and adulthood. The more you equip your child to handle the inner conflicts when they are little, the more success they will have in winning the tugs-of-war when they are older.
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This post is based on principles in the book Proactive Parenting by Larry Keefauver.