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Memories and Messages to Last a Lifetime - Part 3

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This is the third in a series of articles focusing on the various types of messages that are sent and received in families. Last month's article examined how parents can learn to recognize and understand their child's feelings if they have the capacity and motivation to remember their own childhood experiences. That article defined and gave examples of proactive messages. Unfor-tunately, all of our parental messages are not proactive, that is, thoughtfully directed in an intentional manner. Rather, parents also send reactive messages which are accidental. This article will focus on the reactive and accidental mes-sages we send. Other methods of sending messages, through modeling behaviors we hope to promote and offering carefully chosen books, will also be discussed.

One example of an accidental message comes from my own childhood. As an adult, I often have trouble figuring out whether or not I am really sick. This may sound strange and might be understood by recog-nizing that I am rarely ill and therefore I don't have much practice figuring it out. Or maybe it's because as a therapist, I am often thinking about how emotional health impacts physical well-being.

But here's the thing. My mother "taught" me what sick looked like and which set of symptoms qualified as sick. Can you relate to my childhood experiences? In my family, the only way you got to stay home from school was if you had a temperature or were vomiting. So that is what I learned sick looked like and felt like. As an adult, even a migraine can throw me off, because it doesn't look or feel like what I learned "sick" was. Now I only know I was really ill when I feel better and can compare the two experiences.

Another example of an unintentional message comes from author Susan Braudy in her book, Between Marriage and Divorce. She gives an example of how powerful nonverbal messages can be, leading to firmly held, but erroneous, convictions. Growing up, she never dis-cussed either sex or religion with her mother. Instead, "my mother handed me a series of illustrated booklets about sex, when I was twelve. She had her I'm uneasy so don't ask look on her face. When I was eight," she recalls, "and asked her if she believed in God, she got that strained look on her face and told me that it was her private business. Once I found a tampax and asked her what it was. She got the same look on her face and said nothing. So that's how I knew that tampax had something to do with religion."

Modeling the behaviors we hope to encourage is one way to send a message to our children. In fact, 69% of all communication is non-verbal. So while we might hope that our children will follow the old adage, "do what I say, not what I do," it is not likely to happen.

I tell parents that if they want to encourage a behavior they had better be doing it them-selves. Have you ever con-sciously set about to model a behavior that you wished to encourage in your children? Certainly we all offer our children lots of opportunities to "see us in action." When our children notice that we are polite and listen without inter-ruption, or use our seatbelts, or take turns, we are modeling positive behaviors.

Naturally they also observe us in our less splendid moments. Perhaps we are impatient with our spouse or parents or sneak ahead of someone else in the checkout line at the store. If you doubt your children's observational skills, listen to their play and notice how they sound when they are taking on the role of mommy or daddy. It's frightening how similar their intonations, patterns of speech, and dialogue is to the real voices of the real mommy and daddy.

Intentional messages and behaviors are every bit as powerful as accidental ones. I encourage you to take some time to jot down the behaviors you want to promote. Next develop a method to send your intentional messages. Give it a try, and sit back and watch what happens.

The books we choose for our children can send important messages. I am not suggesting that every book deliver a message, but story-telling is one way to bring things out in the open. I search high and low for a book that may address an issue I think a child I am seeing in therapy is working on or struggling over. Your local library and book-stores are terrific resources for all kinds of children's books. Don't neglect to take advan-tage of your friendly librarian. Remember librarians have a master's degree in library science but complain that the main question they are asked is "where's the bathroom." Generally librarians are eager to help.

Stern's Bookstore (773-883-5100), located on the north side of Chicago (2004 West Roscoe St., Chicago, 60618), is another excellent resource for all kinds of materials for children. Well known to area therapists, teachers and other professionals working with children, Stern's offers lists describing some of the materials available. I have found books that deal with rumors and revenge, problem-solving, self esteem, anger, cliques and phonies, self-affirmation, divorce, and death. Another of my personal favor-ites helps children understand a gay Uncle and his partner.

Stern's also carries many children's books about being adopted and can order any book you need.

Next month's article will focus on family games that promote communication. I will also discuss the three most important messages I believe parents can offer their children.
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