10/14/2011 01:40 pm ET Updated Dec 14, 2011

Do Our Children Do As We Say, Or Do As We Do?

Tara (not her real name) couldn't listen to another word. Her mother was complaining yet again that she'd gotten the short end of the stick in the divorce. Tara really didn't need to hear how horrible her father was.

Jordan closed his eyes in disgust as his father berated the coach. Jordan was really upset that the coach didn't play him much during the last game, but the last thing he wanted was for his father to make a spectacle of himself in front of the team.

Samantha prayed her mother wouldn't drink too much at the graduation reception. Her entire class and teachers would be there, and when her mother gets going, she becomes loud and boisterous. She could swear her friends are still talking about the time her mother got loaded and picked a fight with Jenna's dad.

Have you ever stopped yourself just as you were about to open your mouth knowing your children were in earshot?

Have you ever noticed that when you are behaving your worst your children somehow miraculously appear and see it all?

After a major family upheaval, such as a divorce, it's not uncommon for us to be so absorbed in our own pain that we're not always aware that others are hurting as well. When we're caught in the moment, we don't always consider that our behavior can have a huge impact on our children, no matter what their age.

Our children have strong feelings and are very conscious about how others react to our behavior. They can't help but personalize our actions and may believe that our misbehavior is somehow a negative reflection on them. If they find our behavior embarrassing, they may become self-conscious and ashamed.

Most of us start out with the best of intentions. We may have such a huge investment in trying to teach our children right from wrong we don't always stop to consider that they might form their own conclusions by observing what we don't want them to see.

It's easy for us to tell our children what not to do: "Don't smoke. Don't drink. Don't lie." We may wish that our children would do what we say, and not pay too much attention to observing what we do. Unfortunately, as we know, it doesn't work out that way.

Adolescents, in particular, are extremely sensitive to hypocrisy. When young people recognize that a parent says one thing, and acts another way, it can be very disturbing. When they observe their parents behaving poorly, they find themselves questioning every aspect of their present reality. If they have been invested in believing that their parents behave with integrity, they must now recalibrate their perspective.

It takes much more effort and discipline to practice what we preach. Knowing right from wrong, and the consequences of breaking rules, is not enough to guarantee that we will control our impulses and behave well. Demonstrating maturity and self-control will help us teach them to tolerate frustration, inhibit action and to behave appropriately. This is how young people learn problem-solving and communication skills and to become accountable for their actions.

Daniel Goleman, a world-renowned educator and author writes: "There is perhaps no psychological skill more fundamental than resisting impulse. It is the root of all emotional self-control, since all emotions, by their very nature lead to one or another impulse to act. He has written extensively about "Emotional Intelligence: a trait he describes as a set of skills, including control of one's impulses, self motivation, empathy and social competence in interpersonal relationships.

Even if you've been remiss in your behavior, it's not too late to become a good example.
Don't worry that it will seem hypocritical to change your behavior mid-stream.

You can actually come clean, and let your child know that you're committed to the careful discipline and restraint of making concerted changes.

If you were to say, "I know I can be hot headed when something really upsets me, but I'm working on keeping my cool," you are communicating a powerful message that you recognize the importance of maintaining appropriate control. When you are in the midst of trying situations, you can even share with your child how frustrated you are; but that you are working hard to find alternative means for dealing with your upsets.

We know that our children often put us on a pedestal, expecting us to be better than we are. They count on us to show them the way, and to have a moral compass they can emulate and follow. The responsibility can be awesome.

However, these expectations can nudge us to behave better than we might have otherwise.

Linda Lipshutz, M.S., LCSW is a psychotherapist serving individuals, couples and families. A Palm Beach Gardens resident, she holds degrees from Cornell and Columbia and trained at the Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy in Manhattan. She can be reached at her Gardens office at 561 630 2827, or online at