We humans have a need to feel that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. We need to belong, to be with people who want us. We need to know that we are lovable even when we do not such lovable things, that nobody will ever be so upset with us that they will no longer love us or want us or leave us; they will be disappointed and maybe even angry with us, but they will not abandon us. In other words, to have a sense of worthiness as Dr. Brene Brown so eloquently puts it, we need a human environment that makes us feel that way. On a regular basis.
That, in a nutshell, is what it takes for a human child to grow into a confident adult and for an adult to enter into healthy relationships – social, professional and romantic. Of course, genetics makes a difference as does our physical environment, but feeling cared for and knowing that someone is heavily invested in keeping us safe and with them, has a huge effect on our ability to take reasonable risks (career, marriage).
What parents (and teachers) need to keep in mind is that it is during early childhood that children develop a sense of who they are and how effective they can be in their environment. This self-image becomes so deeply ingrained in the mind of a child that it becomes self-fulfilling. When parents (and even teachers) are not careful, they can unwittingly set in motion a tragic spiral. Because, here’s the thing: it is not uncommon that at the same time as a baby or young child needs a great deal of validation and care, their parents and teachers may be as emotionally helpless and immature as they are.
In my practice, I have come across beautiful women who feel unattractive; smart, articulate people with no self-confidence and teens with nothing to invest in and no one to cheer them on. They often try to numb the pain of feeling alone in the world with alcohol or drugs, they cut themselves and they seek out other disenfranchised people who can empathize with them and take the place of a “family”. This family, however, is built on common needs, not on unconditional love. The hole inside goes unfilled.
In 28 years of working with children and families here are some of the most common, hurtful things that parents or teachers can do or say to their children and students and why they are probably said. I would also like to suggest what might have been said instead.
- You’ll never amount to anything – Children who hear this message from their parents or other significant adult in their life on a regular basis, usually either end up believing it and fulfilling this prophesy or they become wildly successful just to prove everyone wrong. But such success is symbolic and tied up with hurt. It comes short of providing the feeling of fulfillment, self-contentment and healthy pride. It will forever be accompanied by stress, anxiety and a deep feeling of emptiness.
Often, the parent/s of such a child are counting on him/her to make them look good. To elevate them in the eyes of the family or of their peers. Most children of don’t understand this dynamic. All they know is that they were never “good enough” to simply be loved.
What should have been said instead:
Ask the child if s/he is having difficulty in school or with friends. Offer to have them speak with someone other than you if that is a problem. Assure them that they are a good kid who needs some tips or assistance. Most important, let them know that you are behind them all the way.
- You’re just like X-lazy, selfish…(fill in the blanks)- NEVER compare a child to someone who is unsuccessful or someone whom they know you do not like or of whom you hold a low opinion. That is you talking out of fear or disgust and comes across as a form of threatened abandonment. It can be heard as “If you don’t shape up, you’ll end up like X and I will not be able to love you. “ It means that your love (and care) are conditional. It may be a parent’s way of getting their child to behave in a sanctioned manner, thus proving that the parent did “a good job”.
What should have been said instead:
But, if you tell your child that you know that s/he is capable of acting differently, that is a whole different discussion. It is the opening sentence of ongoing communication that will inform your child of social norms while letting you know about what your child can and cannot handle. This cooperation goes a long way in preventing a break down in the relationship. Otherwise, at some point, your child will stop trying to please you and retaliate. Or simply leave, physically or emotionally. This is never a good scenario.
- You are such a disappointment – Often this particular phrase is said to one’s self, or out loud after much arguing. On the other hand, the lesser, “I am so disappointed in you” is said in a moment of frustration, often in front of others. Now the child has to deal with this message as well as save face. This phrase can damage a child and even an adult; it can also boomerang. Once again, an adult has certain beliefs about childhood in general, or a certain child in particular and is angry, frustrated and, yes, disappointed that the child is not behaving the way it was anticipated that s/he would. And that is where the problem lies. We do not have the right to make our expectations of someone the exact path they must follow. They may not like that way or they may be unable to tread there. After hearing a parent say these lethal words, the average child will walk away deeply wounded. Many will yell back something equally devastating, just to save face. What gets lost here is trust. Trust that one is accepted even if s/he is different in some essential way than the parent. What should have been said and done instead:
Parents need to accept all hues, even ones that they don’t particularly like. A very brave and useful act for the parent to do would be to face the issue openly and head on. For example:
Why does it bother me so much that Alex wants to go into business and not a profession like medicine or law?
When my college student daughter prefers to go on an annual hike with her friends instead of a family celebration, why do I feel so panicked?
In the first case example, it can be a matter of wanting for your child what you were unable to achieve for yourself or what was not available to you at his age. What you wanted may not be at all appropriate for your c hild. You will either alienate your child or make him do what you want out of guilt or misplaced respect for your authority. If it ends up being the wrong choice, it will put a real wedge between you . Our children are not newer versions of ourselves. You cannot go back and vicariously make better decisions. That train has left the station. If, instead of encouraging specific fields of endeavor, you urge and teach your children to be honest, thoughtful people who take pride in their work, then you have done your job as a parent.
In the second case study, the feeling of panic may indicate fear of the opinion of others. “What will people say?” is very insidious. Most people care about “looking good” to others, especially family and members of their community. It’s a matter of self –worth in some social circles.
What I would recommend in this case is to accept, but ask why. You might be surprised at how experiences that are enjoyable to you, are very much not fun for your grown child. Asking that they make a short appearance and wish the celebrants well before they do their own thing is teaching courtesy. They will learn how they can do both activities in a way that is accepted by all parties. The teaching of one’s children to look at situations from the other’s lens and then try to problem solve is a major life skill. You will have given your child a huge gift.
- I don’t have time for this nonsense- This is meant and heard in its truer form, i.e., “I don’t have time for your nonsense”. When said to a young child, it gives the message that s/he is not as important as whatever the parent is busy with; to an adolescent, it is further proof of being put down. In either case, it is a clear message to the child that their need, their issue, is just not of much importance to their parent. It is putting a screen, if not a wall, between parental needs and those of the child. It’s like a stacked deck-the child never wins. This promotes a feeling of helplessness in a child and rage in an adolescent.
This type of message is usually said when the parent is really trying to get things done and feels put upon by the child. It may be a very real and correct reading of the situation. The parent may be absolutely correct in wanting to concentrate on a more pressing issue at that moment.
What Should have been said instead:
However, there is another way. Why not, “I am really strung out now. I’m swamped with work. Can we talk about this tomorrow so that I can give the matter the time and thought it deserves?” The child gets a whole different message here, one that connotes respect and offers hope that his needs will be heard at least be considered. S/he also gets to see how one can stay civil when overwhelmed.
- One more crack like that and you can leave this house- I mean this to be a reaction to a lack of respect. The words and the tone that is used when making such a remark suggests that the speaker, usually a parent, wants to set the record straight as to who is in charge. Since the parent pays the bills and the mortgage, the reasoning goes, the house is his/her property, making the child’s presence in the home subject to the parents’ whim. This is what power struggles are all about. It is also what often gets kids to leave home way before they are ready to fend for themselves. As one very angry and hurt adolescent client told me, “I don’t stay where I am not wanted.” What should have been said instead
A much better approach would be to put the emphasis on building character and setting values. Saying something like, ”Your Dad and I are really very uncomfortable with you speaking that way. If you have a problem with something going on in the house tell us and we can discuss it. We would like to respect your needs and expect you to behave the same way towards us.”
Make clear that certain speech and attitude is not ok, but there is never a question that the child is about to be evicted. This home belongs to the family. Even teens are usually able to comply. In fact, many teens have shared with me that they have “tested” their parents to see if they would ever be kicked out. There is a real sense of relief when they discover that their folks are made of stronger stuff and their place in the home is secure.
It all boils down to the importance of making the child, of any age, feel at home in his home.
It means taking the time to figure out, together, what the underlying issues are and then working to address them. Sometimes the reasons for bad behavior are neurological. (Often it is discovered that the child/teen has been trying to live with a word retrieval disability, dyslexia, ADHD in its many forms, sensory dysfunction and other forms of unseen difficulties which cause the child to become anxious ).
It means that the parent(s) need to walk the “high road” between the child/teen’s behaviors which may signal that there is a problem on the one hand, and parental instincts for what is right for their child on the other.
It means that parents act like adults and remember that It’s not about them. This is no easy task. Often one’s progeny can really say very hurtful things. Usually, the energy of the statement is an indication of how the child is feeling. Hone in on that.
Most negative behaviors can change, BUT they need to be worked on with a professional in the form of cognitive behavioral therapy or other cases-specific therapies.
There are behaviors which are caused by more serious neurological conditions such as BiPolar Disorder, which goes beyond the scope of this article. Again, professional help for both the child and parent(s) is crucial.
So much can change for the better these days. We know so much more than even a few years ago about the brain and associated behavior. It’s a real chance to improve a child’s life and to help the family become more accepting of difference.