Part of Kathy Caprino’s series “Parenting for Joy and Success”
In my 12 years of work in the helping professions, first as a marriage and family therapist then as a career and personal success coach, I’ve been absolutely floored by what I’ve heard parents say and do that severely damages their children.
In addition, I’ve learned through working with over 11,000 mid-life men and women who want more from their life, livelihood and relationships, that what their parents said and did to them many years ago dramatically influenced their own self-concept and their ability to shape their lives in satisfying ways.
It’s clear that, either intentionally or unconsciously, wounded parents wound their children.
The critical takeaway from my recent work with adult children of narcissists too is that the words you utter habitually, and the actions you take as a parent, can and will influence how your child thinks and feels about him/herself, potentially for a lifetime.
It’s so important to be extremely careful about the process and content of our parenting. For instance, if you’ve experienced pain and damage from your own childhood, you’ll want to get therapeutic help to learn how to better manage yourself, your emotions, anxieties, doubts, fears, and “power gaps” because your children will be impacted through osmosis. In other words, try as hard as you may to be supportive and productive in your parenting, your kids will do as you DO, not as you say, and they will integrate some terribly painful lessons that you didn’t mean for them to learn, if you’re not ever vigilant about how you behave and communicate.
I hope you’ll do your child an immense, life-changing favor and make sure you
don’t injure your own children with the trauma and baggage you were burdened with from your parents.
I’m a parent too, with my own set of childhood wounds and baggage, and I’ve made my share of mistakes and missteps, for sure. So this doesn’t come from a judgmental place – I’ve been there many times (struggling to be the best parent I can be). But it does emerge from years of working with people who have been traumatized by parents who, without knowing it, caused damage that isn’t easily healed.
Below are the 10 things I believe parents should NEVER say or do to their children, if they want to ensure their children grow up as healthy, happy, balanced, self-reliant, self-confident, and self-loving as possible:
“Your idea (or you) are stupid.”
If you want to teach your children to think for themselves, you never want to give them the idea that their ideas are “stupid,” or that they are unintelligent and incapable of thinking for themselves. Instead, you want to help them build their own internal trust, capabilities and powerful decision-making abilities, so that they can work through new ideas and directions in an effective way that will bring them to the right course of action for the best life possible.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Again, great parenting is not about you needing to prove you’re right. In fact, that’s poor parenting. Healthy parenting is all about helping your children address their life’s challenges in a confident, self-empowered way. If you tell them they don’t know what they’re talking about, they’ll be shamed into being quiet, not expressing their thoughts and opinions, and they’ll begin to see you as someone who isn’t safe to share their inner most doubts and authentic thoughts with. Don’t belittle them for expressing ideas that may not be fully “baked” or fleshed out yet.
“You’re wrong to feel that.”
I remember years ago, a neighbor of mine screamed at her young son, saying “You’ll go to church today and you’ll like it!” That’s not healthy parenting, in any way, shape or form. Sure, you may want to instill in your child a belief in the value of attending church, synagogue or mosque (or follow any other tradition) but you have no right to tell them how they should feel about it.
How would you feel if someone told you “you better be happy” about something that you were miserable about?
When parents insist that their children feel or think a certain way, it leads to one thing only: children believing deep down that it’s not ok to be who they really are. And they sense that they can’t be fully honest with you or reveal their true emotions. What’ll happen then is that they’ll to stop telling you the truth, and stop feeling that the world is safe for them to be who they are. And you really don’t want that, especially in the teen years where risky behaviors are all around them and you’ll want them to feel free to discuss things that scare them.
“You’ll never be able to do that.”
Truthfully, you have no idea what your child is capable of achieving in the future, even if you think you do right now. I’ve seen people do utterly astounding and amazing things in their lives that their parents and others told them were impossible. Saying, “You’ll never be able to do that” is slapping them down and cutting them off at the knees.
Sadly, when you parent that way, you’ll also be cutting off some amazing opportunities in the future for them to soar and thrive. Don’t YOU be the one to tell them that they are not capable – there’s enough of that naysaying and diminishing, critical feedback in the world that surrounds them. Let them find out themselves what they want to pursue, and what they’re capable of.
“You’re too young to know what you want.”
I’ve seen in my therapeutic and energy healing work that we humans know and perceive things very accurately and deeply at a very young age. We DO know what we think feel and want. So when you tell your child that they don’t know what they want, you make them doubt themselves, and you undermine their belief in themselves, and they begin to question themselves at every turn.
As an empowering parent, you want to teach them, from a very young age, to honor what they feel and think, and to respect and work with that. Then, when they’re old enough to leave home, they’ll be much more able to choose positive and productive directions, relationships, career avenues, and other important events and experiences that will be beneficial in their life, without needing your or other people’s advice at every turn.
“I hate you.”
We all lose our tempers sometimes and fly off the handle. We’re human. But using “hate” language is something we have to avoid. Telling your child you hate him crushes his sense of self, and is very scary for young child, and damaging for an older one.
Having a parent reject us can feel as scary as “death” because it taps into a primal fear that all humans have – of being abandoned.
If you’re so enraged and out of control that you want to say something hateful, you need to take a time out and absent yourself from the room and the situation until you can get it together, and speak more calmly, compassionately, lovingly and respectfully. You’re the adult – you have to act like one.
“Why aren’t you more like your brother/sister?”
If you’ve had siblings, you probably know exactly what it feels like to be compared to your brother or sister. It’s bad all the way around. If you’re compared and come out on top, you feel guilty and ashamed for being more successful, pretty, talented, intelligent, etc. If you compare unfavorably, you feel “less than” and inferior – and that makes you angry, resentful, sick and feeling unloved and unappreciated.
Each child is a separate soul and a separate entity. Don’t compare them as a way to elicit the behavior you want. That creates conflict and tension, and often pits your children against each other in harmful ways that last a very long time.
“You have no right to say (or think) that.”
Freedom of speech is a right that we fiercely uphold in civilized societies and civilizations. Every human being has the right to think and share what he/she believes, even if you hate to hear it.
It’s not a matter of “rights.” Your child has the right to think and feel what she does. But it IS a matter of respect, compassion, care, empathy, etc. If you feel that your child or teen is not respectful to you, then address that head on. Tell them why their behavior demonstrates a lack of respect, and articulate clearly what you want and deserve instead. Set very clear expectations how you want your interpersonal dynamics to go with your child.
“I can’t wait until you leave.”
I hear this one a great deal, among parents who feel that their children and teens are exasperating and extremely “difficult.” The parents don’t know how to handle the challenges that the child presents, and they feel intense anger, frustration, and ineptitude and they want that pain to stop. So they tell the child “I can’t wait until you’re gone.”
Think about how that’s perceived and felt from a child’s or teen’s perspective. It’s crippling because they’re just doing their best every day to try to navigate their own, very tough and anxiety-provoking challenges in today’s high-pressured world. For their own parent to be fed up and throw his/her hands up and say “I’m done with you,” is frightening and deeply saddening for a child. Even if you think your kid is “tough” and can take that kind of comment, don’t utter it. You’re the parent and you need to demonstrate that you can effectively handle what life is throwing you and your family.
“You should be ashamed of yourself.”
As Brené Brown talks about in her work on vulnerability and shame, shame is an “unspoken epidemic, the secret behind many forms of broken behavior.” She shares that “shame is the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging. It’s the most primitive human emotion we all feel—and the one no one wants to talk about. If left to its own devices, shame can destroy lives.”
There are so many other ways to communicate that your child needs to revise his/her behavior – shaming is not the way to go. Talk about how the behavior hurt someone, or how it’s not appropriate for the situation, or it reveals irresponsibility or a value that you think the child might want to look at more closely. But don’t shame them.
Do these behaviors hit home for you? Which ones do you struggle with most? Know that you’re not alone. Please share below.
For more about healthy, productive parenting, join Kathy in her Parenting For Success and Joy private coaching program and read her posts on Raising Self-Confident Children and Effective, Empowering Parenting.