An ivy-league quarterback came to see me with complaints of his obsessional thinking about the weight of footballs. He later recalled that when he was four years old, his father watched him struggling to pick up a grocery bag and said with disdain, “You’ll never be able to lift two pounds!”
Now in his 20s, this bright and talented football player was seized with doubts every time he made a pass in a game. In fact, whenever he lifted a book or a bag, he asked himself, does this weigh two pounds? Can the flip comment of a parent have such deleterious impact?
When the young man finally confronted his father in therapy, he could not believe that his father had no recollection of the time when his father had said these words. Though the football player cognitively knew that two pounds was no challenge for him, he knew that he was emotionally paralyzed—not because of these words but how they had so concretely characterized the feelings of inadequacy that were expressed in so many other ways before his father actually verbalized these words. For years the young man had been tormented by this comment of his dad, but it wasn’t this comment that had been so injurious but that in many other ways the father had communciated that the son was weak, incompetent, and inadequate.
Of course, all parents at one time or another make comments to their children that they don’t literally mean—whether in anger or as a mistake. While our words are important and we need to be sensitive, raising children does not require that we formulate every thought such that we’re walking a tightrope, nor should we anticipate that an offhanded comment expressed during our exasperation will result in permanent emotional damage of our child. It’s not that this father had forgotten the incident that was difficult for his son to understand, but that the father did not own up to the general message that he had conveyed that his son was not strong enough or good enough—these were the feelings that the offhanded comment crystalized. This father was unaware of the impact of his actions on multiple occasions such that the young man interpreted that he was inadequate, weak, and a disappointment, ultimately concretized in the “two pound bag” incident.
As this strong collegiate, now man, sat weeping before his stunned father, the precise words stated only once were not the problem; however, the Father’s message unconsciously veiled and conveyed over time, again and again, resulted in a paralyzing message that was necessary to work through. The father's words confirmed the boy's impression. While the well-intentioned father reaffirmed his love, much as he had in the past, the quarterback needed to sort out this love that had painfully imbedded a severe blow that he relived for more than fifteen years, obsessing about whether or not he could lift two pounds.
It’s critical to know about the messages that we send to our children—not only through our verbal communications but from our attitudes, expressions, and nonverbal cues. We need to ask them what they really believe we think of them, to monitor the impact of our intentions, and to correct inaccurate impressions that we do not intend. While we are not walking on eggshells as parents, we are primarily responsible to protect our children from harm—including harm that we generate. And while it’s true that parents may be unfairly judged by children, particularly when our kids do not understand our concerns and disagree with our judgments, if at all possible, we do want them to add weight to their burden and suffer pain as our ultimate goal is for their benefit and wellbeing. Our cheers and admonishons should be clearly understood as secure, heartfelt love that do not create doubt or uncertainty.
John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D., is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of How to Talk With Your Kids About Sex that explains what kids need from parents at each stage of their sexual development and how parents can effectively communicate. For more information please visit www.dr.chirban.com and www.sexual problems.com.