What’s wrong with saying the phrase, "What is wrong with you?" to children or adolescents? Nothing, if your tone is compassionate and you are wondering if they want to share their feelings with you.
But that is far different from what we hear all too often when a parent is exasperated with a child, throwing up their hands in desperation, and asking this question. Then it becomes a question that indicates a defect in the child’s being.
Not something we want to do, right?
There are no perfect parents and we are constantly learning and growing and we all make mistakes. But I vote for curbing this phrase when we are upset with kids.
When a trusted adult—a person upon whom the child is dependent for everything—indicates that something is wrong with the child, a child will internalize this and believe it. They will ask themselves what is wrong with them—and they won’t be able to find the answer. They may rely on their limited life experience and knowledge, and likely come up with something that is wrong, and that can have a lasting effect. Sometimes it will be something quite broad, like, “I am not good enough,” or, “I am a bad person.” The devastation of these kinds of internalized messages can take a lifetime to get over, even with therapy.
What to do instead?
Speak directly about a behavior you are concerned about, but continue to let the child know that they are special and that you love them. You just don’t like a certain behavior and you want them to address that or work on it. Don’t globalize to their whole being and create shame. Shame is tough for kids or adults to carry around and a difficult thing to get over.
Let’s talk examples:
What is wrong with you?, when used with exasperation, is a phrase I would put in the shaming and humiliating category and it can have long-lasting effects. Fortunately, it’s an easy one for us to be aware of and fix. Sometimes simple tips and awareness can make the most difference. Remembering how we talk to children is important, as it is part of what forms the way kids view themselves.
Alice Miller puts it another way: “We produce destructive people by the way we are treating them in childhood.”
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