Three Ways Parents Undermine Their Child's Sense of Identity

These three common phrases are likely doing more harm than good.

Posted Sep 09, 2019

Parents want the best for their kids. But all too often, in trying to empathize with their child, parents will actually shut down any relational connection that might have otherwise had the opportunity to develop. Forming and maintaining a relationship with your developing child is a dynamic and difficult process that is more easily hindered than helped. But it's worth the work! Here are a few common well-intended statements that likely have the opposite effect than desired.

1. When I was your age…

This old stand-by often precedes what is thought to be sage wisdom. Sometimes, it's as harmless as "When I was your age, we didn't have Fortnight and Minecraft!" But more often, it's a hurtful message that unintentionally communicates a parent's judgment of the child. When a child shares something with their parent, it opens a channel for validation and emotional connection—don't waste these opportunities!

Parents who use this phrase often shift the attention away from the child; making distance where there could have been closeness. I had a child in my office express sadness and loneliness after having moved away from elementary school friends. Her parent interjected: "When I was your age, I had friends too and I don't keep in touch with them anymore! I made new friends!"

This parent was trying their best to tell their child: "I know how hard this is. I know it hurts and you don't like your new school. I know how scared and alone you feel. But, I promise that it won't always be like this. I believe that you're a great friend and there are many more friends to be made at your new school. I believe in you and will be eagerly waiting at home for you to tell me about them soon." What a sweet sentiment!

But, what does their statement actually communicate? "You're a child with limited life experience and no ability to see what's coming in the future. I'm an adult and I'm fine the way I am so, therefore, you will also be fine eventually. And, if you don't trust me and change your emotions, then that's foolish, youthful, naïveté."

Which would you prefer to hear from your parents?

2. Sticks and stones…

Or, if you prefer, "suck it up," "toughen up," or "be a man!" Personally, I'm all for mental toughness, but it should be developed with encouragement, not shame. Researchers who study the factors that enable some people to thrive in the face of adversity have labeled this trait "grit." But when these phrases are used in response to a child's disclosure of emotional pain, the message communicated is that painful emotions are not valid experiences; they should be ignored, pushed down, and set aside.

Instead, kids should be able to identify their emotions and experience them as an important part of life on earth without associating them with the shame imparted by a parent's poorly chosen words. Humans experience undesirable emotions on a daily basis. We don't want children to grow up mistaking these very normal experiences for shame and weakness! Parents whose knee-jerk reaction to their child's disclosure of emotional pain is to use one of these phrases may want to consider how more aptly chosen words would better develop an emotionally resilient child.  

To the little boy who cries after losing his baseball game:

Option 1: "Hey, don't worry about it buddy, it's just a game. Toughen up and be a man, okay? You don't want all your friends to think you're a crybaby!"

  • Devalues the child's hobby
  • Reinforces the "men don't cry" stereotype
  • Implies that feeling strong emotions is immature/weak/shameful
  • Provides no practical or emotional support

Option 2: "Losing is such a bummer! You must really care a lot about baseball. Do you want to talk about it on the way home or would you rather just plan our next trip to the batting cages?"

  • Offers empathy and understanding to emotions
  • Recognizes that emotions have causes and meanings
  • Provides the child with the opportunity to choose a coping mechanism (social or practical)

3. Do you have any idea how it makes me feel when you…

Again, well-intentioned parents are trying to communicate to their child that actions have consequences and that behaving in an appropriate manner is a reasonable expectation. But instead, this phrase teaches the child a couple of unintended lessons.

First, children learn that they have the ability to manipulate their parents' emotions. Guess what happens next time they're looking to lash out? Probably just about the exact same thing that happened before the parent said: "Do you have any idea how much it hurts Mommy when you…"

Second, children learn that they have a responsibility for their parents' emotions. One of the cognitive tasks of a developing brain is to determine the extent to which newly learned rules have external significance. Children often struggle to determine what's in their control and what's not. A popular belief among elementary school-aged children whose parents are in the processing of divorce is that there's hope for reconciliation if only they themselves behave better.

While a parent's frustration may be undeniably caused by little Johnny's temper tantrum in the grocery store, care should be taken in expressing this connection. Because the next time Mom comes home from work frustrated because her boss is a jerk, Johnny may find himself wondering what he did wrong to cause that.

The way we say things makes more of an impact than the intention with which we say them. The messages we communicate, especially to children, should be carefully constructed and humbly evaluated.

References

Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Board on Children, Youth, and Families, & Committee on Supporting the Parents of Young Children. (2016). Parenting matters: Supporting parents of children ages 0-8 National Academies Press. doi:10.17226/21868

Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance (First Scribner hardcover ed.). New `York, NY: Scribner.