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Child Development

Caution—A Child’s Mistakes Can Last a Lifetime

Parents must take care that their children not misinterpret their criticism.

Sad Boy/CCO Public Domain
Source: Sad Boy/CCO Public Domain

In the above title, I’m employing the term mistake in a dual sense. It’s intended to refer to a child’s misbehavior that prompts another (usually the parent) to reproach or reprimand them. But it’s also meant to allude to the child’s exaggeratedly adverse self-judgment that can result from caustic blaming. For such a reaction may contribute to their developing a chronically distorted, negative self-image: A “compromised” sense of self exceedingly difficult to alter, despite later-day evidence that this derogatory self-appraisal is false. Moreover, even when the child grows into an adult and knows, intellectually, that these earlier beliefs aren’t valid, they may yet continue to feel so.

Here ‘s but one example, taken from my clinical caseload (though I could easily provide hundreds more):

I had a client, David, whose mother would regularly scream at him when he did something wrong. In a voice so harsh and menacing that it made him go numb, she’d shout: “Are you stupid?! You should know better by now! What’s wrong with you anyway?!” But at the time he hadn’t known better, or been better able to control his impulses—or he would never have done what he was taken so much to task for. Still, he couldn’t help thinking that he ought to have know better, or better understood rules that hadn’t been explained to him. So he felt obliged to assume—as his mother routinely suggested—that he must somehow be lacking in basic intelligence.

In consequence, David grew up with an “I’m stupid” program, running sharply counter to the fact that he was placed in advanced classes in school and his teachers regularly commended him on his performance. Plus, along with this highly irrational doubt about his mental acumen, he was afflicted with other complementary, and self-sabotaging, beliefs—such as “I’m a disappointment,” “I’m not good enough,” “I’m seen as bad,” “I’m defective,” “I’m a fake,” and “I have to be perfect.”

Without the slightest conscious intention to, David maintained these erroneous negative beliefs about himself right up to the time I began seeing him in his 30s. As an outcome of his temperamental (and frankly disturbed) mother’s calling him names whenever she was irritated with him, these illogical ideas had taken such deep root that he found them almost impossible to eradicate. His many noteworthy achievements simply bounced off him. They were dismissed as flukes, a coincidence, matter of luck. He was unable to internalize his accomplishments so they’d “deep-six” these earlier self-defeating beliefs. (And, as already indicated, eliminating such programming is no easy task when it’s profoundly “felt” at one’s very core.)

In a broad sense, when caretakers lose their temper with their offspring, it can be nothing less than traumatic for the child. Because children are so reliant on their parents for fundamental nurturing, understanding, and support, any deeply felt repudiation or rejection, however momentary or short-lived, can feel acutely threatening. In the moment they’re severely criticized, they experience a complete disconnect from the person they must desperately depend on for care and protection.

It’s an abandonment tantamount to that experienced by children plagued by serious parental neglect—whether because their caretakers are excessively self-absorbed, emotionally shut-down, overwhelmed, or preoccupied with an addiction. All children need to feel they matter to their family. So when they’re not getting sufficient parental attention, such deprivation can also lead to a child’s formulating unjustly negative beliefs about themselves.

Among the many self-deprecatory notions of self that can arise from such neglect are: “I’m not worthwhile,” “I’m a burden to others,” “I’m unacceptable,” “I’m invisible,” “I deserve to be left out,” “I’m not wanted,” “I don’t deserve anything,” andprobably the most damaging—“I’m not lovable.”

The problem with children (particularly young children) is that they can’t talk to themselves “developmentally.” That is, their constrained, because not yet mature, reflections about their experience links to their tendency to take things literally—and too much to heart. To make matters worse, they also tend to perceive things egocentrically. They relate to the messages they receive, especially when they’re from those granted ultimate authority over them, as signifying something essential about their very being. They’ve yet to reach the age of skepticism. So they’re not old enough to consider that what’s being said to them may reveal much more about the person saying it than about themselves.

As a result of this lack of cognitive sophistication, and their thinking statically vs. dynamically, when they’re disparaged they can’t reassure themselves by thinking something like: “My mom’s telling me I should know this already, but she’s wrong. I’ll be able to understand this better—or do this better—when I’m older. What she’s expecting of me right now just doesn’t make any sense.” . . . Ah, if only!

On the contrary, when kids are told how they should act, they’ll most likely give their parents’ expectations of them—however unrealistic and age-inappropriate—an authority not really warranted. After all, how can they question their parent’s sovereignty when they remain so dependent on them. As a matter of “felt family survival,” they must, in a sense, make them right . . . and themselves wrong.

An additional problem is that children make various assumptions about who they are and how much they’re worth on the basis of how they’re treated. Unless they’re later able to articulate to themselves these negative, mostly caretaker-caused deductions, by leaving them unchallenged, they become false conclusions about their very essence. And—regrettably—these can be lifelong conclusions.

In many earlier posts I’ve written on the various unfavorable self-beliefs children develop mostly because of how their caretakers dealt with them. And this may be a time to consider some of your own possibly maladaptive, counter-productive notions of yourself: Aspects of your self-concept grounded far less in reality than on your mistaken interpretation of adverse messages you received while growing up.

Do you have beliefs about yourself that undermine your relationships (like, “I don’t fit in,” “I don’t measure up,” “I’m unimportant,” “I’m looked down upon,” “I can’t be myself,” “It’s not safe for me to show feelings,” “I can’t disappoint others,” or “I have to be responsible for others” )? If so, it could be extremely useful to examine where these self-depreciating ideas originated—and, of course, how valid they really are.

Same thing if you seem to have a bad habit of procrastinating, or snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. However unconsciously, might you believe such things about yourself as “I’m vulnerable,” “I will fail,” “I don’t deserve to succeed,” “I’m not smart enough,” “I’m a loser,” “I can’t trust myself,” or “I’m a fraud” ?

And on, and on. . . .

When you take a closer look at personal problems that may have become chronic, you’ll probably find that most of them are “sourced” by unresolved emotional stress from childhood. Once you can identify—and work through—these never-fully-healed wounds, you’ll find that many of the obstacles standing in the way of your success and happiness slowly begin to fade away.

Earlier posts of mine that deal with your (frequently hidden) negative beliefs about yourself—and how best to overcome them—include:

“The ‘I Feel Like a Child’ Syndrome”

“Anxiety and Depression—First Cousins, At Least (Part 3 of 5)”

“The ‘Programming’ of Self-Sabotage (Part 3 of 5)”

“The Past: Don’t Dwell on It, Revision It! Part 2”

“Do You Need to Be Liberated From Your Past?”

“Anxiety and Self-Doubt: Perfect Recipe for Underachievement”

"Criticism vs. Feedback—Which One Wins, Hands-Down" (Parts 1 & 2)"

“Make Time for the Pain”

“Do Your Trees Keep You From Recognizing Your Forest?”

When Someone Won’t Talk About Their Childhood—Why Not?”

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© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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