- A large part of good parenting involves avoiding behaviors that can damage a child.
- High-road processing utilizes one's best self as a parent, while low-road processing processing hijacks the conscious thought process.
- One parental reaction that is enabled by "low-road" processing is shaming a child with words.
Being a parent is a difficult job, and it’s no wonder that not all of us succeed at it. We all bring a fair amount of baggage to the enterprise—our personalities, how we experienced parenting ourselves, how well we manage our emotions and express our feelings, how empathic we are, and, of course, how comfortable we are in our own skins. I’ve been at the job of mothering for almost 28 years and will say, without a hint of irony, that while I have had the time of my life, I’ve never taken on a role this challenging, or one that requires as much mental flexibility and patience as this one does. Having suffered hurt and damage from my own mother, being the best mother I could had real urgency: I was determined to break the toxic patterns which dominated mother-daughter relationships in my family for at least two generations, perhaps three.
What Is Good Parenting?
A large part of good parenting involves avoiding behaviors that can damage your child. It’s a psychological truism that “bad is stronger than good,” meaning that negative events have a much more significant impact on humans than good ones. For this, we can thank evolution. To increase the odds of survival, the hardiest of our forebears were much more reactive to bad things and committed them to memory faster and more completely than good or benign ones. It’s still true of us, all these millennia later.
Emotional Baggage: The High Road and the Low Road
Remember the baggage I mentioned at the beginning, those duffle bags that contain the history of you, along with your self in the present? Here’s where the conscious part of parenting begins. In their terrific book, Parenting From The Inside Out, Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell distinguish between high-road and low-road mental processing.
When you’re on the high road, you’re very aware of the emotional baggage you have in tow and what triggers your own worst responses. You work at being present and rational, committing yourself to thinking things through rather than being reactive. High-road processing tends to present different possible responses to a situation and keeps you in the driver’s seat. Imagine that your child suddenly starts crying when you’re in the middle of something you need to get done, and it’s irritating you. You register your feelings of annoyance, tamp them down, and then think, "I need to find out why she’s crying. I have to stop what I’m doing and spend a few minutes helping her calm down.” High-road processing effectively invites your best self in as your child’s parent.
Then there’s low-road processing, which has you forget about your emotional baggage and become a quivering mass of emotional reactivity the second your kid starts crying because, dammit, you have stuff to get done. Low-road processing hijacks your conscious thought process and ability to be empathic. You just let whatever you’re feeling rip, either yelling at her to stop or screaming, “Go to your room now. If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about!”
Low-Road Reactions to Avoid
All of the following behaviors are reactions that low-road processing enables. This is the road the attuned, loving parent shuns. If you are a loving parent who has fallen into the trap of one or another, sit down with your child to explain and apologize.
1. Using words as weapons of shame or blame.
Whether it’s calling a weeping child a “cry baby” or a “sissy” or telling a child he or she is “stupid,” “fat” or “lazy,” the damage is done: Words wound just as much, sometimes more, than slaps. Recent research shows that the neural networks for physical and emotional pain are one and the same. Additionally, as the work of Martin Teicher and his colleagues showed, the kind of stress verbal abuse induces causes permanent changes to parts of the developing brain. How powerful is the force of verbal aggression? In 2014, Ann Polcari, Keren Rabi, Elizabeth Bolger, and Teicher examined whether verbal affection from one parent or both could offset the effects of one parent’s verbal abuse. The sobering conclusion: No. Verbal affection expressed by either the other parent or the parent who was aggressive in the first place does not mitigate the effects of verbal aggression. Bad is stronger than good.
Shaming a child is abusive behavior that inflicts lasting damage. If you have it in your head that talking to your child this way will make your kid “tougher” or make him or her “wise up,” you could not possibly be more wrong. I have heard many unloved daughters say that they wished a parent had hit or physically beaten them “because then the scars would show.”
Don’t kid yourself: Words are weapons.
2. Beginning a reprimand with the phrase, “You always…”
Possessions get broken and lost, children make mistakes, and sometimes they behave badly. All of that is true and, as a parent, there will be moments when a reprimand is necessary. If they don’t listen, run across a busy street, or do exactly what you told them not to do, your first impulse may be to lash out because that part of your brain, the reactive part, is mighty powerful. But this is the moment at which you must hew to the high road.
Why shouldn’t you begin a sentence with these words? Because you’re no longer addressing the behavior but attacking the child for being who he or she is. The words “you always” turn what is supposed to be a parent’s response to a single event or action into a litany of everything the child isn’t and should be. This behavior is highly toxic in adult relationships—marital expert John Gottman calls it “kitchen-sinking,” as in you recall everything your partner ever did that was wrong—but it is absolutely devastating to a child’s sense of self.
Variations on the theme include “Can’t you ever…"; “What is wrong with you?” and more. Don’t use words that personalize the wrong the child has committed in this way.
3. Dismissing a child’s feelings by saying he or she’s too “sensitive."
This was my own mother’s mantra. Telling a child that he or she is “too sensitive” is common behavior among unloving, unattuned parents since it effectively shifts the responsibility and blame from their behavior to the child’s supposed inadequacies. A young child doesn’t have the self-confidence to counter this assertion and will assume that she’s done something wrong. She will often believe that her sensitivity is the problem and that, in turn, leads her to mistrust both her feelings and perceptions.
This is a more subtle form of emotional abuse, but it is highly damaging because there are numerous take-away lessons, such as: “What you feel doesn’t matter to me or anyone else,” and, “The fault is yours because something is wrong with you.”
4. Comparing one child to another.
Sibling rivalry is common, but as recent studies have shown, it's not benign. Any parent who manipulates the tension and competition between and among siblings is either woefully misinformed or downright cruel. Statements such as “Why can’t you be more like Jimmy?” or “Your sister’s success should inspire you to try to do one thing right” are not inspirational. All they do is make a child feel “less than.” A loving parent recognizes that each child is an individual.
As a child grows and develops, a good parent makes adjustments along the way; what works with a rambunctious toddler will not necessarily be the approach you want to take with a seventh-grader testing out his or her social skills. Respecting a child’s boundaries in an age-appropriate way—recognizing her need for privacy and for enough room to articulate feelings and thoughts without worrying about reprisal or criticism—not only permits a child to be herself but teaches that part of emotional connection involves being respectful of other people’s boundaries.
There are numerous ways unattuned parents ignore boundaries. An authoritarian parent who requires conformity to a rigid set of rules and norms not only puts a child in a role where he is constantly trying to please or placate a taskmaster but also ignores him as a unique individual with unique qualities. These parents may mock a child for his interests (“Why would you want to take art classes? It’s for sissies”) if they don’t fall within the parent’s list of “acceptable” or “valuable” activities. All of this weakens a child’s sense of self and isolates him.
Similarly, a self-involved parent who sees her child only as an extension of herself doesn’t, by definition, recognize the child’s boundaries. These children become inveterate pleasers, insecure in themselves, without a real sense of self. They may suffer in adult relationships because they have learned either to armor themselves—mistaking walls for boundaries and becoming avoidant of connection—or to be anxious and clingy.
Enmeshed parents also don’t acknowledge the child’s separateness, and suffocate their children emotionally. Parents who can’t permit their children to make mistakes or who are “helicopter” parents also don’t recognize boundaries and end up communicating the message that the child is incompetent or incapable of functioning on his own.
Parenting is learned behavior in our species and nothing prevents any of us from being dedicated students, learning and growing from our mistakes and always hewing to the high road.
Copyright 2016 Peg Streep