ARTICLES - children

previous article
Little Slips Can Sink Your Child's Ship - 2/9/2011


It’s extremely rare to encounter a teenager who has a sincere desire to look into themself and to search for the underlying reasons for the problems bothering them.  But, in this instance, Amy came to her session, sat down and said, “You know how we’ve been talking about the stress I feel about school, athletics and most everything that is a challenge?  Well, let me tell you what happened the other day.  After a four-mile run and workout, I went home and thought I’d like nothing more than a huge smoothie.  I went into my wallet, got some money, jumped on my bike and rode up to the smoothie place.  When I got there, I found that, instead of taking a five and one out of my wallet, I had taken two ones.  I was hungry and tired and the only smoothie I could get for two dollars was so small I could finish it in one gulp.  I bought it and, from that moment on, I was angry.  It was just what I’ve heard you say - a voice inside me was shouting, ‘How could you be so stupid?  It would only have taken two seconds more, but you were in such a rush, you screwed up again.’  Ever since then, I’ve been thinking about how much pressure I put on me.  How I can’t afford to fail and how angry I can get at myself.”  

If any one of you reading this can’t relate, you are a very fortunate, psychologically healthy person.  However, I suspect every human being has experienced what Amy described.  Perhaps the degree to which you reacted varied, but your feelings, no matter their intensity, were the same.  It’s human to have little tolerance for your own mistakes and to harbor feelings of inadequacy. Those of you who recognize these feelings may also realize that you put tremendous pressure on yourself to avoid failing and that when you do, no one feels worse about your lackluster performance than yourself.  I’m one of those people and it’s taken me years to become more tolerant, accepting and, most of all, more forgiving of my shortcomings.   

In most instances, however, my critical, demeaning, self-deprecating behavior, and I suspects yours, as well, isn’t apparent when I interact with others.  For example, I asked Amy, “What if a friend had made the same mistake?  What would you have said  to her?”  Without hesitation, her response was, “Don’t be so hard on yourself.  You know, you’ll live another day to buy a big smoothie.  You can buy an extra one tomorrow.”  Her response wasn’t surprising.  Amy is a bright, sensitive, highly motivated young lady, whose values are extremely good.  But there is no doubt she holds herself to a higher standard than she expects of her friends and family.

There are countless more examples that I can share with you.  For example, several years ago,  my wife got a new car.  Two months later, while backing out of the garage, she took some of the door jamb with her as she scraped the whole side of her car.  My reaction?  “It’s only money and we’re insured.  The car will look like new and we’ll fix the door frame.”   However, if I had done it, I would have severely chastised myself for not taking the time to look where I was going.  There would be no way I could excuse the  accident.  It has nothing to do with the car.  It has everything to do with my self percept, or lack of it.  As another example, picture a father at the breakfast table with his 6-7 year old son, who accidentally knocks his glass of milk on the floor.  The kneejerk reaction of the father is to scream, “can’t you be more careful?  This is the second time this week.  There’s glass and milk all over the floor.  When will you learn to act your age?”  Imagine the same situation, involving a neighbor’s child who spent the night.  He, anticipating the same reaction he probably receives at home, says, in a quivering voice, “I’m so sorry.  Please forgive me.”  The same father’s response is, “Did you get hurt?  Are you cut?  No?  Well, then, everything’s fine.  It’s only a glass and milk.  We’ll pick it up and get you a new one.”  Why the difference?  Simple.  The neighbor child’s behavior in no way reflects on him.  It doesn’t say, “I’m a bad parent, I’ve got a clumsy kid, who I failed to teach how to properly hold a glass.”  His child’s behavior is viewed as a direct reflection of his adequacy.  

If you can see yourself in any of these examples, you need to use your awareness as a signpost, indicating ,“You need to do a better job parenting your children in order for you to be perfect.”   Wrong!  Maybe you need to learn that it’s okay to be human, to fail or have accidents.  Then ask yourself, “Where did that notion come from?”  In some instances, the answer is apparent.  From abusive parents, who verbally and/or physically, made it clear to you that you weren’t okay and needed to be better.   But, in most cases, it originated from subtle innuendos, negative nicknames and embarrassing stories repeatedly told by your family.  There’s always the “smart”, “pretty”, “athletic” or the “laissez-faire” kid, to name a few.  The problem is, however, that, while growing up, if your brother or sister was the smart one, you weren’t the second smartest.  In your mind, you were the dumb one.  Similarly, if one was the pretty one, you were the ugly one.  If they were the tall one, you were the short one.  I think you get the idea.  Kids don’t operate in terms of gradation.  They tend to perceive themselves on the basis of one extreme or the other.

In summary, children frequently interpret casual remarks not at all intended to be critical, as demeaning and humiliating.  Consequently, as a parent, you need to give considerable thought to the off-handed remarks and humorous stories, you use to describe your children.  It’s essential for you to consider, “what effect will my comments have, on my children?”  Even more so, you have to recognize that the seeds you plant early, later grow into big trees that can weigh your kids down, inhibit the way they cope in their world and negatively affect the way they behave and feel about themselves.

To receive new articles by email twice a month, sign up by entering your email address below