When parents react harshly to their child’s behaviors using criticism and shame, this negatively affects a child’s mental health and well-being in several important ways.
Our eight-year-old daughter is a sensitive soul. Ever since I can remember we’ve been able to visibly see the impact our words and reactions have on her. She’s also spirited and independent so in the first few years of her life, her behaviors elicited quite a few words and reactions from her father and me, many of which I regret.
I wish I could say that our words and reactions were grounded in fairness, empathy and respect. I wish I could say that my words and reactions were focused on growing her character and heart and not just shaping her behaviors (or serving my own ego’s need to be the perfect parent).
Fortunately, we have figured out a way to approach her challenging behaviors much more effectively in recent years through the discovery of conscious parenting and lots of learning on child development and neuropsychology.
After all, when we know better, we can do better, and things are in fact, much much better now.
I do my best not to beat myself up (anymore) over the harsh tactics that came out of our well-meaning attempts to teach and guide her in our first years as new parents.
I usually have to work the hardest at this when the imprints of our harsh and critical actions toward our daughter are visible in her everyday life.
When she beats herself up for not getting her dance moves perfectly on the first try.
When she crumbles in the face of an overwhelming math problem.
When she lashes out in anger at her siblings, and I’m pretty sure I can hear a little bit of myself in her small voice.
The words and reactions we expose our child to matter. Are they a determinant for the complete trajectory of their life, no. Do they make a significant difference in the psyche of a child? Yes.
Here are five ways that responding with criticism and shame impacts your child and their future mental health.
What happens when you respond to your child with criticism and shame.
We encourage our child to avoid taking responsibility. When we react harshly to our child’s missteps we blunt the impact of the natural consequence (feelings of regret, embarrassment) and allow them to project their feelings onto us instead, usually in the form of anger or resentment. The child is now focused on the anger and unfairness of the parent instead of feeling the full weight of responsibility for their choices (which is the most helpful way for them to remember better next time the impact their behaviors have)
We breed shame. When we mess up, make a mistake or let someone down we feel bad about it. So does your child. Having an adult add a heaping dose of disappointment, frustration or anger stops being productive and starts feeling like toxic shame. Making mistakes is part of being human and when our child internalizes shame each time they make a mistake, many unhealthy coping patterns will follow from there.
We cause unnecessary secondary pain. Our flawed humanity provides plenty of opportunities for us to feel pain and suffering around our mistakes, but we often take it a step further and add onto this pain in a way that’s known as ‘secondary pain’. Our own reactions to our child’s inevitably stressful ‘bumps in the road’ can either promote healing and repair, or extra pain and breakage (for both ourselves and our child).
We grow a harsh internal critic. Many of us have heard the insightful quote from Peggy O’Mara, “The way we speak to our child becomes their inner voice.” When harsh words and tones become a regular part of making mistakes, life-long patterns of being a harsh self-critic are at risk of forming in your child. Your child can be their own best ally or their own greatest enemy. Which one would you prefer for them?
We damage the parent-child connection. A child has a biological need for a close attachment with their caregivers and when they are met with criticism and shame, this attachment is damaged. A strong parent-child attachment is formed on the basis of unconditional love and acceptance. When we respond with eye-rolls, sharp tones or cold shoulders, we communicate to our child that we only accept them when they behave as we’d like, which is not unconditional love but conditional love.
A beginners roadmap to avoid reacting with criticism and shame
1.Pause. It may feel like an emergency but it’s likely just your own emotions being triggered.
Fear: “What if I’m raising a jerk? If they hit their sister what will they do at daycare?”
Anger: “How dare they run amuck at bedtime when I took them out to dinner and let them have 15 minutes of extra screen time.”
Hurt: You’ve been responded to harshly during a similar situation and now those intense feelings bubble up in your subconscious.
Tired: “Why can’t I get one d*#m minute of peace?”
2.Go through a quick mental checklist (once you practice it will get much easier to do this quickly).
- Does the severity of my response correlate with the offense?
- Was anyone hurt physically or emotionally?
- Do I want my child to feel responsible for their actions or resentful of me?
- How can I teach my child effectively without making it about me or my own fears/insecurities?
- How can I help my child to best learn this lesson in the long-term?
- How can I model for my child how I’d like them to react to others in a similar situation?
3.Go through a debriefing checklist after the things have calmed, helping you to problem solve and decrease the odds of negative behaviors in the future.
- What need is my child communicating through their difficult behavior?
- How can I partner with my child to help them fix their mistake and problem solve for the future?
- When is the last time I really connected with my child?
- How can I handle this situation so that both my child and I come away feeling empowered?
- How can I help my child to best learn this lesson in the long-term?
We take responsibility for our actions with our daughter when we catch ourselves falling back into old patterns. Changing our behavior patterns isn’t easy, after all, we’re literally carving out new neuropathways in our brains by doing so (our neurons like to travel the path of least resistance).
That being said, when it comes to our child’s future mental health and emotional well-being, I honestly can’t think of any better reason to try.
P.S. Want more research-backed info on your child’s mental health and long-term emotional well-being from a child therapist? Sign up here for our weekly newsletter and get a free mini-guide!
A fantastic article to follow up with is How to Set Limits for Kids without Harshness, Fear or Shame by Sarah MacLaughlin LSW
For more resources on conscious parenting and collaborative problem solving, check out:
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