How Parents Can Psychologically Damage their Children

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Psychologist Rasha El Boghdady Weighs In

Parenting is the process of promoting and supporting the physical, emotional, social, and intellectual development of a child from infancy to adulthood. Healthy parenting should meet the child’s needs at each stage of his/her development. Failure to meet those changing needs could have damaging effects on the child’s psychological wellbeing.

CEM: What are the dangers of being an over-controlling parent?

RB: Parents who exert too much control over their children could be causing them lifelong psychological damage. Examples of psychologically controlling behaviors are invasions of children’s privacy, unwillingness to let children make their own decisions, and fostering dependence upon one or both parents. Psychological control can limit children’s independence and leave them less able to regulate their own behaviour.

Parents should provide their children with a stable base of warmth and responsiveness while giving them the space to explore the world in a way that would promote their social and emotional development.

What are the most common ways a parent can damage a child?

If parents do not understand and meet each of their children’s essential psychological needs at each developmental stage, it is likely that their children would face some psychological problems:

During Infancy (from birth until around 2 years), children need to build trust. Trust is developed when caregivers provide reliability, care and affection. Being “consistent” is the keyword at this stage. At this stage, the infant must know that when he needs care, he will get it. Lack of consistency of care may lead to mistrust and the development of fear. The child might carry the basic sense of mistrust to other relationships.

During early childhood (from 2 to 3 years), children need to acquire autonomy. Autonomy is developed through a sense of control over physical skills and a sense of independence. The parents need to encourage the child to become independent while protecting and supporting him so that constant failure is avoided. This way, the child will become more confident of his ability to survive in the world. However, if the child is overly controlled or criticized or not given the opportunity to assert himself, he may begin to feel inadequate and could become overly dependent upon others, lack self-esteem and feel a sense of doubt in his own abilities.

During preschool period (from 3 to 5 years), children need to develop self-initiation. Self-initiation is enhanced through exploration of the environment.

Playing is the centre of this stage as it provides the child with the opportunity to explore his interpersonal skills through several activities. Developing the sense of initiation makes the child feel secure in his ability to lead others and make decisions. However, if the child’s initiation is controlled or criticised, he might develop a sense of suppression. He may feel like a nuisance to others and will therefore remain a follower.

During School age (from 6 to 11 years), children need to develop the sense of competence. Competence is developed through social interaction with friends and academic activities. If he is encouraged and reinforced to accomplish different tasks, he begins to feel competent, industrious and confident in his ability to achieve goals. If his initiatives are not encouraged, the child might begin to feel inferior, doubting his own abilities, which would negatively interfere in reaching his potentials.

During adolescence, teens need to develop a sense of identity. At this stage, your children explore different behaviors, roles and identities. Providing the opportunity to explore different lifestyles (work, education or political activities) while being supportive, understanding and caring will result in establishing their sense of identity within the society. Failure to explore the person’s own possible future plans will result in role confusion, which involves not being sure about himself or his place in society. Also, parents pressuring their child into a certain identity can result in his rebellion in the form of establishing a negative identity, in addition to the feeling of unhappiness. >>

Do inexperienced parents sometimes have expectations of their child beyond his natural stage of development?

It is common that some parents, or more commonly one of the parents, have expectations of their child beyond his natural stage of development, beyond his own nature or beyond nature in general. This is not always because they are inexperienced. It is usually either because this parent is over-demanding in nature, or because of some inadequacies during his/her childhood that makes him/her hope to witness his child fulfilling some of his own earlier unachieved goals, or because of some social pressures and psychological competition between families with children at same age group. This type of parenting is called authoritarian, in which parents place high demands on the child but they are almost not aware of his real needs.

What are other common unhealthy parenting styles?

Other common unhealthy parenting styles are permissive parenting style, in which child’s freedom and autonomy are highly valued and parents are overly responsive to their children to the extent that they lack rules and discipline, and an uninvolved parenting style, where parents are emotionally – and sometimes even physically – absent.

Studies have shown that an authoritative (do not confuse it with authoritarian) parenting style, which combines a medium level of demands on the child and a medium level of responsiveness from the parents, works best in helping children to establish self-confidence, independence, as well as consideration of others. Authoritative parents are not overly strict or authoritarian, nor are they permissive or uninvolved. Rather, authoritative parents value the child’s opinion but still set boundaries. They will listen to their child’s opinion but won’t necessarily agree with it or respond accordingly. Authoritative parents manage the home as a sort of benevolent dictatorship. As the kids age, the parents may shift their style to something more democratic, but when push comes to shove, the parents always remain the boss.

What are your thoughts on these common parental habits: verbal attacks, being judgemental, shaming, blaming, creating guilt, comparing, criticizing, teasing, name-calling, insulting, rejecting, evaluating children’s behavior?  

These are kinds of parental behaviors that are extremely harmful to children’s psychological wellbeing. They affect their self-esteem and self-confidence, which results in unhealthy sorts of attachment to parents, which might eventually lead to many psychological disorders, including depression, anxiety, bipolar, borderline personality and eating disorders.

How damaging is a ‘praise and reward’ based method of control for a child?

Praising and rewarding children for their good behaviors and achievements in general are positive. However, if they are only used with the intention to control these children while lacking the continuous emotional support and warmth, it will affect the unconditional positive regards and love they should feel from their parents. This would also have a damaging effect of their self-esteem and their kind of attachment to their parents, which is very important for their psychological wellbeing and the formation of secure attachments in their adult life.

What are the key indicators that a child is suffering from psychological damage through parenting habits? And how can we know if a change in behavior is a normal stage of growing up or a sign of something more worrying?

Disturbed pattern of attachment to parents is an indicator of psychological problems as previously mentioned. This can be shown through over-dependence on parental agreement or, on the contrary, over-refusal of parental advice.

Negative social behaviors, like aggressiveness or withdrawal, and deteriorating academic performance can be signs too, especially if preceded by familial problems.

If the child’s needs are stuck in a certain stage of development and do not pass to the next developmental stage, this might be a worrying sign too.

Rasha El Boghdady, has been working in the field of psychotherapy since 2011. She holds a degree of Masters of Art in Counseling Psychology, International Counseling and Community Psychology (ICCP) program at the American University in Cairo (AUC).  Rasha also holds a Life Coaching certification from the Canadian Life Coaching Organization as well as certifications in two levels of Art Therapy from Serenity Center in Egypt.

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