No parent intentionally sets out to cause emotional harm to their child. Yet unfortunately, in families all around the world, children are the recipients of parenting behaviours that can be classified as emotionally abusive.
What is emotional abuse?
Emotional abuse is a chronic pattern of repeated behaviours that cause a child to feel flawed, unloved, or worthless. It also encompasses failing to provide for the emotional needs of a child through trust, respect, and support. It can occur through direct actions such as telling a child they are unlovable or through actions such as ignoring a child or destroying a child’s toy which causes the child to then interpret that they are unlovable or intrinsically “bad”. Emotional abuse also occurs when a parent fails to support the healthy development of a child’s own emotional regulatory system.
As a parent, we learn on the job and unfortunately, good parents can fall into parenting traps that may constitute emotional harm and abuse, even if they were coming from the best intentions. There are 5 traps that parents can unwittingly fall into that have the potential to be classified as abusive.
1. Online Shaming of Children
The definition of shaming in the Cambridge University Dictionary is “The act of publicly criticising and drawing attention to someone, especially on the internet.” In this current age of digital parenting, our children’s lives are often spread across social media. There are numerous moral and ethical discussions about this. But what about the shaming?
Shaming of children causes a child to feel unworthy, unloved and not enough. When a child is shamed and humiliated, they are unable to develop in an emotionally healthy way. Children require an environment of love, safety, and acceptance to thrive. The epidemic of online shaming fails to provide this environment and is by definition emotionally abusive.
Online shaming of children includes all of the #assholeparent posts. The posts that mums put up of their child crying over something while they’re laughing in the comments, making fun of things your children do or say putting things up online in front of potentially hundreds of people laughing about your child, are tantamount shaming. There are pages that actually celebrate this! See 19 Hilarious Examples Of Kid Shaming. This is wrong on so many levels.
I’ve heard it argued that if the child doesn’t know and it’s in good fun (aka good intentions), what’s the harm? Isn’t it about creating solidarity between mums with the challenges of parenting and raising children? My response to this is always the same, what if it was you? What if your friends or your family were taking pictures or videos of you when you were in the most vulnerable moment and sharing them with their friends without your explicit permission?
Every time we put a photo of our child up online we are adding to their digital footprint. Sharing pictures of our children where we are laughing at what they are doing or how they are feeling, become part of this digital footprint. As they grow older this footprint will follow them around, these pictures where we’re laughing at them, they will find out. Their feelings will be hurt. Their self-esteem may suffer. This is the definition of emotional harm.
How do we stop it? This one is simple, stop posting pictures of your children in potentially compromising situations. Ask yourself before you post, “Would I want someone posting this type of picture about me?”. There are many other ways to share in the funny moments of parenting without sharing shaming pictures online.
2. Punishing Children For Being Children
“But if I don’t punish my children, then how will they learn?”
Punishment is punitive, by definition it is the “infliction of imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offence.” Punishment is not part of a healthy process of discipline. The word discipline comes from the Latin ’to teach’. It is an essential part of our role as a parent that we discipline our children so that they learn what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in specific situations. When we positively discipline our children they learn a lesson in a respectful and healthy way, compared to punishment which is often aggressive and detached.
Punishment emotionally harms a child because it disrupts the attachment a child has to their mum. A secure attachment to a primary caregiver (usually a mother) is an essential part of a child’s healthy development and without it, children are at greater risk for disruptions to their mental health including aggression.
When a child is punished, the act of their behaviour is being focused upon, rather than the lesson they need to be learning or the need that needs to be fulfilled. For example, two children are fighting over a toy and one snatches the toy off the other and hits the other child. A mum who has seen this rushes in grabs the toy out of her child’s hands gives it back to the other, yells at her child, drags them away and leaves with threats such as “If you can’t play nice we won’t ever come back again”
What has the child learned in this situation? That his mother won’t help him resolve a conflict and that he is being punished for feeling upset or angry about not being able to play with a specific toy. He has not been calmly instructed about how to resolve differences nor spoken to about his behaviour or given warnings about the consequences of snatching or continued fighting. His feelings about his toy being taken away either by the other child or by his mum have not been heard or respected. The way his mother has act in this situation has caused aggression between the two of them and does not contribute to a loving and emotionally connected relationship which is essential for his emotional health.
How can we teach our children about their behaviour and its impact on others around them then? Utilising a framework such as the 5C’s Gentle Discipline Process is one method that I recommend to parents. It is a gentle, respectful and loving way to talk to kids about what is going on for them. The full process can be found here:
3. Not being a good role model
We are our children first teachers. We are the most important role model in our child’s life. In the child development stages described by Morris Massey, between the ages of 0-7 our children are in what is referred to as the imprint years. This is a period of time when children form the majority of their values and beliefs that will become the basis for his perceptions about themselves, the world around them and their place within it. As Massey has stated, “A child’s early parenting programming determines the way they relate and react to others for the rest of their life.”
A child learns to control their emotions not only through being taught via education processes such as books and naming faces exercises but primarily through observing how their parents handle their emotions. A parent who yells, swears, hits, locks themselves in a room or walks away as a result of their emotions is teaching their child to do the same. The parents who fight with each other, yet do not show their kids how they resolved their disagreement (often because this happens when the kids are in bed), haven’t demonstrated how to resolve a disagreement, only how to have an argument. The parent who yells at their child for being upset and having a tantrum (expressing an emotion in the only way the child is able to due to their level of development), teaches their child to be disrespecting of others feelings and that they are not worthy of expressing emotions.
Each of these three examples teaches a child a negative life skill. They do not support the growth of healthy emotional development through skills such as emotional regulation, conflict resolution, respecting others feelings, demonstrating love etc… This hinders a child emotional growth and development and causes emotional harm.
Parenting is stressful. It’s a high-stress, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year role where the stakes literally are life or death. Stress management is an essential strategy to ensure that as parents we can be an emotionally and behaviourally good role model for our child. Of course, it is easier said than done and parents should be encouraged to seek out a variety of techniques that can help with stress including:
4. Not letting kids be kids
It is a great misfortune of current society that we often don’t let children be children. From the moment they are born they are expected to fit into the life of an adult. They need to stop waking at night, walk, toilet train, stop having tantrums, play nicely, be always respectful, never have a bad day, be co-operative and always follow instructions to name a few. Children are not mini adults. They are adults in development who have to be children first. Each developmental stage and milestone is important for the holistic development of a child.
Children learn through doing. They need to fall down multiple times before they walk. They need to have accidents before they learn to use the toilet. They need to have the tantrums and fight with their friends before they learn how to express their emotions and settle disagreements. They need to have a messy room before learning how to clean it up.
Encouraging our children to not be children, to not go through the normal ups and downs of childhood behaviour (some which can be very unpleasant as a parent but yet still crucial for our child’s development) is called encouraging our child to abandon their developmental autonomy or lack thereof.
For young children, it can be reflective of practices such as cry-it-out or controlled crying techniques that are utilized by parents to force a child to sleep through the night. Apart from not supporting a child to reach the developmental milestone of “sleeping through the night” when they are physically and emotionally ready to do so, it is neglectful to a child’s nighttimes needs by its very nature.
For older children, particularly teenagers, not letting them having increasing autonomy over their choices and decisions in life including the activities they are involved in, friendships, interests and role within the family, neglects their development by holding them back. In order for them to leave the nest and move into society as healthy, well-rounded and independent adults, parents need to begin to let go and trust their teenager more. All the work, or lack thereof, a parent has done in the early years will be reflected in their child’s choices. The teenager needs to go out of the nest, and still feel secure enough to come back when they are struggling for support, advice, love and then be able to fly out again. Preventing a child from having increasing levels of independent stops this process and harms them developmentally and emotionally.
5. Inconsistent parenting messages
Inconsistencies in parenting messages can happen through different parenting styles between parents or between parents and schools. These messages include things such as any expectations of the child, values/beliefs, and discipline techniques. There will always be inconsistent messages in life and that our children are exposed to. The emotional harm comes to children when this inconsistency leads to a child feeling unstable. For example, they know what they can expect from one parent, but not another. Or perhaps they are allowed to do something at school that they aren’t at home. This underlying feeling of instability can cause worry and anxiety and perhaps even changes in a child’s behaviour in one situation versus another. The child feels that they must be one type of personality in one situation versus another in a different situation. This chopping and changing between personalities in order to fit the external expectations mean that a child is not able to be their unique self and grow and develop emotionally and psychologically into the person they want to be.
There is can be an even more detrimental inconsistency in parenting message to our children between our words and our actions. A major example of this is praise. When we praise our children, the message that our child receives is that they are “good” and get our attention only when they do something that pleases us. They then interpret the flip side of that to be they are intrinsically “bad” when they do something that we either ignore or don’t praise. Children see praise as a form of love and when they get it they feel loved, and when they don’t get it they feel unloved or even unlovable.
Take the example of a child having a tantrum. A popular parenting strategy may be to ignore the child until they calm down and then help them when they are speaking nicely and no longer yelling at you. All childhood behaviour is communication. A tantrum is a way for a child to express their emotions in the only way they are able to ask they are yet to be able to name and describe what and why they are feeling something. The parent who ignores the tantrum as described above teaches the child that they get love (attention) when they don’t express any emotions. Compare this to the parent who sits with a child while they are having a tantrum, is present with them, helping them express their emotions, listening to them and communicating love. This teaches a child that they are always loved, even when they are upset and having a hard time.
As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words. Because our children are always observing how we behaviour our actions are incredibly powerful. We may believe within ourselves that a parenting technique we are using comes from a place of love, but unless our child knows that they inconsistency will cause them to feel unloved and in turn be emotionally harmful to their development.
Emotional abuse is a pattern, and it is unlikely that one single instance of inconsistency or a mum yelling at her children is going to cause long-lasting harm to her child. My purpose in writing this article is not to make any parents feel guilty for having done any of these behaviours. In fact, it is quite the opposite. By shining the light of awareness onto these we can then ask ourselves, “What can I do to support the emotional health of my child?” Obviously doing the flip side of each of these 5 traps; no online shaming, no punishment, being a good role model, allowing our kids to be kids and being consistent in our parenting messages, is the first step. The second step is to seek out support. Changing our own patterns of behaviours (some of which we may have inadvertently inherited from our own parents), is not necessarily an easy task. As parents, we must take personal responsibility for our actions and take proactive steps to learn how to be the best parent we can be, not only for the benefit of our children and their long-term outcomes but also for our own personal satisfaction with our role as a parent.
If you’d like to dive deeper into any of this with me and discuss how you can stop yelling at your children or create a parenting plan so there are no inconsistent messages or damaging punishments then feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would rather message you can message me on Instagram @blissedoutmums or Facebook. You can also check out my free mini meditation for mums which can help you calm down throughout the day so that you can be the calmer mum you want to be.