I read…a lot. Virtually every week day (weekends belong to my husband), I am perusing one article or another on the web and in magazines, or ploughing my way through another book…or revisiting a book I read some time ago but reread periodically to keep the insights fresh in my mind. Most of the things I read I find interesting, but few of them do I find worthy of sharing with you. But when I do find one, you get it, my thoughts on it, and a link so that you can go read it in its original context.
And so I have found another one to share with you…this one about how to screw up your kids emotionally. Reading it from the standpoint of an ACoN, I am seeing it from two perspectives: what our narcissistic parent(s) did to us and what we may inadvertently be doing to our own kids. Sherrie Campbell, PhD and licensed Psychologist, recently published an article on Huffington Post entitled “8 Guaranteed Waysto Emotionally F*ck Up Your Kids,” and I thought it was nothing short of brilliant. Dr. Campbell opens her article thus: [as usual, my comments are in violet]
“Our children are the lights of our lives. We all start off as parents envisioning nothing but success, love and happiness for them. However, these dreams often do not manifest because they are not getting the important things they need to become disciplined, mature and motivated adults. The following are eight parenting f*ck-ups that will guarantee your child will suffer from depression, anxiety, anger, tense family relationships, problems with friends, low self-esteem, a sense of entitlement and chronic emotional problems throughout his or her life.”
1. Ignore or minimize your child's feelings. If your child is expressing sadness, anger or fear and you mock them, humiliate them, ignore or tease them you minimize what they feel. You essentially tell them what they feel is wrong. When parents do this they withhold love from their child and miss opportunities to have open and vulnerable connections teaching them to bond and to know they are loved unconditionally.
It is my guess that we have all experienced this at the hands of our Ns; some of us were even told outright that our feelings were wrong, that we did not hate our mean cousin, we loved him, or that we were not allowed to feel or express in any way sadness or anger or hurt or fear. I can remember flinching as my NM raised her hand for some innocuous reason…but I was within striking distance, and I unthinkingly flinched. Once she could get me alone, I was informed on no uncertain terms that I was never to do it again, under penalty of a beating. No expressions of emotion were allowed, including fear, except as permitted by my NM.
But what about us as parents? We are so hypersensitized to criticism that we hear criticism from our children in the form of their anger, fear or sadness? While we may not mock or humiliate or tease our kids for their feelings, do we ignore them by refusing to address them, by trying to kid or bribe them into a “better mood” or by taking their emotions so personally that we feel assaulted by them? Kids can pick up on that last one and quickly learn to hide their feelings from us for fear of making us upset…how fair is it of us to parentalize them in such a way?
Children need to perceive their family as a safe place to express their true feelings. We can teach them acceptable ways of expressing themselves…no hitting or name calling or tantrums past an appropriate age for them, for example. It is part of our job as parents, after all, to teach kids how to deal appropriately with their emotions, not to stifle or deny them, or be afraid to show them. We may not stifle our kids in the same ways our parents did to us, but are we discouraging emotional honesty in our kids in different ways?
2. Inconsistent rules. If you never talk about your expectations, you keep your child from knowing how to behave appropriately. Children live up or down to what you expect. Rules give them guidelines and boundaries to help them define who they are, good and bad. If you keep your child guessing and life is vague, they will begin to act out to find the boundaries themselves, which leads to low self-esteem and problem behavior.
This has to be my all-time pet peeve as a child: inconsistent rules. Not just inconsistent from one day to the next, but inconsistent from one child to the next without explanation. I recognize you can’t give your 8 year-old the same freedom you give his 16 year-old sibling…but does he know the path to earning that freedom for himself? Or does he view it as an arbitrary and capricious dictate from you or his other parent?
Are your expectations of each child reasonable? How do you handle having different expectations for different children? My NM would tell me, as I struggled with 8th grade Algebra, than my 5th grade brother was getting an A in math…so what was wrong with me? Do you expect your artistic child, who took two years to memorize the multiplication tables, to get the same math grades as your technokid who taught himself quadratic equations from the internet? Do you take the time to explain to each child why you have different expectations from each of them? Or do you simply create a “one size fits all” set of expectations and reward those who achieve and penalize those who don’t?
Are your expectations consistent from one day to the next? Do you contradict yourself and leave your child to figure it out? In the 1950s, when I was a child, working mothers were rare and those who had a full time job, like mine, worked in environments where their kids couldn’t call them on the phone multiple times per day. My NM would call home at the time she expected us to be home from school (and woe betide me if I was not there to take her call!). She would then issue instructions and we were expected to follow those instructions and have them done before she got home from work. If her instructions were not clear, I couldn’t call back for clarification and I quickly learned that that which was correct yesterday was not necessarily correct today: yesterday I could go out after my chores to play with a neighbour child…but today I am in trouble for doing it, and with no warning that the rules have changed.
In an environment where little or nothing is predictable, where everything seems to hang on the moment’s mood of the parent, children become stressed. They have to learn to be hypervigilant because their world is capricious and unpredictable, inconsistent and therefore frightening. There are more ways to be inconsistent and capricious than the ways our NMs did it…are we doing it differently, but doing it just the same?
3. Make your child your friend. Never share all your worries, concerns and relationship problems with your child or ask their advice. If you act helpless and defeated to your children they will never learn to respect you and will treat you as an equal or an inferior because you have used them for your own therapy. You must show your children you can stand up to problems, face your challenges and handle life through all the stress and come out on the other side. Be real, have your emotions, but do not burden your children.
This is a peculiar one because some of the things we say to our kids…or our NParents said to us…don’t sound like we are parentifying (or being parentified) but if you think about how a child perceives “We can’t afford it,” or “Your mother is a spendthrift,” or “Your father left us because he’s a faithless jerk,” you may get it.
We are not our children’s friends, we are their teachers and guides. We can be compassionate and kind in that role, but sometimes we have to be tough and immovable. One of places we must do that is in setting boundaries and one of the boundaries we must set is the one between adult things and children’s things. When we fail to set and enforce that boundary, when we allow our children to be our confidantes and give them information about the household and family that is outside both their ability to control or even truly comprehend, we unburden ourselves by burdening them.
If you have ever worked in a company you know that, unless you worked in certain departments, knowledge of the company’s finances was none of your business. And if you did work in finance, accounting or purchasing, you also knew that the information you knew from doing your job was confidential and not supposed to be shared with other people outside of a “need to know” basis. There was a firm boundary drawn between the executive management and the regular workers, too…because they did not need to know because the knowledge was not part of their jobs.
In a household it is little different. You, as the parent, are executive management and some of what you do or know simply should not be shared with your children. If finances are tight, why worry your kids any sooner than absolutely necessary? It is enough to let them know at the time a change has to be made, and probably not wise to explain changes in terms that can worry them. “We can’t afford it” may be the truth, but children have no control over the income or expenditure and kids tend to blame themselves… “maybe if I ate less…” “maybe if I sold my dolls and gave the money to Mommy…” Be careful how you explain changes in their world because they can take on guilt that does not belong to them.
If you discuss your marital or relationship woes with them, you are parentifying. Contentious discussions between you and your significant other belong in private, not in front of an audience, even if that audience is only your kids. Complaints about your partner belong in the ears and on the shoulders of your age-appropriate friends, not your kids. Kids perceive this as a requirement that they take sides and if your kid takes a side and then you and your lover make up, the kids still has taken a side and is unlikely to ever be a neutral, uninvolved kid again. It also makes them insecure: in a society in which half of all marriages end in divorce, your kid likely has friends from divorced families. When you fight in front of your kids, when you burden them with adult concerns—even if you have convinced yourself that because they are members of the family and should therefore know—you make them worry that their home may break up as well. And again, kids take on blame for this, thinking if they only behaved “better” (as opposed to normally), their home would not be on the verge of disintegrating.
There are times we must all unburden ourselves, but our kids are not the ones to dump it on…that is why we have family, counsellors, friends, and journals. Kids should have bad news over which they have no control handed to them only when the event is imminent: “Daddy and I are not getting along well right now, so he is going to stay with Uncle Pete and Aunt Sue for a while…” Announcing it too soon gives them time to suffer and brood and, if you call it off at the last minute, they will have not only suffered needlessly, they will now find the foundations of their world irrevocably damaged. Your children are not your friends, they are your charges, you have responsibilities towards them and authority over them: exercise them both.
4. Put down your child's other parent. If you never show affection and love to your partner/spouse in front of your child, the child does not develop a barometer for what love is or what it looks like. If you are always putting your spouse down and rejecting him/her, threatening divorce, you create a chronic state of anxiety for your child. If you are already divorced and you remain cold, distant, bitter, angry and blaming of your ex-spouse, you are sending the subtle message to your child that your ex-spouse is the cause of the divorce and you need to be the preferred parent. This is parent alienation.
There is a further aspect to this: children know they are part of you and a part of their other parent. Even if your partner is not the child’s biological parent, if your child has bonded with this person, you put the child on the horns of a dilemma when you start making noises that denigrate your (former) partner. The child may feel that if Daddy is an evil, cheating bum, then if he is half Daddy and half you, then he, too, must be, at least in part, evil and cheating and a bum; if the child has bonded with a step parent or long-term live-in love and now that person is an evil, cheating bum, the child now questions his ability to choose good people to bond with and may have difficulty with later attachment. You can alienate your child not only from his absent parent but from all emotional attachment later in life. And you can even alienate your child from you if you are not careful.
When I was a kid, my parents separated numerous times (although I don’t remember most of them). But I was afraid of my mother and I loved my father because he was the parent who, despite having limited home time, spent positive time with me. I was not afraid of him, I trusted him, I loved him. My NM was good at the boundaries thing, at least when it came to kids making incursions into her privacy, and all we knew about their separation was what she told us. And what she told us was uniformly bad…what an awful man our father was, how he moved out of the house and left her with no money, how he abandoned us and paid no child support, didn’t send anything for birthdays or Christmas, never called to see how we were.
I never believed a word of it and the more she talked against my father, the more I despised and distrusted her…pretty strong emotions for a 10 to 12 year old. When the truth finally came out, I learned I was right to have trusted my father because virtually everything she had said was a lie: either a twisted version of the truth (yes, he had gone off with another woman…but she wasn’t a cheap chippie who lured him away from his happy little family, she was someone he had met during a previous separation and dumped when Mother wanted him to come back home…and picked up with again when NM threw him out yet again) or an outright lie—he had sent cards, money and presents for birthdays and Christmas and NM had kept the money, destroyed the cards and rewrapped the gifts and said they were from her. In the end, all of her poisonous remarks against my father merely backfired: I hated that she said such awful things about someone I loved (even if they might possibly be true) and I hated her, once the truth came out and I discovered just how much she had lied to me.
My oldest boy did not know his father growing up…we moved across country when the boy was two. When he was 16, he flew to New England to stay with his grandmother for a few weeks and to reacquaint with his dad. When he asked me about his father I was very careful to not follow in my mother’s footsteps. When he asked, I merely said that we were much too young to marry and we were very incompatible, me being from a laid-back California lifestyle and him from a more patriarchal old school New England culture. We just did not get along and we eventually separated, then divorced. I did not tell him that his father drank overmuch, barely brought home enough money to support us (he drank half his pay check up at the corner bar before he even got it home), that he was as free with his fists as he was with his foul language, that he had tried to kidnap the boy when he was a baby, to be raised by his alcoholic mother, or that he had a violent, controlling streak. We lived 3000 miles away…he didn’t need to know this. When he went to New England to see his father, I had not seen the man in 14 years…who knew what kind of person he had become in the intervening years? He could be sober and own his own business, for all I knew…why taint the boy’s mind with expectations that could be 15 years out of date? Why tell him that his father had only agreed to our divorce if I would exempt him from paying child support? What good would it have served?
And so my son went off and had his holiday and he came home and didn’t say much for the first few days and then he took me aside and said “My dad wants me to move back and live with him…” I started to come up with reasons that wasn’t going to happen but before I could get further than saying “Well, maybe I can sent you out for the summer next year…” he interrupted with “You don’t understand…I don’t want to go…why didn’t you tell me he was such an asshole?”
My son felt nothing but contempt for his father, but none of it was my doing. He had seen with his own eyes that his father was controlling, irrational, and a brutal drunk…he had hit his latest wife at the dinner table in front of him and her four kids. I never had to say a word against the man…he showed his true colours when given a chance and while my son is aware of what kind of a man his father is, he knows that he is his own man and not like him at all.
Never undermine your child’s love for his or her other parent. Not only is it unfair to the child and reflects badly on you, it could backfire on you as it did on my mother. And if your ex truly is the ex from hell, raise your children with love and reason and they will most likely figure it out for themselves.
Tomorrow: Parts 5 through 8