I know adults that struggle with feelings of not feeling good enough, not feeling acceptable, or they feel they need someone else’s approval in order for them to feel okay.
How does this happen?
A sober thought crossed my mind: Could the answer lie in parenting?
Do parents inadvertently teach children that they are not okay the way they are? Do children learn this unfortunate lesson early on?
Are parents teaching kids that how they feel doesn’t matter? Are parents teaching kids that they need to find external approval in order to be accepted? Could this be where these feeling are coming from? Is this where you and I could have internalized some of these messages, from our own childhood?
To test the theory, I took a look a some of the ways I was parenting my own children. A chill came over me.
Here are some of the things I was doing:
- Leveraging my love and affection to gain compliance.
- Questioning and invalidating my child’s emotions. “Why are you even upset right now? There is no reason for it”
- Telling my child not to be sad or not to cry. “You’re okay. You’re not a baby.”
- Telling my child not to be scared. “Buck up. You need to be tougher”
- Trying to distract my child when sad or scared…not letting them feel what they were feeling.
- Over-praising my children to coax them into doing something they really didn’t want to do.
- Manipulating my child into being “happy”. “We won’t do X if you don’t stop being difficult.”
- Isolating or ignoring my child until he/she behaves as I want.
- Comparing my child to another so that he/she complies… “Why can’t you be more like…”
- Threatening my child to behave differently. “I’m going to get really angry if you don’t…”
- Physically forcing my children to do something against their will.
The list could go on. But these are all ways of invalidating a child and his or her feelings. It’s a way of communicating that what the child thinks is not important, and who they are is not important. Sobering indeed. I could see almost straight line from this kind of dismissive parenting to problems later in life.
I’m curious. Can you think back to a time when you really wanted to be listened to? Can you think of a time when what you thought didn’t matter… or times when you were steered in a direction that you knew was not for you? How did it feel? What conclusions did you draw from that?
I get it that parents sometimes have to make decisions that are in the best interested of their children, even if the children don’t understand. I know this. But using this as a default mode of parenting or as an excuse to dismiss children and their needs will come at a cost. The cost is the same as I’ve mentioned before: not feeling good enough, deficient and/or confused.
Many of us know what it feels like to feel somehow not good enough, or that if I just do X, then maybe I’ll be okay. But this is a no win game. The finish line never stops moving, it’s continually out of reach. This is not something I want to pass on to my kids.
What is the alternative? Let’s teach our children that who they are matters. Let’s give our kids the gift of knowing themselves and loving themselves for it. This doesn’t mean that we have to be permissive, or that we have to agree with or condone all opinions and behaviors. It doesn’t mean that we can’t teach or guide our children. But it does mean accepting and loving them for who they are. It means acknowledging and validating how they feel. It means treating children how we would want to be treated ourselves.
Letting our children feel the emotions they are feeling is a good place to start.