The mind of a child is the most delicate thing in this world, as it is malleable like clay— and it is during childhood that the most deep-rooted perceptual foundations are built within a child’s psychology, most prominently by adults in their life. According to James P. Comer, MD, MPH, professor of child psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine’s Child Study Center, healthy psychological development includes self-awareness, self-esteem, feelings of worth, competence, and the ability to appropriately manage emotions.
It doesn’t just take abuse to damage a child; it is often damaging repetitive statements, commands and responses towards children— which inherently disregard their emotions— that ‘plant seeds’ that can damage their mental and emotional health, ability to cope with their thoughts, feelings and behavior, as well as create a build-up of false paradigms which restrict their psychological growth.
What we say to children of all ages is especially important as the messages we give them (especially in their times of emotional distress) can shape their perception of themselves, their circumstances, and how they interact and connect with their experiences in life— from personal to interpersonal. While children today are given more than ever in the fields of technology, opportunity and entertainment, it is clear we are still in the ‘dark age’ of parenting in regards to how recklessly adults disregard children’s emotional health, and thus their overall psychological health, growth and development. Here are 6 examples of psychologically damaging things adults say to children all the time, that ought to be re-thinked before redundantly blurted:
1) “You’re too sensitive.”
We are born complex emotional creatures— and the field of psychology, especially child pscyhology, has confirmed that our emotional health and emotional coping mechanisms are key to long-term happiness, mental and even physical health. And while children experience very vivid emotions over a wide array of things from rejection or isolation, to receiving the wrong colored lolly-pop— it is not whether a child’s emotional distress is valid or not which should dictate how we respond to them, it is the fact that they are distressed and that they are a child with a developing psyche that should dictate how we respond to them.
Instead of trying to understand why the child feels the way they do, or help them to understand and process their feelings, adults often resort to addressing children’s behavior and underlying emotions as a character flaw, like being “too sensitive.” This is particularly damaging because it suggests to the child that they should reject and suppress their strong emotions as they are invalid, rather than allowing or encouraging them to understand the cause of their feelings, and/or resolve their internal distress in a healthy way that allows for growth.
(So stop telling kids they’re too sensitive. They feel the way they feel for a reason.)
2) “That’s life.”
This generalizing phrase is often used towards children when they are confronting a situation that is emotionally/psychologically troubling to them. Instead of evaluating the situation for what it is, why the child is disturbed, and helping or allowing them to work through how they feel, blanket statements like “that’s just life” are often thrown at kids. This is psychologically damaging because it fully disregards the child’s emotions and unique experience regarding the disturbing or upsetting situation.
It also passively trains the child to by-default— simply accept uncomfortable, unhealthy or disturbing situations and emotions, and classify or water them down to “life” rather than evaluating them for what they are, how they feel, and develop a healthy outlook on the experience. Children should be encouraged to embrace their ability to make meaningful connections and understand why difficult emotions are present amidst troubling situations— even if it is a situation that happens to everyone in life.
3) “Stop crying.”
According to the Aware Parent Institute, “When children cry, the hurt has usually already happened. Crying is not the hurt, but the process of becoming unhurt.” While any parent or adult in the field of child care can confirm that it’s not pleasant to deal with a crying kid, who are we, really, to command a child to halt their natural emotional responses and processes? What does it say about us if we value our temporary relief from a challenging situation over the long-term emotional health and psychological growth of a child?
Psychologically, telling a child to stop crying makes as much sense as telling a cut to stop bleeding. Adults should do their best to assist children towards psychological strength and healing, whether that means listening to the child, giving them space, a heart-to-heart, talk, or comfort— anything but dis-regarding their emotional state and degrading it down to simply being a nuisance!
(Believe it or not, the cry of a child is not just a noise that exists to irritate you, it is often the result of a being that is new to this world having a vivid, impactful experience. And how you deal with that says more about you than it does them. Yep, I went there.)
4) “Because I said so.”
This is a popular and somewhat disgraceful response that is commonly used by adults as a shut-down to a child’s question(s). It is not the fact that “because I said so” asserts that the adult is the one in control over the child, it is the fact that it asserts only that, and thus fully disregards and implies to the child that their curiosity, questions and concerns are so irrelevant to the one who is in control that they are not even worthy of addressing. This passively trains a child to relate to their internal conflicts and questions as insignificant, and that as long as they are the underling or not ‘the boss’, they should suppress them, rather than expressing or exploring them outwardly. Upon evaluation, it is clear to see how this can negatively affect a child’s confidence, self-esteem and psychological growth. Translation: ‘Nuff said.
(I mean, if an adult must flaunt the fact that a child must follow rules because they snap their powerful fingers, I’ll stay out of that— but the least they could do is also address and explain to the child what they are trying to understand, such as the reasoning for a rule that is being employed. If a child is asking questions, they are trying to comprehend, understand and learn, not be dominated. Perhaps that should be taken into consideration, for the love of the child!)
5) “Why can’t you be more like (sibling, cousin, classmate)”
Why? Why isn’t Jimmy more like his wonderful brother? Well, there is always a reason! (And it often lies in emotional suppression, pain, trauma, etc). But asking a child why they aren’t more like someone else, and thus comparing them in a humiliating way instead of evaluating their behavior, and working to resolve underlying emotional issues that may play a role, is absolutely damaging no matter what the situation is. It can be difficult to get a child (especially the older they are) to open up and be honest about their emotions which are often root causes of their behavior, isolation or personality traits… but can we blame them when they’ve been micro-trained their whole lives to suppress their emotions?
6) “Shut up.”
I mean, if it hurts adults when other adults say this to them, what affect do you think this has on a brand new little person? It is interesting that this statement not only displays the adult’s inability or refusal to explain how they really feel, which is usually ‘overwhelmed’, but simultaneously disregards how the child feels as well as how such a shut-down command can psychologically affect a child.
What you will notice all of these phrases have in common is they all disregard, attack or work to shut down the emotional center of a child, thus suppressing and passively discouraging the child from developing healthy pathways and connections from the logical part of their brain/being to the emotional part of their brain/being. Anything less than a healthy connection mentally and emotionally (which is exactly what ‘psychological’ is: mental + emotional state of a person) is indeed a recipe for damage, or at the least an imbalance within the growing individual.
Human beings are not meant to be robots! So why, to the most innocent, dynamic, sensitive creatures: children— do we repetitively program them with psychologically limiting and damaging demands and statements in their times of rebellion, distress or grief? Children need patience, wisdom and opportunity for growth from the adults in their life, and whether or not they have that will depend solely on how adults choose to treat them and teach them to relate to their ever-changing psychological states.
How we treat children today affects children generations away
A good thing to keep in mind is when we negatively affect, suppress or hurt a child, we are not just hurting that child. We are hurting every child that individual may hurt when they become an adult who has yielded to the psychological programming they accepted as children. As people, it is our mind that largely directs and carries us through the rest of our lives, and it is in childhood that the most fundamental beliefs, mental and emotional programs are formed.
So while this article surely was heavy, and may have hit you like a ton of bricks— that just goes to show how far we really are as a society from being stewards of healthy growth in the children whose fragile, growing minds are at our mercy. But we have to start somewhere. Share this article, for the kids. If you have the guts, that is.