There’s no such thing as a perfect parent. Even the best of us mess up, blow up, and space out from time to time.
Luckily, there’s no reason to fear our occasional mistakes will ruin our kids for life. After all, our own parents weren’t perfect either, but for the most part, we grew up to be responsible and loving adults.
Yet there are some parental behaviors that, especially when practiced habitually, can harm your child, both now and in the future. If you’re guilty of any of these, it’s time to rein it in and rethink your approach. The experts to explain why.
1) Fighting angrily with your partner in front of your kids.
It’s only natural for couples to have conflicts once in a while — the key is in how you handle them. “Be authentic and real in front of the kids! But it’s damaging if kids see their parents name-calling,” said Jennie Kramer, MSW, LCSW-R, founder and executive director of Metro Behavioral Health Associates, with offices in Scarsdale and New York City. Instead of making personal attacks, focus on your partner’s undesirable behavior: “If a child hears a parent say to their partner, ‘I love you but I don’t like this thing you did,’ that’s very different than hearing, ‘You always do this, you are this way, and you are this,’” Kramer said. “Kids are very reactive to anything that’s verbally violent.”
If kids are exposed to down-and-dirty fights on a regular basis, it may become their model for how they, too, handle conflicts with loved ones and friends. “It’s certainly possible that at a certain age kids do emulate a lot of what they see in their home,” Kramer explained.
So keep things real when you fight with your partner, but gentle and loving, too. Your children will learn to deal with disagreements the right way, and hopefully seek friends and eventual partners who do the same.
2) Frequently yelling at your kids.
“A lot of parents yell because they themselves were yelled at as children, so it’s their go-to. Or they may think yelling is going to help their child listen better,” said Brenda Boatswain, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and certified group psychotherapist with Godsend Psychological Services Scarsdale. But turning up the volume has serious downsides.
“It creates a psychological un-safety for the kids and it affects their self-esteem,” Dr. Boatswain warned. “They don’t see it as ‘My parents don’t like my behavior right now,’ they see it as ‘My parents don’t like me.’ It’s counterproductive to what the parent is trying to do.”
A better way to handle a frustrating situation? “If you need to, take a break. Calm yourself with some deep breathing or go to another room. And once you feel more in control and better able to discuss what you wanted to talk about, you can come back in and be very concrete about what you want done instead,” Boatswain said.
Of course, there may be times that this sage advice falls by the wayside and you blow your stack. “Things do happen — we say things we regret,” Boatswain acknowledged. “We need to model for our children that we have made a mistake. Say, ‘I’m sorry that I said what I did. That was not appropriate.’”
Your child will learn that yelling isn’t the way to go, a lesson that hopefully will carry over into his interactions with others now and in the future.
3) Habitually swearing around your children.
“If a child is hearing a parent swear, they’re going to say to themselves, ‘Well, I can do that, too.’ In some families that may be fine, but you want to know what kinds of values and language you want your child to have,” Boatswain said. “It may not work in school, for instance.”
Yes, you can try telling your child not to curse outside the house, but he or she may forget: “It will raise the chances that he will swear at school and you will be called in,” Boatswain warned. It may also make your child a less sought-after friend, as most parents won’t want their kids picking up your child’s colorful expressions.
There’s another drawback to swearing, according to Kramer: “If you use swear words all the time, they become the words you use to express your feelings, instead of saying ‘I am happy/sad/frustrated/disappointed.’ It’s much healthier when you can use words to express your feelings.”
So set the right example by cleaning up your language as much as possible. “Children are going to grow up with what they know,” Kramer says.
4) Being a whip-cracker when it comes to schoolwork.
We live in communities where people are very committed to thriving and doing well and wanting their children to succeed, too. “It’s great if they can make that happen,” said Kramer. “[But] what I see as a therapist is the inadvertent pressure that’s placed on kids — they’re ready to snap. There’s never just an acknowledgement that they did the best they could; it’s about numbers, grades, and the future.”
And all this quarterbacking can backfire in the long run, she warned: “At our center we see lots of adolescents and college students who are suffering physical maladies from the stress of trying to ‘get it right.’”
Instead of hounding your child over his or her academics, Kramer suggests an approach of gentle encouragement. “Make her understand that what’s important is to simply do the best you can,” she said. “Tell her to ask for help when she needs it, and explain it doesn’t mean you’re weak. Explain that at the end of the day you’re going to do how you do — what’s more important is who you are as a person.”
Doing so will keep your child on a steady path, she Kramer, and one that’s less likely to lead to disappointment: “Many people go through prestigious colleges and graduate schools and then realize they don’t even want to do what they studied — they were just doing it to please others.”
5) Telling your child to “fight his own battles” when he’s being bullied.
Hello, 1950 is calling and wants its old advice back. Knowing what we know now about the long-term effects bullying can have on a person’s psyche — it can potentially lead to depression in adulthood — it’s essential to step in and help.
“When you say to a child, ‘Fight your own battles,’ you’re sending a message that the only way to deal with the situation is by fighting it through,” Dr. Boatswain said. Instead, she recommends modeling some language your child can use when being bullied, teaching him how to advocate for himself is a skill that will serve him well all through his life. If that doesn’t work, Dr. Boatswain said, “Depending on the age of the child, that would call for a school conference with the teacher and possibly the school psychologist to see what could be helped.” Either way, you’ll be showing your child he deserves better treatment, now and going forward, that violence isn’t the way to solve problems.
6) Constantly checking your phone when you’re with your child.
“One of the things that parents tend to do is to be very distracted,” observed Kramer. “They tend to be on their phones in conversations, at the dinner table and even while they’re walking. I wish that everyone would put their phones completely away the second they walk into the house.”
The problem, Kramer said, is, “Kids get used to that way of living — that every time they have a conversation with mommy she’s looking down at her phone, or at dinner daddy’s taking a call. What if a kid surmises that their mom or dad can’t give them their full attention? It gives them permission to do the same thing. There’s a lack of connection. It tells kids that we’re not interested or they’re not important enough.”
The solution is simple: Put down the phone and really focus on your child. You’ll be showing her there’s nothing more important to you than she is — and that others deserve her full attention when she’s engaging with them, too.