If that title grabbed your attention, you are likely wondering “What’s the first most damaging thing?”
So, I won’t play coy. It’s Abuse: Emotional, Physical, Sexual – any kind of abuse is murderous to the child’s soul, spirit, and self-image. When victims are referred to as “survivors of abuse” that’s an apt description. Abused children may have avoided physical annihilation, but as adults, it’s an ongoing struggle to deal with the aftermath. It can take a lifetime to heal, even with excellent therapeutic guidance. That is a subject for another day.
On to the second most damaging thing: In my opinion, it’s hypocrisy.
According to Merriam-Webster definitions of hypocrisy include, “the behavior of people who do things that they tell other people not to do; behavior that does not agree with what someone claims to believe or feel.”
Children have a highly developed radar. They sense a lot more than we give them credit for. Because they can’t fully articulate their feelings or formulate conclusions based on reasoning and logic, it doesn’t’ mean they can’t read between the lines. They are masters of the unspoken and possess a kind of psychic antennae, often tuning into things that parents may have not voiced, even to themselves.
Hypocrisy can take both blatant and subtle forms. The “Do as I say, not as I do” parent who, while dragging on their cigarette, expounds to their progeny on how they should never get started on such a nasty habit. The long-suffering wife laments to her daughter. “Don’t be like me!” How can one seriously expect children to develop behaviors other than what is being modeled to them? Imagine how much more powerful an impact if the parent shows a strength of character by modeling a proactive resolution.
A subtle, yet equally damaging form of hypocrisy, is when parents contrive to put on an appearance of virtue or goodness while concealing contradictory behavior.
Be aware that it is entirely possible that your child detects, either consciously or unconsciously, that something is not what it seems. When the child senses that the parent is not being upfront or accountable, this causes confusion. This will often turn into anger and disruptive behavior. especially if open communication is not encouraged.
Most of us have been raised in a Judeo-Christian-Muslim framework where “honoring thy father and mother” is drilled into us at an early age. We might have been taught that there is a Supreme Power (be it God, Jesus or Allah), yet to a small child, who, then, is really more god or goddess than their own parent? After all, parents are their “givers of life”, the support system they depend on for their very survival – not only for their physical needs, as children require affection and acceptance to be sustained emotionally.
When a child feels anger towards their parents, and that anger is not effectively resolved or channeled, it can quickly turn in on itself, transforming into guilt or shame. “I feel this about my parents but I have no right to judge them.” Finding out that their parental idols have “feet of clay” also makes a child feel betrayed.
This constant layering of complex emotional issues – anger, guilt, shame, and self-judgment often carries into adulthood and can poison future relationships.
One of my clients was raised by a narcissistic mother who berated her for becoming sexually active as a teenager, shaming her in front of other family members by calling her vicious names. This client carried tremendous guilt that she didn’t live up to her mother’s values of waiting until marriage to give up her virginity. She struggled with self-image issues and an underlying anxiety that she would never be good enough, but managed to detangle a lot of this in therapy.
Years later, when she had updated me on her life, she shared how an older cousin of her mother (now deceased) decided to reveal to her that her mother had been rather boy crazy and had an abortion when she was 16. I’m sure that my client’s mother wanted to protect her daughter from going through a similar consequence. However, burying her personal shame and never revealing the truth about her own life really caused her daughter tremendous emotional damage. Especially by judging her daughter so mercilessly (and hypocritically).
No one should be expected to live up to a non-existent standard of behavior.
Your kids don’t expect you to be perfect. It’s okay to have flaws. Just do your best at being real about them. Challenge yourself to become a better person – that is the kind of behavioral modeling that can make a world of difference in the impressionable psyche of a child.
– Dr. LindaJoy Rose