Discouraging free expression and building a relationship based on fear are some of the attitudes that can weaken children's mental health.
Discouraging free expression, stereotyping attitudes as feminine or masculine, comparing kids with their family members, and building a relationship based on fear are some of the attitudes that can weaken children's mental health.
1. Discouraging kids from crying or saying what hurts them
“Don’t cry” or “don’t express your feelings” are phrases that minimize kids' emotions and invalidate their experiences. Family psychotherapist Fran Walfish suggests using expressions such as “You got hurt and scared. It’s okay to say ‘Ouch! That hurts!’. Another possibility is to give the kid a hug, acknowledging its emotions which can help kids find their words to express discomfort, like 'That was a scary fall.'”
Dr. Walfish calls this empathic narration. According to her, compassionate attunement to your child’s feelings will help them feel seen, acknowledged, validated, and accepted. The result of a more empathetic response to kids' pain is that they become more empathetic themselves towards other kids.
2. Discouraging kids from feeling like equals so that they never question adults and obey
Teaching children that obedience is their greatest virtue can potentially lead to a lack of critical thinking and even to be easily subjected to situations of oppression and violence. “You have to respect me, I’m your parent,” or “respect adults and don’t question them” are phrases many kids have been brought up with. However, according to Leslie P. Arreola-Hillenbrand, founder & Parent Coach at Latinx Parenting trained in Trauma-Informed Nonviolent Parenting, these expressions aim to “equate respect with fear. But respect and fear are not the same.”
According to Leslie Arreola “either we want our children to have a genuine and shared mutual respect for us and for themselves rooted in connection and we work towards that, or we continue believing that our short-term goal of obedience is worth our best intentions being lost in the long-term.” Raising kids to blindly respect what adults do or say can make them feel less important, capable, or smart than adults around them. Thus, they could be exposed to mistreatment and not complain about it due to the conception of their opinions and wellbeing being secondary to the sense of obedience to their elders.
3.Telling kids that problems should stay inside the family or not be spoken about
According to Clinical Social Worker Allan Schwartz, there are many families with a systematic way of functioning in which the rule is not to speak about problems, emotions, and opinions. In such families when there is any sign of disagreement everyone "shuts down" or "stuffs it,” which means keeping thoughts and feelings to oneself so as not to hurt the feelings of other people in the family.
Schwartz labels these as ‘stuffy families,’ and says they consider conflict dangerous and harmful. “Emphasis and value are placed on silence about anything that might be deemed controversial. Each family member works hard to protect the feelings and well-being of the other members. However, this comes at a great cost to everyone in the group.” This tacit agreement can lead to a lack of professional help and an accumulation of pain and discomfort inside the family that can result in poor mental health.
4. Telling kids sexist comments like "Don't be a girl," "You are too strong for a girl,” or "Boys don’t play with those toys"
Clinical psychologist Andrés Lasso Báez explained to Semana that when parents say these phrases to a child, they make them think that being a girl or a woman is negative and that they are not on an equal level, as if being called “girl” was something lowering. This could cause the child to discriminate against women or feel superior to them, the same happens when a girl is treated badly for having behaviors that have been historically considered masculine.
According to the reflections of trans rights activist Candance Chavez on the subject of her childhood, It is very harmful to give objects or colors a gender because they are stereotypes. As she explained to Copenhagen Pride Magazine “A trans girl can like cars and there’s nothing wrong with it. That a girl plays with cars or a boy plays with dolls has nothing to do with their gender identity or sexual orientation. All those are false associations we create, and they are still huge in Latin America. When we stop forcing those associations we are going to allow children to freely develop their abilities and happily explore their capabilities.”
5. Comparing amongst siblings or other family members
Lasso explains that phrases such as “at your age, I was already working,” “do things more like your sister,” or “you are like your mother (with a negative tone),” show competitive or contemptuous relationships that reinforce a negative idea of the other. In this way, the children will think that resembling their parents is negative; that they must be better than their siblings, or that their efforts will never be worth as much as those of their relatives.
In the experience of Vanessa Sarmiento, a 23-year-old communicator, and journalist: "Listening to these phrases is a pressure that has affected me to this day." She considers herself a very competitive woman within all her circles “I always like to be the youngest and best at what I do and that is not good for my mental wellbeing, I feel that nothing will ever be enough because I will always have someone to compete with that is better than me."
Even more, regarding the negative comments of her parents about each other during her upbringing, she comments “It is like taking sides. Taking a father or mother figure and turning it into that of a villain. To the point that you stop seeing them as humans and start seeing them as an absolutely negative example. Someone without a good side."