It’s tricky being a parent because junior is watching you all the time. Just ask Wilson and Jane (not their real names), a couple who constantly quarrelled and fought in front of their three children.
They soon found that their 10-year-old son was acting aggressively towards his younger brothers, often scolding and even hitting them. After consulting psychologist Philip Ang, founder of PEAK Parenting Coach, the couple realised that their son was simply modelling their behaviour.
Ang states, “According to social learning theories, people learn from observation in social settings and imitating certain behaviours. And children pick up most of their behaviour from their parents. They look at how parents live our lives, and how we react or respond to situations.”
“Be firm in your tone but avoid becoming punitive. Criticise their bad behaviour but don’t criticise them.”
So, make sure you don’t act like a toxic parent. This form of parenting, explains Dr B L Lim, a psychiatrist in private practice, is “any pervasive parenting styles which result in unhealthy dynamics between the child and the parent, and consequently long-term psychological and even physical damage to the child”. In short, not only might your offspring be traumatised, they might have long-term mental health issues.
He adds that some kids become withdrawn when asked to talk about their parents because they are ashamed and worry that others will learn about the rocky domestic situation. “Meanwhile, parents who are struggling with personal issues may not be able to apply good judgement when caring for their kids. Their approach can become inconsistent particularly when it comes to establishing boundaries for themselves and their kids.”
Wise up to the signs of toxic parenting and learn how to avoid these habits.
1. You don’t keep your own emotions in check
After a long day at work, the last thing you want to deal with is the children fighting over toys. Frustrated, you lash out at them, so that they’d stop making a din. “Stay calm and react appropriately to a situation. This helps your child feel reassured,” Dr Lim advises. “When you often become excessively angry or anxious…your child ends up modelling your behaviour and might learn to act aggressively with others.”
2. You are harsh to your child
“Some parents might use derogatory remarks on their kids in order to push them to, for example, work harder in their studies, because it was the same method they had experienced when they were younger.”
Other parents might use physical punishment on their children instead of correcting them as a way to vent their own stress and frustration. Such behaviour can cause a vulnerable child to develop a sense of helplessness and hopelessness, which can lead to depression.
Explain to your child why you are unhappy. Dr Lim says, “Be firm in your tone but avoid becoming punitive. Criticise their bad behaviour but don’t criticise them.”
3. You don’t establish clear boundaries between yourself and your child
Your child needs space to grow, so it is important that you respect their privacy, says Dr Lim. “By constantly entering your child’s room without knocking or reading their WhatsApp messages, you are intruding into that personal space.”
4. You favour one child over another
Appreciate your child’s strengths and help him improve on his weaknesses, instead of comparing him with his siblings or friends. In addition to sibling rivalry, this can cause him to feel left out or resentful towards the family, says Philip. He might then try to seek attention at home or in school through other ways such as misbehaving.
5. You compete with your child
As a parent, your responsibility is to guide and encourage your child’s growth and development. But that pang of jealousy you have developed towards your mini-me can render your relationship competitive and unhealthy, says Dr Lim. For instance, a mother, jealous of how pretty her tween daughter looks with a new bob hairstyle, tells the girl she looks terrible instead. Don’t let such unhealthy competition strain or even sabotage your relationship ― learn to feel happy for your child.
6. You want your child to take sides
Even if you disagree, never try to tell your child about the other spouse, so as to get junior on your side. When you say things such as “you better not become like your father/mother”, you are sowing discord and creating unhealthy *triangulation within the family. For Bill and Lynne (no their real names), a couple Ang worked with, it led their kids to lie to both parents. He points out, “When your child starts to lose respect for one or both parents, she is also likely to grow up struggling with trust issues.”
Never withhold your affection for your child when they fail to achieve the objective(s) you have set out for them… There should be no conditions attached to your love for him.
7. You treat your child like a BFF
Your child is not emotionally mature enough to replace your spouse or a close friend. When you start to demand that, for example, your 10-year-old daughter spends all her free time with you, she ends up not learning to form healthy relationships with others, cautions Dr Lim. She can become confused and stressed, which increases the risk of depression as she grows older. So, it’s essential that YOU establish healthy relationships with other adults.
8. You love your child only if…
… They do what you desire. Never withhold your affection for your child when they fail to achieve the objective(s) you have set out for them. “Otherwise, he can start to feel insecure and anxious,” notes Dr Lim. There should be no conditions attached to your love for him.
9. You make your child feel guilty
“If you don’t score an A for your English test, I’ll be very sad.” Emotional blackmail such as this can leave your child feeling guilty and unhappy, Dr Lim says, if they don’t do well in their studies. Explain why you think they should do well ― “You have been revising every day for the English test, and I will be very happy for you if you scored an A.”
10. You don’t allow your child to fail
It is natural to want to protect your child from disappointment. But when you “swoop in at any sign of challenge or discomfort” once too often, you can end up curbing his independence, Dr Lim points out. It also turns you into a helicopter parent who is overprotective and/or overindulgent. Let go, and let your child learn to fail and stand up after that.
* In psychology, triangulation refers to a situation between a couple when one partner relies on a child for support and communication with the other partner.
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