6 Signs You’re Being Too Hard On Your Kid

6 Signs You're Being Too Hard On Your Kid

Parents often feel like they’re not doing enough. There’s always another activity to enroll our kids in, another skill they could be learning. We should encourage them to study harder and help more around the house. Comparing our own families to others — or to some imaginary gold standard — can leave us feeling like we never quite measure up.

There are lots of ways to pass this fear of inadequacy along to our children: nagging, cajoling, bribing or even just expressing disappointment. And though it’s good to hold high standards, we don’t want them to mar the message that we love our children fully and unconditionally for who they are, not what they do.

In a previous interview, author Jennifer Wallace told HuffPost: “Too many kids today perceive their value and worth to be contingent on their achievements — their GPAs, the number of likes they get on a post — not for who they are as people, deep at their core.”

She recommended that parents look carefully at the areas of their children’s lives where they devote the most attention, time and resources. Parents may not value their child’s grades above all, but if they bring up academics during every conversation, this could be the message kids receive.

“Many parents think they’re not overemphasizing achievement,” Wallace said. But when they pause to examine their interactions, “they can see how their behavior is telling their kids a different story.”

HuffPost spoke with mental health professionals about the signs that a parent is being too hard on their kid. Here’s what they said:

Your child feels bad in a way that’s unnecessary.

As their parent, you frequently have to deliver news that kids don’t want to hear. Eran Magan, a psychologist and the creator of the website divorcingdads.org, listed the following common examples: “telling them it’s time to get out of the pool, enforcing a bedtime, asking for participation in house chores or restricting privileges in order to help them focus on schoolwork.”

But there is a spectrum of harshness when it comes to delivering these messages. Magan suggested that parents ask, “Is it necessary for my child to feel this bad right now? Is there another way I can support my child’s needs and my own in a way that would result in less discomfort for my child and help maintain a positive tone in our relationship?”

You won’t get it right every time, and there will definitely come a moment in which you lose your cool and yell. But if you’re attentive to your child’s experience and prioritize your connection with them, you can ensure that most of your interactions won’t threaten your relationship.

You are physically rough with your child.

Spanking children is no longer commonplace — and for good reason. Physical harm may solve behavior problems in the moment, but it doesn’t help kids learn empathy. It also threatens the sense of safety that they have with you, their primary caretaker.

But physical roughness can also be more subtle. Grabbing your child by the wrist and tugging them away, for example, is a perfectly appropriate way to pull them from a danger, such as an oncoming car. But it’s probably too much if they’re simply dawdling at getting out of the pool, and it might frighten your child.

Another way this can manifest, Magan said, is “handling roughly objects that the child is holding or cares about (for example, snatching away a toy or food).” Snatching is a quick and effective way to get a candy bar or an iPad out of your child’s hands, but it’s the kind of interaction that can damage your relationship in the long run.

Your tone is unnecessarily harsh.

Even though all of us have been in a situation where we needed to holler “Stop!” as loudly as possible when we saw our child doing something dangerous, sometimes our tone is an overreaction. We may yell about picking up toys not because the matter is urgent but because we are tired and losing patience.

When we need our child to do something, crouching down to look them in the eye and using a softer voice is usually more effective. Magan gave the example of “roaring ‘Tommy, don’t do that!’” instead of “stepping close to Tommy, looking him in the eye and saying, ‘Tommy, please don’t do that. It could break the window, which could hurt.’”

Though no one can maintain such serenity in every situation, you may find that your child responds better to calm, reasonable requests than to shouting.

If you’re not sure whether you’ve crossed a line, you can look to your child’s reaction for clues. If they express shock or freeze up, uncertain how to react, “that is a sign that the parent’s behavior was extreme relative to the things that this parent usually does with this child,” Magan said. Over time, the cumulative effect of such interactions can lead to the child distrusting the parent or being numb to their behavior.

You discount your child’s perspective.

Is a “candy salad” an appropriate dinner entree? No, but that doesn’t mean you need to mock your child’s desire for sweets. It’s possible to tell your child no and assert boundaries in a way that shows them respect.

“Responding with ‘What you want doesn’t matter; I will make the decisions around here’ would be an example of speaking overly harshly, even if the tone is mild,” Magan said.

Another phrase that can cause harm with overuse is “Because I said so.” When you can (calmly) explain your reason for saying no or enforcing a boundary, kids are less likely to push back.

You could say something like, “Candy is delicious. But I need to make sure you get all the nutrients you need to grow. We can have a few pieces after dinner.”

You focus on their mistakes.

We all want our children to avoid making the same missteps again and again. But praising them when they do the right thing (“Thank you for asking nicely”) is generally more effective than reprimanding them when they don’t (“Say thank you!”).

You also don’t want to focus on mistakes “to the exclusion of other admirable qualities and attributes,” said Chinwé Williams, a licensed counselor in Atlanta and co-author of “Seen: Healing Despair and Anxiety in Kids and Teens Through the Power of Connection.”

Although you want to hold your children to high expectations, it’s important that they understand you love them regardless. “When the child fails to meet such high standards, they may believe negative things about themselves,” Williams said.

Being hard on your kids in this way can have lasting consequences for them. They “may develop an inner dialogue that is overly critical and begin to believe that they can’t do anything right. Or they may develop a fear of not being good enough, leading to a preoccupation with their perceived flaws rather than their successes,” Williams said.

You have excessive rules.

It’s important to establish and hold boundaries for safety, for health, for maintaining relationships and for other reasons. But not just because you can.

“Structure is good. However, too many rules can be counterproductive,” Williams said. “Rules should be kept to a minimum and should focus on an overall attitude or way of being rather than individual infractions.”

If your child doesn’t like what’s for dinner, for example, it still makes sense to ask them to come to the table to be with family members. But forcing them to eat six bites of each item on their plate is probably too much and could turn into a drawn-out power struggle every evening.

There is also the possibility of longer-term behavioral consequences. “Studies have shown that kids raised with a harsh parenting style may develop behavioral problems such as defiance, hyperactivity and aggression. Additionally, they may demonstrate emotional problems like anxiety or mood instability when things don’t go their way,” Williams said.

What to do if you feel you’ve been too harsh.

Just as your child will be unable to meet every behavioral expectation at all times, you will also at some point fall short in the way you handle disciplining your children. Perhaps you yell, snatch an iPad or deliver a conversation-closing “Because I said so.”

It’s what you do after this misstep that matters most. “When parents don’t repair, negative feelings accumulate and can turn into resentment,” Williams said. “Repair of a rupture is an important process of resolving and rebuilding trust and connection.”

Magan recommended that you start by explaining that you want to apologize, so your child isn’t anxious about the interaction. Then explain what you did (“I shouted at you when you asked for more ice cream”). Take responsibility for what you did and say how you think it might’ve made your child feel (“It wasn’t your fault, and it must’ve been scary to hear me yell”).

You can give a reason for your behavior, but don’t frame it as an excuse. Apologize sincerely, explaining what you wish you had done instead and what you plan to do next time. (Magan gave this example: “Next time if I feel this upset, I’m going to do my best to speak calmly, and I may take a timeout for myself, but I really don’t want to shout at you like that.”)

Williams suggested that at the end of a repair conversation, you remind your child that you love them.

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