child trauma

Child hiding face

I met the mother, father, and daughter in my waiting room for their second therapy appointment. (This case is a fictionalized composite.)

In the 20 seconds it took the family to walk from my waiting room to my office, I heard the mother say all of this to the child: “Give me your backpack,”  “No, here, take your water bottle,” “Stand up straight,” “Sit over here, not over there,” “Don’t be scared,” and “Now be sure to talk to Ms. West about everything we talked about.” 

I had already met with the parents first to get the history of the situation and they had described that their 7-year-old daughter was argumentative with the parents, refused to use the toilet, and was still wearing pull-ups all day and night. 

In witnessing this family in action for less than a minute, I had a pretty good clue as to the reason for the child’s oppositional behaviors and problems with enuresis and encopresis.

Intrusive parents can cause children to feel a need to exert control and gain a sense of autonomy, perhaps through behaviors such as refusing to toilet train, as this child had. Others may develop issues with food, becoming picky eaters or refusing to eat. In adolescence this may show up as the eating disorders of anorexia or bulimia, extreme rebelliousness, and promiscuous sexual behavior. 

While over-controlling parents are often well-intentioned, they can have many immediate and long-lasting effects on a child’s psychological wellbeing. 

WHAT IS INTRUSIVE PARENTING?

Intrusive parents can be most quickly identified by their tendency to be verbose. They talk too much AT their children, often expressing high levels of worry, criticism, or behavioral corrections. In setting high standards they overtly or covertly pressure children to perform. They often focus on the child’s behaviors and are somewhat unconcerned or unaware about the child’s thoughts or feelings. 

This may be accompanied by a lack of understanding about reasonable expectations for age-appropriate behavior. When a child spills milk at age 4, the parent believe this is unacceptable and may over-react with harsh judgments and punishment, excessive corrections and shaming, or rejection.

Excessive worry over safety can lead to being over-protective and never letting children try and fail, which also communicates that the child is incompetent. 

Over-controlling parenting appears to occur most often when there is an only child or smaller families. Parents can over-focus on the child in ways that negatively impact development. I have seen many parents in family therapy sessions stare at a child intensively, even when he is not talking, to the point that the parents rarely even look at me. This may appear that they are very concerned and attentive, but it puts an intense spotlight on the child that causes anxiety. The child learns she is the center of the parent’s universe, but this is too much of a burden. She quickly ascertains she has to please the parent or that perhaps there is something wrong with her, which causes self-doubt, self-criticism, shame, and anxiety.

While I’m not advocating we go back to having large families (the planet can’t handle it!), in larger families the spotlight is shared among other siblings in ways that decrease attention on mistakes and faults, allowing children more space to learn and grow in normal ways. 

THE EMOTIONAL EFFECT OF CONTROLLING PARENTS: SHAME AND LOW SELF-WORTH

I find that many intrusive parents themselves have low self-worth and feel inadequate as a result of their childhood experiences and traumas. This leads them to try to find reflected glory in the performance of their children as a way to improve their own self-worth. Conversely, they fear the judgments of others if their children misbehave or underperform in public. 

I find this especially true among parents who are mental health professionals — they often say they feel held to a higher standard than other parents and become very critical, both of themselves and their children, when the children don’t meet their standards. 

Sadly, a parent’s poor shame tolerance is then passed on to the next generation.  Over-control causes children to doubt themselves and their skills, leading to feelings of low self-worth and shame that may continue for a lifetime. We know that low self-worth or shame are the core experiences or emotions that lead to anxiety and depression in adolescence and adulthood. 

I see so many adults who struggle with emotional and relational issues because as children they internalized messages of unworthiness from parents. I help them identify these self-beliefs and work to build skills in mindful self-compassion, which is an antidote to shame. 

Shame is a normal human emotion that has healthy pro-social benefits. However, if children are shamed excessively and unfairly in childhood, they can begin patterns of poor shame tolerance, which I characterize as Self-Blaming, Other-Blaming, or Blame Avoidance. 

In children, Self-Blaming often shows up as compulsive compliance — the good children who often do not show up in therapy, but who are suffering emotionally. Self-Blaming can even take the form of self-harm. I’ve worked with toddlers and very young children who are already engaging in self-harm of hitting their heads against walls, scratching their faces and bitting their own arms. 

Other children unconsciously choose a more oppositional defiance, with overt behavioral problems of anger, tantrums, refusal to admit fault, harming others, and non-compliance. If you find yourself having frequent arguments and power struggles with your child, it may be a sign you are over-parenting and being too demanding, creating a child who defies you automatically. 

Self-Blamers and Other-Blamers both have low confidence, which may show up as refusal to try new activities, quitting activities, procrastinating, paralyzing fear of failure, and poor academic performance. 

Internalized low self-worth and feeling “never good enough” can lead to self-criticism and maladaptive perfectionism as an attempt to fix the self and avoid further shame and criticism.  Studies show this can develop as early as age 7. 

CHILDREN RE-EXERTING CONTROL AND SEEKING AUTONOMY

Children have a strong, primal drive to build independence and autonomy. Intrusive parents communicate the opposite — that a child is helplessness and should be dependent. More compliant children will become dependent on others in adulthood, which may lead to abusive, unbalanced relationships. I work with many young adults who seem to have no opinions of their own, are passive in relationships, and struggle to make life decisions without significant input from others — a likely sign that they were over-parented as children. 

Of course, we can look at both submissive and oppositional behavioral strategies as adaptive for children. They are merely attempting “to exert more control, to protect their own sense of self-value.” 

Shame is painful emotion and young children will work to find ways to avoid or manage this experience, even if it means they walk around with poopy diapers until age 7 or engage in daily screaming matches with their parents. 

HOW TO STOP BEING AN INTRUSIVE PARENT

A few years ago I blogged about Alison Gopnik’s book, “The Gardener and the Carpenter,” Gopnik, a psychology and philosophy professor at University of California – Berkeley, says many parents today view their children as entities they can mold into a specific image. They act like carpenters who are over-involved as parents trying to mold children into successful adults. Instead, they should be more like gardeners, providing good conditions and letting the “plants” just grow themselves. 

This article differentiates between behavioral control and psychological control, noting that the latter is when parents attempt to manage how a child feels. “Psychological control refers to intruding into children’s emotional and psychological development. Controlling parents are nonresponsive to their children’s emotional and psychological needs. They constrain, invalidate, and manipulate the kids’ psychological experience. They also stifle independent expression of emotions. These controlling parents manipulate children’s feelings, thoughts or ideas through the parent-child relationship using guilt, love withdrawal, showing disappointment, disapproval and shaming. In addition, they want to keep their kids emotionally dependent on them.”

Another article on psychological control noted that intrusive parents often tell children how to feel: “[A]sking them to like doing chores and to appreciate it is another thing. They may come to appreciate it over time. But telling them they should feel happy about it, that they really like it, is psychologically controlling. You are asking the child to feel something they don’t. Or, worse, you are telling them that they are bad people if they don’t—another way to induce guilt.“

Other strategies to reduce intrusive parenting: 

– Stop talking too much. Notice how much you talk and how often you offer your opinion or instructions. Silence allows a child to think, consider her own opinions and feelings, and formulate her own solutions.  

– Stop focusing so much time and attention on the child. Go about your life and business as adults. Not all conversations or activities must center on the child. This will lighten the burden and dial down the spotlight effect. 

  • Stop using the one sentence that can teach children shame and low self worth: Why did you do that?”  I have blogged about why this sentence is harmful emotionally and cognitive, especially on young children. 
  • Be kind and compassionate to yourself as a person and as a parent. Parenting is such a difficult job and you much honor that you have good intentions and are trying the best you can. Parenting, like many things in life, might best be approached with less striving and effort for best results. Let go of the need to control your child and you may improve your relationship. 

…be kind to yourself

You may also like: 

How One Sentence Can Teach a Child Shame and Low Self-Worth

How Parents Create Anxiety in a Child

Review: The Conscious Parent, by Shefali Tsabary, PhD

Was Your Childhood “Fine” or “Average?” Maybe Not.

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