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How easily can a parent psychologically damage their child?

Exploring how flippant comment affect otherwise good parenting

Kashmira Gander
Saturday 09 January 2016 15:13 GMT
Stock image of crying 'threenager
Stock image of crying 'threenager

Bringing a person into the world, teaching them wrong from right, and equipping them with the skills to live a happy life make parenting an extremely challenging and daunting job.

It’s no wonder, then, that mothers and fathers can obsess over the minute details of their parenting skills, while simply trying to care for a child’s basic needs.

A thread on the question and answer website Quora laid bare the fear surrounding this issue, as one user asked: “What is the most psychologically damaging thing you can say to a child?”

Members of the website advised each what not to tell children: drawing from their own experiences and anecdotal evidence.

One woman wrote that her mother was sometimes “like a volcano” when she became angry, and that her verbal attacks started with the words: “Are you listening? Look at me!” She then berated her until she cried.

Another member suggested the opposite: that simply saying “nothing” – by barely communicating or interacting with your child – was what could really damage them.

But can an unkind comment said in a rage, a joke that your child misinterprets, or a formal silence unravel otherwise good parenting?

“It depends on what you mean by damage,” explains Dr Matt Woolgar of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King's College London, who works with families for the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.

'Ghost' kids need more time from parents

“You can certainly say things that hurt a child and contribute to their development of self-concept. But you’re not going to say one thing that is going to scar them neurobiologically”.

Instead, Dr Woolgar stresses, it is important for parents to understand that all children are individuals who cope differently with scenarios.

Giving the example of a three-child family, he says: “One or two siblings might be absolutely fine with the throwaway comments parents say, but one might find it quite damaging and it will get below their defences.”

The key task of parenting is understanding what your child is like

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But such responses aren’t necessarily negative, and can enable a child to be more receptive to a parent's positivity.

“The evidence is that being sensitive can mean a child is also quite responsive to positive things,” he says.

Dr Sam Wass, a developmental psychologist based at the University of East London and Cambridge University, details a similar phenomenon with children described as “dandelions” and “orchids”.

Citing a study by Dr Megan Gunnar, an expert in child development, he explains that dandelion children are neurobiologically less sensitive and will flourish in supportive or unsupportive households. On the contrary, orchid children thrive when they are in supportive environments, but suffer greatly in unsupportive homes.

But how can a parent tell whether their child is particularly sensitive?

“The key task of parenting is understanding what your child is like and be tuned in to them. You would hope people are sensitive enough to notice the impact they’re having on a child.”

And the affect of a parent’s behaviour may not be immediate, adds Dr Woolgar, recalling how his three-year-old son sometimes repeats comments he made a week earlier.

The added difficulty comes for the parents of children of differing ages, as a four-year-old will likely not grasp irony or sarcasm in the same way a 10-year-old can.

“It does make life difficult because you have to always be thinking about how each child will pick up on what you tell them,” says Dr Woolgar.

But both experts are clear children are not psychologically "damaged" unless they are put under significant, prolonged, stress - experiences which average parents never get close to.

A recent Harvard study on children who lived in a Romanian orphanage where they were severely abused showed that their brain development was affected by what they were subjected to. However, the changes were relatively small and not widespread.

Therefore, parents who generally support, nurture, and show their children love are highly unlikely to cause harm with flippant phrases.

“Every child gets shouted at and that’s not a problem,” says Dr Wass.

“Research on animals shows that [only] a year of stresss early in development tends to have permanent effects," a level not reached by most parents.

Dr Woolgar mirrors Dr Wass reassurances: “I think there’s an anxiety that nothing is definite in how you can impact your child."

He adds: "Trust your instincts about what you know about your child. You will always be saying things that aren’t helpful, but you’ll hopefully be saying more things that are helpful. You can’t be a perfect parent.

“You have to keep telling yourself as a parent you’re doing your best and there are lots of opportunities for change and nothing is definite. There are lot of opportunities to make things better.”

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