Raise your hand if you ever questioned yourself as a parent and wondered, “Am I screwing up my kids?!”
Yea, glad to know it isn’t just me.
I mean, how is it that my Ford Escape comes with a manual, but my child doesn’t? Parenting is really where I could use a guide for set-up instructions and a maintenance schedule … and maybe an entire “how-to” section for every stage of life!
But it doesn’t work like that, does it? And probably for good reason. Because each child is his/her own unique self and our available and effective tools shift from child to child, day to day, and situation to situation.
Part of being human is slipping up, messing up, and acting up. Our kids will do it - we call it whining, tantrums, and misbehavior. And us parents do it, too - we lose our cool, yell, storm off, or act in a way that isn’t our highest and best. Life happens and it is impossible to stay in the sea of calm for the entire ride. Having these sorts of moments from time to time doesn’t make you a terrible parent … it makes you human. And it gives you the opportunity to teach and guide your children for some pretty big life skills.
What we are talking about moving forward is toxic discipline. When the following behaviors become a patterned existence that shows up in the foundation of your parenting and causes harm to your child, it becomes toxic discipline.
The 5 Signs Of Toxic Discipline
When a parent is operating from a narcissistic lens, they tend to live through, are possessive of, and/or engage in marginalizing competition with their children, viewing the child’s independence as a threat. There is a concerted effort to put their child down so that the parent remains superior, which may come in the form of unreasonable judgments and criticisms, unfavorable comparisons, and rejection of the child’s accomplishments. Often, this approach denies the child their self-hood, which is detrimental to their budding emotional, social, and academic abilities.
2. Emotional Abuse
The American Psychological Association says that verbal and emotional abuse is as dangerous as sexual and physical abuse. The bruises are invisible, on the inside, where others cannot always detect them. Emotional abuse can come in the form of:
- Name-calling: “How could you be such an idiot?!”
- Degradation: “You are such a screw-up. It’s hard to love you.”
- Gaslighting: “You’re so sensitive. You’re making a big deal out of nothing.”
- Blanket statements: “You’re a bad kid. I don’t know what to do with you.”
When we undermine, invalidate and punish our children for their emotional expression, we communicate that it is wrong or unsafe to feel (causing them to either suppress their emotion and/or escalate their behavior) and denies them of their lived experience (which clouds their intuition and causes them to question their reality).
When someone with more power - aka an adult - deliberately overpowers someone with less power - aka a child - to modify behavior, it may achieve the short-term goal of getting the other person to do what you want them to do. But it also comes at a cost. Parents who attempt to control their children’s behavior and/or the situation through separation-based tactics, love withdrawal, and guilt rob their children of the opportunity to learn developmental skills and make independent decisions. Children learn that giving and receiving love is through power and pain, and in reforming who they are and what they want to other’s desires.
Brené Brown, a social worker and researcher, defines shame as an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. To fully understand shame, it is helpful to first understand its distinction from guilt. According to Brown, guilt focuses on behavior, and shame focuses on self. In other words, guilt says, “I did something bad” whereas shame says “I am bad.”
When it comes to parenting, this concept may show up in how we embrace our children’s human experience - whether we accept mistakes as a learning opportunity or allow them to define our children. The path we choose significantly influences our child’s emotional and mental landscape. When shame tactics are used for obstinance, research has shown that it leads to more antisocial behavior, increased levels of anxiety and depression, and is linked to bullying outcomes.
Co-dependency exists when there is an unhealthy parent-child attachment where the parent’s sense of self depends on their relationship with their child. When the parent-child relationship is co-dependent, parents may:
- Project their feelings: When a parent unconsciously takes unwanted emotions or traits they don’t like about themselves and attribute them to their child.
- Claim victimhood: When a parent is dogmatic, feeling that they are never in the wrong but always the one who is wronged.
- Enmesh with their child: When a parent’s identity becomes entangled with their child’s. This may also come at a sacrifice to outside relationships.
- Set passive boundaries: When a parent is unable to set and stick to boundaries in fear that their child will become upset and reject them.
The Toxic Discipline Cycle
Brown says, “When it comes to our feelings of love, belonging, and worthiness, we are most shaped by our families of origin - what we hear, what we are told, and perhaps most importantly, how we observe our parents engaging in the world.”
When parents engage in toxic discipline, it induces our children to ask, What do they - the people with the power - want me to do, and what are the consequences if I don’t do it?
We all have a power person - aka the person (usually an adult) in our childhood that we believed held all of the authority. Research has shown that:
- Under little or no stress, children do what they have to do in order to get along with their power person, i.e. be compliant or “good”, be happy, be quiet, share similar interests.
- Under mild to moderate stress, children defend themselves against their power person, i.e. engage in power struggles, withdraw, or befriended them.
- Under severe stress, children mimic their power person’s behavior.
As parents, we are both raising children and healing our own inner child. And the way our power person responded to us in our youth created a narrative about our self-worth and the world at large. These loops become our template for all future relationships, including parenting. So, if we were the child who was told we were not allowed to feel, we often become the parent who is triggered by our children’s emotional outputs. If we were the child who felt unsafe, we often become the parent who feels the need to control. And, if we were the child who was yelled at/spanked/isolated, we often become the parent who reacts in mirroring ways.
What To Do If You Practice Toxic Discipline
1. Heal your inner child
Start with examining your own feelings, memories, and behaviors. Our relationships, including parenting, mirrors our conditioning. Often, it isn’t the mirror (aka our children), but the reflection (aka our wiring) that is asking to be healed.
Some questions you may ask yourself:
- How was I parented, and how did I feel about the way I was parented?
- What did I internalize when my power person displayed toxic discipline?
- Write down your triggers. What are the thoughts and feelings underneath them?
2. Heal your parent-child relationship
If there has been a pattern of trauma, it will be helpful to have a conversation with your child about past behaviors and your desire for a new way. It will take time and consistency to heal hurts and rebuild your relationship, however, as you communicate safety and lead with love, things will begin to mend.