Can wanting the best for your child ever be damaging?!

As parents, we all want what’s best for our children, it is a normal and valuable part of human nature. However, can this ever become damaging?!

A very extreme and obvious example of this ‘good intent’ turning bad and damaging a child, is the recent bribery scandal in the US where a number of people were caught spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to cheat their children’s way into an Ivy League school. Aside from the obvious moral issues, the damage to a child is substantial. Of course i’m sure all the parents of those kids would say they simply ‘wanted the best’ for their children….

This may be an extreme example, but, it is a symptom of how modern day pressures can potentially impact all of us - sometimes without us even realising.

The reality is, given the pressures of modern society and society’s definition of ‘success’, this can happen on a smaller scale much earlier in a child’s life. It can also potentially sow the seeds for low self esteem, anxiety and depression longer term - something we are seeing much more of in kids today.

So, I sat down with one of Better Babies expert advisors Christophe Sauerwein a psychotherapist with a specialism in developmental trauma to understand how this works, the potential long term negative effect on a child’s mental development and most importantly tools we can use to support emotional and mental development and potentially prevent our good intentions backfiring for our kids.

To listen to the full podcast click here and for the quick tips and tricks for healthier decision making for your kids click here.

So, at what point does ‘wanting the best’ become causing ‘the worst’?

The first point that Christophe is clear about, is that wanting good things for our children is totally normal and natural - the tricky part is understanding what ‘best’ for the child really means. One of the ultimate goals of parenting, is to provide opportunities for a child to flourish. However, knowing what is ‘best’ for another human being, especially very early in a child’s life, is hard. Particularly as naturally we have our own preconceived and preconditioned ideas of what is ‘best’.

Its all about reflection/humility and being humble:

A surprisingly simple first step is to be reflective of your own definition of ‘best’ when it comes to your child. Are you creating a programme of life based on your own aim or experiences? Are you projecting? Sometimes honest self reflection is a very simple, yet powerful first starting point.

Society forces us to make choices earlier and earlier:

Nowadays it seems that particularly in big cities, perhaps due to limited resource and availability, the pressure to make long term decisions for our children seems to be pushed earlier and earlier. This also likely relates to the fact that now both parents work and therefore childcare solutions are needed earlier. Even worse is the fact that there is apparently more competition for the ‘best’ schools and nurseries than ever before. The desire for academic success seems rampant with tutors, extra curricular activities and places being very competitive even at the earliest points. It seems to be getting out of control and sometimes it is hard as a parent not to get swept along.

However, these choices - if made based on the wrong things and too early - can put our children in to a position that they cannot cope with and can sow the seeds for long term damage to mental health, anxiety and self esteem.

Vulnerability: signs to watch out for…

Research shows that up until the age of 7-9 years old one of the most important factors for proper development of a child is ensuring that connection between parent and child is maintained. So, anything that relates to the rupturing of that, needs to be taken with extra special care and consideration. That doesn't mean of course that the child shouldn’t be at school or nursery, what it does mean is that the choice of where and when the child goes outside of that relationship is a crucial one. Sometimes we don't have a huge amount of choice as most parents now work, it is however about making smart and carefully considered choices within our constraints.

Nursery: how do we know a place is right for such a young person? How do we know if it is the right time?

Going to nursery is a positive thing for a child’s development - however Christophe stresses that this needs to be at the right time and the right place for a child.

How do we know that? First: question your own motives:

Once again, honestly questioning and assessing the motives for your decision should be the first port of call. Is the decision we are making here projecting our own ‘ideal path’, are we doing this because this is ‘what we do’ or is this something we genuinely feel will benefit the child. One interesting example of how people make decisions based upon their own experience and social pressures above all else is what is known as ‘Boarding School Syndrome.’ Despite the fact that universally medical and psychological research suggests that sending a young child to boarding school can be damaging people (principally in the UK) still do it. Why? Often the reason is because it is ‘tradition’ or part of a projected path or social norm. It is rarely the choice of a child. Usually it is based on a lack of questioning of motives. So once again, simply asking yourself ‘why’ and reflecting in an honest way is a powerful starting point.

Nursery schools often start at a specific date - how do we know that particular date is ‘the right time’ for a child?

It actually starts with you as a parent:

Taking your child to daycare or nursery for the first time will obviously generate strong feelings within you as a parent. That is completely normal and understandable. However, one of the first things to consider is are you ready?

This may seem a bizarre thing to focus on, however Christophe makes the point that children (even non verbal) strongly pick up on the emotions of their parents and primary caregivers. Much more than we sometimes realise. So, if you are taking a child to a nursery and you are extremely emotional they will (whether or not you realise it) pick up on that and it will destabilise them and stress them out which can set them immediately off on the wrong foot. A small person will not understand what is going on and being left with strangers when the person they trust most in the world is very upset is obviously going to be traumatic for them. So, believe it or not - as a parent you need to be ready for this. If you cannot approach it in a relatively positive and measured manner then you perhaps need to question if it is the right time.

Is the child ready?

Unsettled, unhappy behaviour is normal at first:

Obviously any young child will be stressed the first few times alone at a nursery or day care. The question is - when is this ‘abnormal’ or a sign that something is wrong?

Some signs to watch for:

  • Persistant tearfulness

  • Rage and anger (which can sow the seeds for bullying)

  • Self imposed isolation

  • Despondency

  • Regression in development

If this type of behaviour persists after the first month this is likely a sign that things are not right - either not the right time (too soon) or not the right place for the child.

The need for review:

‘Try with no necessity to enforce it to succeed’

Leaving the primary caregiver is a big step for a small child, and some degree of autonomy is needed. If they are not ready for this, continuing to enforce it can cause real issues for a child later down the line. Enforcing this is essentially setting them up to fail which can cause issues with self esteem and anxiety.

Part of being humble and reflective as a parent is not rigidly sticking to our decisions because we are determined to make them ‘right’. Being flexible, sensitive, observant with an open mind of our child and their integration is a hugely powerful tool. Reacting and reassessing based on these signs of distress rather than pushing through can often make a huge difference. Often human nature is to want to prove ourselves and our decisions ‘right’. It takes humility to go against that but can be very powerful preserving our children’s mental health.

The main problem:

The child cannot say no - therefore it is a huge responsibility.

Some practical tools to make the nursery experience a positive and safe one for a child: The moment of reunion:

Picking up the child is as important as dropping them off. Sometimes modern life means we are in a rush. However making time at pick up can also be a powerful tool to make the child’s experience easier and more positive. Taking time to get a debrief from the nursery nurse, sitting down with the child in their new environment and spending time in the space, talking to the child and explaining about your day can provide a positive and reinforcing message. A young child knows nothing of the adult world, telling them that you have been at work and that you’re happy to be back and that you love them and asking about their day can be a simple but powerful tool and is something that we perhaps underestimate.

Bigger picture: What do we mean by ‘success’?

Success and failure in the eyes of society is a tricky thing. We send our kids to nursery in part to learn social integration. If a child is not integrating, that is not a ‘failure’ that is a useful sign that something else is going on - something we need to be humble enough and sensitive enough about to explore. Ultimate ‘success’ in context of a young child is to provide our children with the right opportunity to become the best version of themselves. Something we often use with adults - it works for children too. Modern lifestyles and society sometimes mean we have to make difficult and almost impossible choices - particularly as most of us need to work but the main aim is to do our best.

For parents: it's hard not to get swept up in the pressures of society:

Often we don't even realise that societal norms permeate in to our decisions. We also have responsibilities to equip a child with skills for life. The way to balance this? Assess are you imposing an ‘end game goal’ on to a child ie. you need to achieve ‘x’ (whether that be entrance into a particular school, a particular result etc) or are you providing tools and equipment to your child which in fact gives no pressure and instead gives lots of opportunity? There is a difference. End game goal focus reinforce ideas of success/failure that can be stressful and sow the seeds for perfectionism, stress and anxiety in later life. Opportunity and exploring can be healthier.

When are our children capable of leading their own direction?

Cognitive autonomy develops gradually, but, good autonomy develops around 9-10yrs old. It is at this point when the child starts to make informed individual choices. This is when you can start to understand and have a rational discussion on preferred choice and why with a child. We do have it before, but at this age it tends to be a bit more informed. Before that we need to go with the flow and need to ensure the child is kept in a safe environment - for them, observing and pivoting our decisions if a child exhibits prolonged signs of distress.

The danger of ‘burn out’:

Most people are aware that adults can ‘burn out’ however, it is actually even easier for a child to burn out. It is not about work, it is about the brain, and a young brain is vulnerable. Children are not inherently bad, so ‘bad behaviour’ can actually be a signal that the child is stressed out and/or even burnt out. We need to ask why.

Tutors morning noon and night?!

It seems to be increasingly common for young children to have tutors for academic success - part of this is peer pressure that everyone else is doing it. Of course, every child is individual, and some thrive under these conditions. However, not all….

Some signs to watch that it is becoming too much for your child are rage and reaction but also numbness, silence, withdrawal and despondency. If it is absolutely necessary to have tutors to match the expectations of the school - either you need to challenge the school’s expectation of the child or consider if there is another reason why the child cannot keep up with the expectations imposed. Instead of judging and blaming the child it needs to signal a round of reflection, investigation and questioning.

Is academic success the be all and end all?

Society still points that way for now. Academic success is one good measure of course, however, more than ever academic success is not necessarily a predictor of professional success or the only thing that matters. Over the last fifty years, the scale of capacity to achieve was based on IQ. However there is a new wave of psychological theory and even management techniques that focus on empotional intelligence as equally important. Academic study alone will not develop this - in fact it can stifle it. Being open minded around this is key.

How can we develop emotional intelligence in our children?

Accepting that feelings are biologically interesting to life is the first starting point. They are part of life and actually preceded thoughts in the development of humans. Feelings are in fact very useful indicators and often they are not valued or explored enough in children in general.

Long term consequences:

If (as parents) we place disproportionate importance on a few things then happiness can become overly dependent on achievement of them and may stifle other things. Overly prizing things like academic or other ‘success’ can give rise to high chance of failure (as after all no one is ‘perfect’ all of the time) and can cause ‘perfectoinism’ to develop. That is where everything that is not the ‘desired outcome’ is essentially a ‘fail’ which leads to a chronic sense of failure and low self esteem and stress.

Making sense of the ‘fail’:

Failure is a part of life and happens to everyone. Learning to accept it is part of educating a child about the way life works, as despite the visual perfection we are continually presented with on social media nothing is ‘perfect’ all the time. Parenting is a lot therefore about making helping to sense of ‘the fail’.

Ironically a lot of the time a ‘fail’ in the context of our children is about not meeting expectations set by the parents! Further, comparisons to ‘the norm’ or other children can also be damaging. People are individual and have their own strengths and weaknesses. Once again, being open minded and aware of your child’s own strengths and building on ‘weaknesses’ in a supportive and non judgemental way can be a hugely powerful tool.

Once again for a parent, it comes back to fact finding, being curious and asking questions. ‘Failure’ can even be related to something like a problem with a child’s eyesight meaning they can’t see the board and read properly. As parents if we aren’t inquisitive as to why a child isn’t achieving what is expected then we could miss something very important.

Bottom line: it’s about being humble, questioning and being flexible. Why do you want your child to pursue a specific path? Is it your path or theirs? Is it because society dictates or is it really going to provide opportunity for your child and a good fit? If your child isn’t meeting the expectations you/the school put on them - why? Is the expectation unrealistic? Is there another reason? There is nothing wrong with aspirations but asking these questions is one of the best ways to support your child being and developing in to the best version of themselves. Finally, noticing and then reacting to a child who is struggling is another very powerful tool. No one wants to be proven ‘wrong’ about a choice made for their child as we really do all want the best, however, mistakes do happen so if you believe your child may benefit from a different choice, having the humility to accept this, to pivot and react rather than pursue it until the end can be another powerful tool. In the words of Christophe: ‘Try with no necessity to enforce it to succeed’.

For more from Christophe check out: www.icaad.com

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This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The information on this website has been developed following years of personal research and from referenced and sourced medical research. Before making any changes we strongly recommend you consult a healthcare professional before you begin.