12 Ways to Mess Up Your Kids

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Child psychologists, psychiatrists, and other experts tell us the dozen things you should avoid doing to help your child develop into a happy, confident, well-rounded little person

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Parenting is one of the most popular areas of self-help. For many, parenting books are purchased while the child is still in utero. The last few decades have brought a lot of new discoveries about child development, child behavior, and the nature of the parent-child relationship, some of which have been extremely important. But the volume of information can be overwhelming. So we decided to focus on what parents shouldn't do.

We asked some of the best-known experts in the field what they see as some of the prime ways parents can mess up their kids. From child psychologists to child psychiatrists to child doctors, the experts gave us the low-down on what harms and helps kids. According to them, here are their top 12 things that you should avoid doing to help your child develop into a happy, confident, and well-rounded little person.

1. THREATEN TO LEAVE YOUR KIDS BEHIND

We've all been there: It's time to leave the park and your kids just won't go. They run; they hide; they refuse. And you become more and more frustrated and angry. It's tempting to take this tack when your kids just won't get on board with what you're trying to do (especially if they're throwing a full-fledged tantrum), but the threat of abandonment -- it doesn't matter if you would never act on it -- is deeply damaging to children.

A child's feeling of attachment to his parents and caregivers is one of the most important things in a child's development, especially in the early years. Dr. L. Alan Sroufe, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota's Institute of Child Development, says that threatening your child with abandonment, even in seemingly lighthearted ways, can shake the foundation of security and well-being that you represent. According to Sroufe, when you say things like, "I'm just going to leave you here," it opens up the possibility that you will not be there to protect and care for them. For a child, the thought that you could leave them alone in a strange place is both terribly frightening and can begin to erode their attachment to you as the secure base from which they can encounter the world.

So, next time you're tempted to respond to refusals or tantrums with "I'm leaving," try explaining the situation to your child in simple terms -- or, at least, waiting out the tears with him (they will pass), and then proceeding on. If it's about time to leave the park (and your child is old enough), prepare him for the transition, since transitions are notoriously difficult for kids. Try saying something like, "Oliver, it's getting to be dinner time, so we're going to start packing up in five minutes." Then alert him at the four-, three-, two-, and one-minute marks, so he's aware of what's coming. The same type of negotiating can work if your child is screaming in the grocery cart because he's sick of doing errands: Counting down the number of items you still need before "Mommy time" is over and it's park or play time can be a good way to help your child feel involved and aware of the plan. For younger children, distraction ("Look at that big dog/red truck out there!") is likely your best defense.

2. LIE TO YOUR CHILD

A simple but extremely important rule of thumb in child rearing is, "Don't lie to your child." For example, telling your kids that the family pet has gone to a farm upstate when the animal is actually dead is a good example of this common mistake that parents make. When we bend the truth in these ways, it's not, of course, malicious: we are trying to save our kids' feelings. We may be unsure of how to handle these difficult situations, or just hoping to avoid the issue, but making things up or lying to protect your child from pain actually backfires because it distorts reality, which is unnecessary and potentially damaging.

It is important, though, to be sure your explanation is age-appropriate. A very young child does not need a long explanation of death or dying. Telling him or her a person was very old or very sick with a serious illness the doctors couldn't make go away may be all that's needed.

According to Sroufe, this parenting mistake also includes "distorting feelings," which may involve "telling children they feel something that they in fact are not feeling or, more frequently, telling them they are not feeling what they in fact are feeling." In other words, creating a discrepancy between what your child is experiencing and what you're telling them they feel creates unnecessary distress.

For example, if your child says she is scared to go to school for the first time, rather than telling her she's not scared or that she's being silly, acknowledge your child's feelings and then work from there. Say something along the lines of, "I know you're scared, but I'm going to come with you. We'll meet your new teachers and your classmates together, and I'll stay with you until you're not scared anymore. Sometimes excitement feels a lot like being scared. Do you think you are also excited?" The next time you're tempted to tell a little lie or otherwise bend the truth, consider another way: it is an opportunity to grow. Embrace the truth and help your child work through the confusing feelings. It will be much better for her health over the long term.

3. IGNORE YOUR OWN BAD BEHAVIOR

Parents may live by the old mantra, "Do as I say, not as I do," but there's a lot of good research to show why this does not work for a number of reasons. Kids learn by example, plain and simple. Children absorb everything around them, and they are exceptionally sponge-like in their capacity to learn and mirror both good and bad behaviors from the time they are very young.

For this reason, as child development expert Dr. David Elkind, professor emeritus of child development at Tufts University and well-known child development author, tells TheDoctor, modeling the behavior we want is one of the best things we as parents can do. What you do matters a lot more than what you say your child should do.

For example, the children of smokers are twice as likely to smoke as the kids of non-smoking parents, and overweight parents are significantly more likely to have overweight children than normal-weight parents. Even slightly more enigmatic behaviors, like how you treat family members and interact with strangers, animals, and the environment, are absorbed and repeated by your children. The best way to get your kids to eat their broccoli? Eat it enthusiastically yourself and make it delicious (with a little grated cheese perhaps) for your kids. Children detect falseness a mile away, so believing in what you're doing is an integral part of leading by example.

So, if you want your child to be respectful and kind, be sure you exhibit those behaviors yourself, even when you are angry or in a disagreement. You, the parent, are the number one role model in your child's life. Showing -- rather than telling -- them how to behave and navigate the world around them is the most effective method.

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Alice G. Walton, PhD, is a health journalist and an editor at The Doctor Will See You Now.

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