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.

4. ASSUME THAT WHAT WORKED FOR YOUR FIRST -- OR FOR YOU -- WILL WORK FOR YOUR SECOND

One of the biggest problems with parenting advice is that one size does not fit all. As Elkind points out, "the same boiling water that hardens the egg softens the carrot.... The same parental behavior can have different effects depending on the personality of the child."

If you have more than one child, you have probably noticed that not only do their personalities vary greatly, but other variables like sleep habits, attention spans, learning styles, and responses to discipline can also be extraordinarily different between children. Your first child may look to you constantly for comfort or encouragement, while your second may need nothing of the sort, preferring to forge ahead on his own. Some children respond better to firm boundaries while others need less definition. Therefore, it is important to remember that what worked for one does not necessarily work for the other.

The same is true when it comes to what you needed as a child vs. what your own child needs. You might have been a child who was constantly on the go and required a lot of active play, but your child might prefer quiet, mellow play. Keeping these differences in mind as you raise your own kids is key -- it's not easy, since it requires you to keep learning and reevaluating, rather than relying on your own experiences and memories. But parenting with the needs of each child at the forefront will go a long way for your and your children's development.

5. HAVE A PANIC ATTACK BECAUSE YOUR CHILD BROKE A RULE

Most parents have a general idea of the things that are OK and aren't OK in their households, but what you do when rules are broken can really make a difference between teaching your child a lesson and simply making them angry and resentful. When something unexpected pops up, some people take it in stride while others don't take it so well. But according to Dr. W. George Scarlett, deputy chair at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University, one way to "mess up" your kid is to lose track of the larger context and all the other variables that are part of the environment in which you raise your child and in which your child exists.

For example, if your child sneaks a violent video game or R-rated movie, it isn't the end of the world, assuming you're basically providing a positive, supportive surrounding to raise your child. Scarlett says that "parents letting kids play video games with violent content and parents spanking provide examples of what I mean. If you just look at the correlations, you might conclude these two are bad ideas, but look closer, and it seems these two are fine for most when embedded in good contexts and caring parenting." Therefore, a "bad" activity every now and again won't be too detrimental to your child's development if the other 99 percent of his activities are more in line with your own beliefs.

Scarlett adds that "the overall message might well be this: that particular methods, habits, and behaviors aren't as important as parental attitudes and abilities to take child's point of view as well as that of an adult." If a child is raised in a loving, nurturing environment in which he is respected and his feelings taken into account (more on this later), then activities to which we might otherwise say "no way" won't have so large or negative an impact on your child's development.

6. THINK YOUR BABY SHOULDN'T BE BABIED

Despite old-school wisdom, it is virtually impossible to spoil your baby by being attentive to their needs or holding them in your arms for much of the day. Dr. Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard Toddler Center at Columbia University, underlines that "you can't spoil a baby by holding them or responding to them too much. Research shows just the opposite. Babies who receive more sensitive and responsive care (so their needs are responded to) become the more competent and independent toddlers."

Holding your baby in your arms or in a sling, responding to cries, and comforting them when they're frustrated can only help. After all, babies cry for a reason: it's a signal that something is amiss and they need mom's or dad's help to fix it. Knowing that mom or dad is there to make right the things that go wrong creates a sense of security that stays with them as they grow.

For older kids, there's a balance between being responsive and being over-responsive to their mishaps. For example, when children fall down, they often look to the parents to see how they should respond. When parents overreact to a skinned knee, the child will, too. But when parents respond in a laid-back way (perhaps saying, "Oops, you fell. Looks like you're OK, right?"), the child will likely respond in kind, and perhaps skip the tears altogether. But for young babies, it's almost impossible to over-parent. So, if you're inclined to keep your baby on your chest rather than in a carrier, go ahead. It will build a bond and sense of security between you and your baby for a long time to come.

A related point is that each child develops at his or her own speed, so pushing your child to do new things before he or she is ready can actually be harmful. "Pushing for independence too early can backfire," according to Klein. "For example, parents can be quick to move a child out of a crib -- like when they turn two. This takes away a known comfort from them (cribs are small and enclosed and help children feel safe). This can lead to sleep battles -- child not wanting to stay in bed, waking more at night, etc." So make sure that your child is ready for new activities and transitions. His or her response will let you know if they are. Be prepared to back off and wait a bit longer before trying again.

7. PUNISH OR SCOLD YOUR CHILD WHEN SHE ACTS OUT, HITS, OR THROWS THINGS

Expressing his or her anger by hitting or throwing things is a perfectly natural behavior for a child. It's a way for kids with their limited language and immature cognitive (mental) abilities to express emotion. Punishing the child for these behaviors, though it may be tempting, is not the way to go, since it gives the impression that having the emotions in the first place is a bad thing.

Klein suggest that rather than scolding a child for acting out, "Helping a child understand their negative emotion (anger, sadness) and in time learn to understand why they feel as they do will help them develop competence socially and emotionally. So,  empathizing with a child, rather than scolding them, while setting a limit (i.e., "I understand you are angry, but I can't let you hit.") bears better outcomes later than scolding and punishing the young child."

Rather than "shutting down" a child's emotions, help your child see that you understand his frustration and it's OK to feel that way -- but that there's a better way to express it.

8. TRY TO BE YOUR CHILD'S FRIEND RATHER THAN HIS PARENT

This is a common mistake that parents make, particularly as their kids get older. All parents want to be liked and loved by their kids, and to be thought of as cool is especially desirable to some parents -- so it can be easy to slip into the friend role, rather than the parent role.

Dr. Sue Hubbard, pediatrician and host of The Kid's Doctor radio show, says that it's critical to remain a parent, especially when it comes to setting boundaries about experimenting with substances. The rate of alcohol and drug use in teens is climbing, and Hubbard feels that "part of that may be due to the fact that parents want to be their child's friend rather than parent. It is often easier to say yes than no, and parents seem to turn a blind eye at times to the use of alcohol and drugs (especially weed) in their own homes. The scary part of this: alcohol is the leading cause of death among teenagers."

While some parents may feel that the safest place to experiment with substances is in the home, being too permissive about alcohol or drug use can backfire, giving kids the idea that underage drinking is OK as long as it's at home. "You must set an example for responsible alcohol use," says Hubbard, "and enforce the laws regarding underage drinking. Children watch their parents from very young ages, and they know what coming home drunk looks like."

Overly permissive parenting can be a concern in other areas, not just the drug and alcohol realm. Finding your way between being an authority figure and being confident can be tricky, but it's an important balance to strike. Being authoritative -- using your years and accumulated knowledge to explain to your children -- is different from being authoritarian, or someone who says "my way or the highway." It's not hard to guess which has the more lasting beneficial effect on a teenager or young child.

9. FILL YOUR CUPBOARDS WITH JUNK FOOD AND SKIP FAMILY MEALS

With our incredibly busy lives today, family mealtimes can become a casualty. When the kids are young, it's natural to have an early meal for them, and one later for grown-ups. And with teens who tend to snack a lot and have after-school activities, it's easy for the evening meal to become an "every man for himself" event.

More and more research shows that families who eat together are healthier, both physically and mentally. As Hubbard says, "family meal time has somehow become an enigma rather than the norm. How this has evolved is not clear, but numerous studies have shown that children who eat family meals have more academic success in school, have less attention and behavior problems, have less drug and alcohol use and definitely have better table manners."

Families who eat together are also thinner and have reduced risk for eating disorders. So as much as is possible, try to have sit-down meals together, talking about the good and bad points in your day, and just being together. "Don't stress over family meals!" says Hubbard. "You can buy pre-made food, add a few of your family's favorite ingredients and enjoy it around the table."

Pediatrician Jim Sears, co-host of the television show The Doctors, calls stocking the cabinets with junk food one of the most common mistakes we make. Depriving kids of nutritious food and making them overweight is a sure way to mess up kids. "It all comes down to shopping habits, and turning these around can make a big difference when it comes to our kids' health." According to Sears, "if you look at most pantries, you'll find cookies, chips, and soda, even though the people that stock those pantries will say they're trying to avoid junk. If it's sitting in the fridge ... you will see it and you will eat it. Even worse: your kids will see it and grow up thinking that you are supposed to have junk food in stock all the time."

"I always encourage my families to change their thinking on how they shop. Having junk food around the house should be the exception, not the rule," Sears says.  If you want to replace the junk food with healthier options, try doing it gradually (your kids might rebel if you do it all at once).

10. DON'T WALK; DRIVE EVERYWHERE

Though it's tempting to hop in the car to make a quick run to the grocery story, Sears' second piece of advice to families is to opt for activity whenever you can. "By this," he says, "I don't mean going to the gym five days a week.... What I mean is that your family chooses being active whenever possible. You ride bikes or walk to school. You walk to the park, post office, coffee shop.... You can walk a few blocks from your office to grab lunch, and take the stairs." You might even think about getting a dog.

"People talk about a genetic component to being overweight, but if a person is active, then they can overcome any genetic pre-disposition they may have," Sears says. "I think this shows that humans were designed to be moving most of the time, instead of sitting in a classroom or behind a desk. Sure, sitting may be a part of your job, but if you look for any excuse to move, and to get your family moving, you will all be much healthier and have better job or school performance. Let your kids think that being active is normal."

Your kids may moan and groan now when you tell them the movie is out, but a day hike with picnic is in, but these habits will stay with them in the years to come. Not only will they make your kids healthier as they age, (research keeps coming in that suggests the more active we stay, the more we reduce our risk for obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cognitive decline, and even early death), but presumably they'll pass this healthy lifestyle down onto their own children as well.

11. THINK YOU BEAR SOLE RESPONSIBILITY -- OR NO RESPONSIBILITY -- FOR YOUR CHILD'S DEVELOPMENT

We're all aware of the impact that our parenting has on our children. But sometimes it's easy to push that idea to the extreme, and feel that everything you do will have a make-or-break impact on your child's success.

If you can't get him into the best elementary school, what will become of his academic aspirations? If you don't find the perfect balance between discipline and easygoingness how will this affect his development? Is the fact that he pushed a kid on the playground today because you let him see a violent cartoon? If your child has a great day in Little League, don't assume your coaching was the reason.

Becoming a guilt-ridden and intense parent is one sure way to mess up your kids. Dr. Hans Steiner, professor emeritus of child psychiatry at Stanford University, cautions parents not to assume sole responsibility for their child's issues. There are many other factors in his life besides you, which will affect his personality and development: genes, other family members, school, friends, and so on. So when things go wrong, don't beat yourself up, since it is very likely not you and you alone that led to the problem.

On the flip side, says Steiner, don't assume that you have no role in your child's development. Some people may operate from the assumption that a child's successes and problems are mainly due to genes, or the teachers at school, rather than you. Both extremes are just that: extremes. Like so many aspects of parenting, there is a balance. You are important in your child's life, but you're not the only factor.

12. ASSUME THERE IS ONE WAY TO BE A GOOD PARENT

You're reading this to learn some parenting disasters and tips. But as stated earlier, one-size-fits-all parenting is unrealistic, since children's personalities vary so greatly. Steiner advises parents to be aware of the "goodness-of-fit" between themselves and their children when it comes to personality and natural temperament. Psychologists have outlined nine different temperament traits (some of which include attention span, mood, and activity level), which all combine to form three basic temperament types: Easy/flexible, difficult/feisty, and cautious/slow to warm up.

Needless to say, your child's temperament interacts with yours. Some parents and kids temperaments work well together, but others are more of a work in progress. Your children's temperaments may be very different from your own -- and you can't change either one. Just think about the fastidious mom with a sloppy kid, or the hard-driving dad with a laidback child. It's up to you to be mindful of these differences and work around them.

Once you're aware of the phenomenon, you can figure out new ways to interact with and respond to your child to minimize friction. One recent University of Washington study found that when parenting styles were more closely tailored to their children's needs, kids had significantly less depression and anxiety than kids whose parents were less tuned in to their children's personalities. You will also be able to construct schedules and activities that will be a better fit with his or her temperament.

Being aware of the natural temperament and needs of your child is one of the necessary (and wonderful) parts of being a parent. There's a lot you can't change, so delight in the distinct little personality that he or she is -- and will grow into, in the years to come.

Image: Vadim Ivanov/Shutterstock.


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com.

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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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