Have you ever said, “That really pushes my buttons”? We all have trigger points, situations that cause us to feel exasperated. As counselors, and as parents, we have observed that there are specific interactions that always seem to cause exasperation in children. This exasperation eventually leads to children experiencing a frustration of their core emotional needs repeatedly not being met—and later in adulthood may be remembered as trauma. The individual interactions we are identifying in this chapter were confirmed during our research using the Young Parenting Inventory (YPI)1 from the schema therapy model. They are Belittling, Perfectionistic & Conditional, Controlling, Punitive, Emotionally Depriving & Inhibiting, Dependent & Selfish, Overprotective, Pessimistic, and Overly Permissive. Being on the receiving end of any of these interactions blocks children’s core emotional needs from being met.
Let us now go through each research proven frustration and trauma-causing interaction specifically:
Children feel belittled when their parents make fun of them, call them names, make derogatory remarks about things that are important to them, disparage their looks, or humiliate them in any way. When belittling takes place, children will feel put down, flawed and/or rejected, and will experience a range of other emotions depending on their temperament, and ultimately will develop a negative view of themselves. Why would parents belittle their children? Some parents’ philosophy is that humiliating their children will induce them to change their “inappropriate” behaviour. Sometimes parents are trying to prevent their children from having “a big head”. Sometimes they are embarrassed about their children’s emotions, particularly for boys. Children in such environments quickly shut down. They are afraid to voice their preferences and feelings. These parents usually have deep pain or hurts themselves that have not been dealt with properly. Perhaps they are angry most of the time, and have little or no positive outlook on life. They think that humiliation is the best way to bring about change in their children. They put their children down around issues that trigger their own feelings of inadequacy or defectiveness. The overall effect is that children who feel belittled and rejected become exasperated and are eventually traumatized. Years ago, children on the playground said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Words have the power to divide nations, end friendships, wreck marriages, and do untold harm to children.
(from parents to a son)
If you were not such a sissy you would take up a real sport instead of ballet.
Maybe we should call you by a girl’s name.
Stop being a wimp and learn to take it like a man.
Hey, butterfingers, no coach in his right mind would let you be on his team.
(from parents to a daughter)
We were expecting a boy, not a girl!
Here we go again, is this your monthly woman thing? Why can’t you think straight?
If you would lose some weight, maybe you could get a boyfriend.
(from parents to either sons or daughters)
If you don’t get into a good school, you will bring shame to the family name.
I wish I never had you.
What’s wrong with you?
Children who regularly hear such comments are not likely to feel accepted and connected with their parents, nor will they readily be in a position to get their other core emotional needs met.
A study done jointly by Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital in Boston, USA, published in 2006, highlighted that demeaning or belittling words contribute more to the maladjustment of children than harsh physical punishment.2 This is consistent with our own counseling experiences involving adults whose greatest pain revolves around early memories of the hurts caused by words from their parents; they carry wounds from “put-downs” for years afterwards.
One of my (Karen) sad parenting memories happened when David was in kindergarten. We lived on the 10th floor of an old apartment building with very slow elevators. It was time to take my five-year-old son down to the school bus, but I had not helped David to get ready without rushing. He was struggling to get his shoes on (as five-year-olds do) so I impatiently told him to finish putting on his shoes outside our apartment while we waited for the elevator. Just as David sat down, the doors opened, so we scrambled into the elevator, and I remember feeling embarrassed in front of the other passengers. Why? Because my weird ego was somehow interpreting they were judging my parenting and I was coming up short. (Who cares, right?) Even though David could hear me, I made excuses to the other elevator riders, “I’m so sorry that my son is slow and disobedient. I hope he learns his lesson.” By the time we reached the ground floor, I felt like a world-class jerk. Thankfully, the bus wasn’t there yet, which gave me time to make amends. I sat with David on the curb, apologized profusely for the belittling words and asked his forgiveness. David was able to go to school happy, if not slightly confused at his mother’s strange behavior. If I had not acted immediately, David surely would have gone off to school feeling exasperated. If such interactions had been a “lifestyle” instead of an anomaly, it would have facilitated the development of active lifetraps in him, not to mention that my son would have learned to steer clear of Mom!
Perfectionistic & Conditional
Children will be exasperated by their parents when they feel they can never measure up to a perfectionistic ideal. Parents who cause this kind of frustration usually care very much about how they are perceived by others, how they look in society. They demand perfection and are only satisfied when things go a certain way. These demands put an incredible pressure on the children who become frustrated and sometimes traumatized, and their core emotional needs are not met as a result.
Parents who have such a philosophy about perfection and about looking good care little that their children are feeling sad, disappointed or fearful. Parents who come across conditional in the love and acceptance of their children are often driven by how they are viewed by others. Because they view their children as an extension of themselves, when their children perform well, they feel that they have performed well. They are highly competitive and probably brag about their kids, sometimes bald-facedly. Alternatively, some perfectionistic parents are reserved and withhold encouragement for fear that it will demotivate their children. Conversely, when their children do not “do well”, they feel it deeply and take it out on them. These parents are driven by how others perceive their children’s “failure”, and, when disappointed, it shows up in the way they treat their kids. They withhold affection and love as a result of their disappointment, seen in their body language and their words as well. Life for their children is constantly filled with criticism. Even when they become adults, the parents have the misguided notion they always know what is best, and maintain a sense of superiority.
Celebrative emotions that come with achievements should be welcomed, but those will come few and far between. Or perhaps one child is a super achiever, so the sibling gets compared and criticized for not being as good. The children’s preferences, decisions and emotions are not treated as being as important as those of the parents. The parent’s shame about a certain achievement not being met is more important than the children’s feelings. As a result, the children feel unhealthy guilt and shame; over time, this can cause a lot of anxiety and fear. The following words might be heard during these interactions:
Do you have any idea how much we have sacrificed for you?
Stop feeling great when what you did was average. Look at your sister/brother (or cousins or others the children are compared to).
Don’t waste time going out with your friends. Get serious with your physics (or tennis or ballet) and be productive.
Parents who exasperate their children in this way are driven by a variety of factors. Some parents are controlling because of fear their children will make wrong decisions and use bad judgment. This fear drives the parents to micro-manage their children’s affairs and as a result, their children feel they have little freedom of choice. They also believe they cannot rely on their own judgment; eventually they will not develop their own sense of direction because their parents are such ‘strong’ individuals. Other parents’ controlling nature stems from the enmeshment lifetrap—they do not permit their children to feel differently from them, and they force their children to be privy to age-inappropriate information, such as their deteriorating marriage, their own loneliness, sometimes even their sexual frustrations. Enmeshed parents instill a strange kind of loyalty in their children. They deprive their children of their own emotions and instead expect them to think about the needs of the enmeshed parent most, if not, all of the time.
These children will not grow up with individuality or a sense of separateness from the parents which creates frustrative experiences growing up, especially in the case of mothers who are enmeshed with her children. They will hear messages such as the following from their enmeshed parent:
Let me help you choose your after school activities since I know what’s best.
You’re not allowed to have any friends that I don’t like.
There are no secrets between us, ok? Tell me everything.
Let me tell you about how I am feeling about your mother/father.
I don’t want you to be with your friends. Stay home with me. I need you, stop thinking about yourself.
Mothers who are enmeshed are usually clueless about how their interactions exasperate their children. They think they are close to their child, but often their child feels exasperated, although the child sometimes gets used to it and becomes dependent on the mother.
Parents who exasperate their children in this way most likely grew up in such an environment themselves. Examples of the punitive exasperation interaction are children being punished for every little thingthat they do wrong, or for displaying certain emotions, or for infractions that are conventional in nature, as opposed to moral (see Chapter Two); sometimes they are made to feel guilty for past mistakes. Parents who treat their children this way show very little grace. They emphasize “justice” and “truth” rather than mercy, and put their kids “in the dog house” every time they think their child has committed an offence. Words that come out from them may include:
You deserve to be punished; I will never trust you again after what you did.
Do you really think one apology is good enough?
I don’t spend time with naughty children. Come back when you’ve learned your lesson.
Emotionally Depriving & Inhibiting
Parents who are emotionally inhibited can end up accidentally exasperating their children by depriving them of empathy, comfort and guidance. Parents who fall into this trap often want their children to learn how to behave and be calm. They do not particularly like passionate displays, including crying. Their philosophy is, “Children are to be seen and not heard”. They feel uncomfortable with both the high and low emotions—they do not encourage children to laugh out loud, play loud games, or have friends over often, and they certainly are not comfortable talking with their children about heart-felt issues, low times, disappointments, and sadness. Noise is just a nuisance, whether stemming from joy, happiness, pain or hurt. Most parents who exasperate their children in this manner were treated similarly growing up, so this kind of coping mechanism is familiar to them, and as a result, this is what they re-create in their own home. Statements like the following are frequently made to their children:
Admit what you did wrong first, otherwise let’s not talk about your feelings.
I may not show you a lot of affection, but I do care about you.
If you don’t bother with your feelings, then they will not bother you.
I am not emotional like other people. I am a rational, logical person, so let’s talk about this logically.
Let’s only talk about the positives. I want a positive atmosphere in the home.
Sometimes parents emotionally deprive their children by being too busy for them. When both parents have demanding jobs, possibly even being very successful at work, there can be a problem with setting aside time for their kids. Children are raised more by their grandparents or by a hired caregiver/day care service. More affluent parents may see going on elaborate holidays as a way of making up for a lack of time spent with the kids but quality does not make up for quantity and the children feel a lack of empathy, nurturing and guidance.
There are other reasons why a parent may emotionally deprive their children. Some adults are incapable of being warm, affectionate, nurturing and showing empathy because of their own upbringing. Some parents go through such difficult times in their marriage that they are consumed with their problems and have little mental and emotional capacity left over to give to their children. Harm is done regardless of the reason, and the children grow up with frustration of not having their core needs met. Another very important aspect of this kind of interaction is when parents do not provide their children with helpful and age-appropriate guidance. This is the opposite of the next type of interaction where parents go to the other extreme.
Dependent & Selfish
Children whose parents exasperate them in this way may grow up feeling that they are being forced to handle more daily responsibilities than what would normally be expected for a child their age. They may feel like a parent dumps things on them, relies on them for support and understanding, or feels they are strong and should take care of other people. They may feel that one or both parents withdrew from them and left them alone for extended periods, or lied to them, deceived them, or betrayed them. They may feel that a parent used them to satisfy his needs, was moody, unpredictable, undisciplined or an alcoholic—possibly even feeling that their parent seemed to get pleasure from hurting people. This kind of exasperation could also occur if one parent died or left the house permanently when the child was young, or if a parent is so structured and rigid that she prefers everything “neat and tidy” to change of any kind. Parents who repeatedly exasperate their children in this way would probably say things such as:
Look how smart my six-year-old is—she can iron her own clothes and make breakfast for her little brother and she’s only in first grade.
I know you are a child, but you need to support me because you are strong.
I know I did not keep my word but I have a good reason.
I need you to take care of the house and your younger siblings—I have to focus on my career, plus I need a life, too.
Parents who are overprotective are excessively worried about their children for the smallest of issues, such as being hurt while playing at the playground, or getting sick when caught in the rain. They convey unrealistic expectations to their children, and at best, react in a way that is very out of proportion to the actual situation, so much so that even onlookers will notice. Children often feel frustrated when regularly exposed to such signals from their parents. They either hang out with their friends much more than they do with their parents, or surrender to their parents’ fears and become stay-at-home worry warts. Parents who interact with their children in this way might say:
I am so mad that your friend didn’t choose you to play on his team. Give me his mother’s phone number so I can deal with him.
I don’t want you to play sports because you will hurt yourself.
I can’t believe they let that boy with a cough stay at day care. Now you are going to get sick. Rest at home tomorrow. Maybe we should find another center.
Children become exasperated when they repeatedly hear the glass is always half empty, not half full. If you were to ask these parents why they were being negative, they would say they do not want their children to be unrealistic about life. These parents probably grew up in negative environments in which they were made to fear making mistakes. Taking risks was not encouraged. So, fuelled with a desire to avoid mistakes and to make sure things do not go wrong, they decide it is easier to not be hopeful at all.
Some remarks from parents who interact with their children in this way might be:
Don’t admire anyone. They will end up disappointing you.
I know you are excited about taking up that sport. But it is rough and you will get injured and then your life will collapse.
Why are you sad? The world is a horrible place, so get used to it.
Parents who are overly permissive are not available, or too busy doing their own thing. Sometimes parents feel guilty for not getting involved with their children, so they overreact by not expecting the kids to respect boundaries or learn proper discipline. They are not there to talk about the difficult issues their children are going through. In order to distract their kids from their emotions, they let them watchloads of TV and spoil them with goodies. The parents themselves are uncomfortable getting involved in their children’s lives, perhaps for fear of bad news, or perhaps they do not like talking about emotions and so they avoid it by not being available or taking their focus away from their emotions. As a result, children begin to think that it is wrong to talk about their emotions. They also do not take the time to guide them through issues. They allow their children to get away with a lot of mischief before they even say anything. Eventually when children do not feel guided by their parents, this can cause them to feel insecure about the direction they are heading, and they may turn to their peers instead.
Sorry, I am too busy. You need to learn to deal with your ups and downs yourself.
You are a grown-up.
I am sorry you feel that way. It is my fault. I am a lousy parent.
Have some ice cream. That is the best way to take your sadness away and make you feel better.
Children whose parents are overly permissive feel that their parents are leaving them to figure out how to manage and control their lives. This can easily cause disconnection with their parents and create resentment and frustration, especially when their parents give them advice and finally, on the very rare occasion, decide to talk to them about sensitive issues.
Why are Lifetraps (Schemas) a Big Deal?
As we mentioned in Chapter One, lifetraps are memories, thoughts, beliefs, and emotions stored in our brain that are triggered when we are presented with familiar situations later on in life. All of us have lifetraps, since none of our “growing up” environments were perfect. The positive experiences help us move forward in life in the face of adversity or challenges. The strongly negative ones affect our self-view and our relationships with people and we get stuck with this over and over again, unable to break completely free and start over. Remember the figure of the woman (see Chapter Two, Figure 2.2) looking into the mirror? It shows a young woman whose views of herself were shaped by the negative messages from her father. She has the lifetrap of defectiveness—she feels there is something wrong with her, that she is not “good enough”; as a result, her self-image is distorted, which is seen in the mirror’s reflection.
Our own research, consistent with the findings of others, has found that exasperation (frustrative and traumatic experiences) during childhood is associated with the development of lifetraps.3 In turn, lifetraps are related to the development of a myriad of personality disorders, psychiatric symptoms, depression, eating disorders, and other dysfunctions. Research has also shown that early negative parenting experiences are related to the development of active schemas or lifetraps (RR4.1).
The fact that lifetraps are associated with early parenting experiences and with many of the disorders and pathologies mentioned above shows that our role as parents is crucial in knowing how to satisfactorily meet the core emotional needs of our children. The stakes are high. Our children’s perceived early experiences with us as parents make a huge difference to how they turn out as adults.