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How kids feel when we complain about them in front of them

Kid holding ears while father complains / Altered by Aleteia

Kid holding ears while father complains

Małgorzata Rybak - published on 08/30/23

Children are human beings who can see and hear. They are deeply affected by what parents say about them and how it is expressed.

“Well, she can’t go to school again! The way she keeps getting sick is driving me crazy!”

“Why am I always the one taking care of these kids?”

“That boy is lazy! He never does anything to help around here!”

These are a few examples of the sorts of thing parents often say in their children’s presence, overlooking the fact that their children are listening and are affected by these words.

Your child sees and hears

Such complaints, which usually mean that parents feel helpless or overwhelmed, would be unthinkable if said about adult friends, co-workers or guests in their presence. If we were to complain about someone while they were present while also completely ignoring them, that person would be highly offended, since such behavior is considered rude.

The same would be true if we made personal comments about our spouse. “I spent so much time cooking, and she won’t eat anything.” “Tell him to change his clothes, because he looks like a clown in that outfit.”

In the adult world, we recognize that an individual’s personal appearance, body, mode of dress, eating habits, etc. belong to the private sphere and are off limits in such circumstances. When it comes to kids, however, parents don’t always observe the same boundaries. It’s as if they don’t fully realize that a child is a human being who can see and hear, or that they are deeply affected by what their parents say about them and how it is expressed.

And unlike adults, kids don’t yet have the tools to ignore disparaging remarks and don’t think, “That person is just rude.” Rather, what parents say about kids in their presence sticks easily to their psyches and informs how they see themselves.

Defective and unlovable

When kids are constantly hearing their parents complain about them, they begin to think of themselves as an unbearable burden on their parents.

To give just one example, children who perceive that their bodies are a source of suffering for their parents don’t stop loving their caregivers, but they stop loving their bodies. They start to think of themselves as defective and unworthy of love. They also learn that they have to try very hard to please their parents, and that parental affection is unstable and fragile.

Security and reassurance of love

Parents’ disparaging comments damage children’s self-confidence, leaving them with psychological pain related to their unmet need for respect and love. Their parents’ behavior also establishes a pattern that impacts how they expect other people to treat them. Eventually, they may not realize when someone is acting abusively toward them or referring to them in a disrespectful way. They may also try to avoid falling out of favor with the people who come into their lives.

That’s why even when our kids make us feel like sighing and moaning, it’s better to hold back and let loose someplace else away from them. At these moments, we can seek out another adult with whom we can vent our fatigue and frustration — away from the child.

It’s also important to make sure we have the support we need so that we don’t drive ourselves to a state of overload and burnout. That way we can think about what our children feel and need. And what kids need above all is the security and knowledge that we respect and love them, no matter what.

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