Parental neglect or abuse can cause a child to toughen up, but often at the expense of the child shutting down feelings of empathy and love as well. Some parents never apologize to their children or admit to themselves that their actions have any impact on their kids, even if they knowingly mistreat or neglect them. Others cater to their children’s every whim causing them to become dependent and entitled.
Parents clearly have an impact on their children, but not every mistake they make has a profound negative effect on them. Children are very resilient.
It appears that the best parents are those who are conscientious about avoiding the extremes, but without being overly concerned about being perfect. There’s no way to avoid making mistakes. In fact, it turns out to be good for children if their parents make some mistakes, especially if they acknowledge the more significant mistakes.
Child psychologist Donald Winnicott coined the phrase “good-enough mothering,” which means that ordinary caring of a child by a devoted parent is healthiest for the child. Children who as infants were picked up and held when they were in distress thrive. Yet, some parental “mistakes” including moderate anger, mild neglect, and delays in response enable children to learn that they can handle the anxiety that accompanies uncertainty and difficulties in life.
Ideally, children learn to handle frustration and stress in their lives gradually. Obviously, infants need much more immediate love, care, and attention than older children. For example, while it’s all right to let a baby wait briefly before responding to his or her crying, teenagers should be able to handle waiting much longer to have their needs responded to.
Later in life, a person who has developed resiliency without losing access to feelings can handle people who are difficult, controlling, or unreliable with the confidence that comes with the ability to handle stress.
All children experience some pain as a result of their parents’ anger, lack of care, and other imperfections. Those experiences are in part what makes them capable of surviving in a world that is not a bed of roses. If we’re too careful as parents, children don’t learn to deal with life’s difficulties on their own. A little stress can be a good thing.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD