We bought a king size bed after our second child was born. What a great idea that has turned out to be as we have shared the sheets and duvets with either one or both of our children in the darkest hours of the night.
It is often in these hours when their doubts and fears plague them and rise up in their dreams and they seek comfort in the parental bed, falling asleep almost immediately upon having flung themselves perpendicular to the natural flow of bodies originally in the bed.
But this post is not about children sharing the parents’ beds or indeed the pros and cons of this – I am not brave enough to start that conversation today. Instead it is about an almost 4 year old climbing in next to me at 4am in the morning declaring his love for me (promptly soothing any irritation I may have experienced at his appearance) and following this up with, “even if I hit my sister you still love me (?)” – bravely stated as fact in a voice that begged this to be true.
What Are Conditions of worth?
This comes after many months of “no’s” and irritation with a child that is immensely curious and excited about the world. I would not say he is naughty but this is also not a post to debate what constitutes naughtiness versus insatiable curiosity and passion for life. However, having half a tin of shaving cream smeared all over the bathroom (because he loves the feel of it), playing hide and seek in all the moving boxes and breaking them apart, and hitting his sister when she once again interfered in an activity in which he was deeply engrossed does result in us feeling irritated with him. This is especially the case when we are tired (which is fairly often when you have a child kicking you in the head or back in the early hours of the morning).
So, yes, there have been raised voices and angry reprimands which we try to tone down to reasoning and respectful explanations of why we are irritated. Nonetheless, our responses appear to be taking a toll and what I always believed to be very rock-solid self-esteem is apparently not so and my little boy is starting to doubt. And THIS is what this post is about – conditions of worth that we base our ‘not good enough-ness’ on and how they are established in childhood.
Self-Esteem is Shaped in Childhood
As a psychologist I get to see the debris and scars that remain after a childhood of conditions and ‘shoulds’. Don’t get me wrong – boundaries are very important and they need to be there to help children to feel secure, know where they stand, and so they are prepared to weather the real world. However, there definitely needs to be a balance between teaching a child to be respectful and aware of others, as well as how to keep out of harm’s way, and our own issues that we project on to our children.
We come with so much baggage as adults. We need to feel in control, we want to feel heard and acknowledged, we have a bucketload of beliefs, and ‘shoulds’ and rules that we never question because ‘that was the way we were brought up’. However, when these remain unquestioned and are constantly imposed on our own children without thought, they will start to believe that the only way they are loved is if they meet all these conditions. They believe that the only way they will receive approval is to not break the rules and the only way to be good enough is to meet the standards that have been set.
Have you ever tried to meet your own standards? I am willing to bet that they are almost impossible to meet and you get down on yourself because you don’t meet them. You’re doing the same thing to your child and you’re doing it because your parents did it to you.
How to Stop This Cycle
So, to stop the cycle – with yourself and with your children – remind yourself that you are you not what you do i.e. “even if I don’t achieve x, y, z that does not mean I am a failure” or “even though I make mistakes does not mean I am a failure”. Translate this into the language you use for yourself so instead of “you are so stupid”, try something like “that was not a very clever thing to do! How can I do it better next time?”
If you can change that with yourself you’ll notice you translate the change to your child too. So instead of saying “You are so naughty” you can try “that was not a nice thing to do.” Or even better, “It makes me feel really angry when you make such a big mess because I have to clean it” (because let’s face it….you’re the one who has an issue with the mess but he/she is probably making an artwork! It’s really a difference in perspective! Then next time help him/her to find a different way to express his/her creative talent in a not-so-messy manner. That way your child can still fulfil his/her needs and be empowered to do it in a way that will not result in upsetting mom and dad.
Secondly, you created your rules and you can change them. Decide if the rules and shoulds you created for yourself are really so necessary or are they just setting you up for failure?
Thirdly, remind yourself that you’re not all good or all bad i.e. you as a person are great and there are some things you may not be so good at. This is where my son’s comment came from as my husband and I have made an effort to repair any potential damage to our children’s sense of self by telling them “there is nothing you can do that will stop me loving you” and on top of that “there is nothing you can do that will make me love you more” (i.e. I love you so much already that there are no conditions you need to meet so that I will love you more). You can apply this to yourself too!
Going Forward with Consciousness
I did not get back to sleep after my sons comment, despite my king-size bed and being able to find an edge that was free of flailing feet. I was reminded by him that it is important for me to focus on my own shoulds and rules and take it easy on myself. This will help me and him. When life is stressful my tolerance is less, my rules are more and I tend to get more controlling so that I feel better. And life is stressful at the moment as we are about to move (and now have to buy a whole lot more packing boxes after they were broken) but that is not the end of the world because, despite the stress being an inconvenience, my sons self-esteem is far more important. When that is broken it is not merely an inconvenience – it sticks with him for life…..