Labelling - a parenting pitfall that can bring your child to therapy



I am facing questions of parenting on a daily basis - the parenting my clients received, the parenting they are engaged in right now, and the parent I am and want to be. Many times, I am reminded of how the instructor of my hypnotherapy training would half-jokingly talk about all of us having 'mommy and daddy issues'. And he had a point: we cannot help but be influenced by our parents. And equally, as parents we cannot help but influence our children.


Hearing my clients talk about how they have been affected by their upbringing, I sometimes wonder what my son would talk about in therapy. What 'mommy and daddy issues' would he bring? It is an interesting thought experiment. It encourages me to talk to him about his experiences and how they have shaped him. It gives me the strength to ask him where I have fallen short as a parent. It is not easy to hear sometimes. But as I like to say: What can be expressed in words does not have to be acted out in other ways. So better out than in, even if it hurts!


Based on these reflections, I thought it might be worth writing a few posts on parenting pitfalls that may bring your child to therapy. I am aware that this title is a bit on the catchy side and not quite my style, but it captures my intention well enough. And, as before, I am looking forward to your feedback to incorporate in future posts.


In my professional and personal experience, one of the most damaging things parents can do and at the same time one of the things that is most difficult to avoid is to label their child. By that I mean using a descriptor of some sort, however well meaning, to depict your child's character. Unfortunately, it acts like putting your child into a drawer or a box and sticking a name on it.


This is very easy to do because it is how our mind works. We categorise in order to simplify the masses of information we are confronted with. We compare, and we notice differences. And once we have come up with a certain categorisation, it can easily become a filter or lens through which we look at our child.


Especially, when we have more than one child, we cannot help but notice how our children are not alike. One child may be more interested in physical exercise, the other may be more interested in mental exercise. One may appear more introverted, the other may seem more extroverted. One may exhibit a lot of conscientiousness and compliance while the other may show more individualistic or strong minded tendencies. Even while I am writing this I am aware how hard it is not to label...


Now, of course there are different degrees of harm that can result from the labels that are being applied. Some of my clients are fighting life long battles with seeing themselves as intrinsically 'bad', 'lazy' or 'stupid'. Others have more of a general sense of being the black sheep of the family. Others again have come to understand themselves as 'too loud' or 'too sensitive'.


But even if the label is a seemingly positive one, for example being 'the academic one' of the family, the 'golden boy', the 'sporty' or the 'intelligent' one, it can be very limiting. This is because by categorising our child in one particular way, it inhibits their development in other ways. One area of their character is being emphasized at the expense of allowing them to grow into a more rounded person.


Rather than accompanying our children in their quest for realising their own potential, we are foreclosing this exploration. This is because these categories act like fences around them. We also don't encourage them to get to know the less developed aspects of themselves, which means that they have little opportunity to practice skills in those areas. For instance, if a child is seen as the well behaved, studious, golden girl of the family, she may have less of a chance to experiment with her more adventurous side and test out and listen to her own boundaries and needs in relation to her sexuality.


Labels are also problematic as they may only be based on a point in time. They may only explain a snapshot in our child's development. However, once this description is repeated often enough, especially if it is expressed by more than one adult, it can become the path our child is walking on into adulthood. And it can become a straightjacket that is very hard to take off again.


We all know that different periods in our life bring different challenges, whether that is in terms of our own development, for example puberty, or unexpected events such as death or illness in the family. No wonder if these periods also bring out different behaviours and coping mechanisms that can be easily misinterpreted and miscategorised.


To fully understand the impact of these labels, it makes sense to consider them in the context of family dynamics. As children, we are dependent on our parents. This means that we are very motivated to go along with their categorisation and internalise it without questionning. Especially when we are very young, we just soak up these labels like a sponge and deeply embed them into our psyche. Often times we believe that our parents know best.


We are also likely to seek our parents' attention. This means that we will try to find our place within the family, whether consciously or unconsciously. Depending on what roles are already taken up by our siblings, we will need to find our very own niche. And if it is difficult to get positive attention and praise, we will try to get attention in other ways. For example, we may become the family clown, the victim or the trouble maker.


If such polarising labels are being attached to different family members, everyone loses. The 'sporty one' may not be able to reach her academic potential. The 'academic one' may struggle to engage in any form of physical exercise. The black sheep of the family may have little motivation to achieve something worthwhile or get on with his/her siblings, and the golden boy/girl may not dare to disagree with the parents, and so on. As one of my supervisors used to say, when you have a polarity like that in the family, both siblings don't understand that they are two sides of the same coin. By maintaining this division, they continue to limit each other.


Exercise:

Make a list of the most common labels you are using to describe your child or children, both when talking to them and when talking about them with others. Review this list and consider the impact of these categorisations: Which of your child's attributes are in the foreground? Which attributes are pushed to the background? How are these labels shaping your child's understanding of him- or herself? Which polarities exist between your children, and how do they affect their interaction, and your interaction with them? How are they limiting their potential? Which of these labels relate to an earlier period in your child's life and may no longer be relevant? Based on your understanding of the impact of these labels on your child or children, see if you want to adopt a different approach. Consider if you can find a more neutral or positive description, for example saying 'strong willed' rather than 'stubborn' or 'active' instead of 'restless'. Consider if you can move from applying such labels to your child as a whole to describing specific behaviours that anyone in the family may be exhibiting from time to time. For instance, we may all be showing attention seeking, cheeky or grumpy behaviours at times.


Feedback:

What do you know about labels from your childhood that can help you in your own parenting? How do you mitigate the restrictive nature of categorisation in your family? What labels are being used in your family, and what is their impact?