'I'm a Child Psychologist and Mom, Many Parents Make the Same Big Mistake'

Working from home one morning during the pandemic, I noticed my toddler crawl under a low coffee table to retrieve a favorite toy. Just I was about to call out, "Careful, baby!" like I have countless times, I heard her softly talking to herself. "Careful baby. Careful baby. Careful baby." She repeated it like a mantra. She grabs on to the toy and crawls out backwards, keeping her head bowed until she has successfully cleared the table.

As a psychologist, I know the way a parent talks to a child can become internalized; kids will often hear their parents' thoughts as their own. This can be a powerful boost in life for a kid who hears that they're a capable, bright, and lovable. When they hear a different kind of message, however, things don't always work out well.

Recently I've been having sessions with a teenager who was struggling to make friends in school. I noticed he wore crumpled pants and shirts covered in stains, and listened as he told me he would go entire days at school without speaking a word to anyone. On weekends he would lock himself in their room. It became quickly clear to me that this teenager was suffering from intense social anxiety.

But where did anxiety come from?

After several sessions, we eventually traced his fears back to a belief that he was a disgusting person; someone who would be and should be rejected by other high school kids. Why did he think that? Turns out that he had heard that message long before the days of silence in school or stained t-shirts.

Parents Can Make Mistakes With Their Children
"As a psychologist, I know the way a parent talks to a child can become internalized." Getty/iStock

Growing up, he would bring food into his room because he prefered to eat by himself. All sorts of kids engage in this kind of behavior as a way of expressing burgeoning independence. And, like many kids, he wasn't the best at cleaning up the food. His mom, overwhelmed with her own work stress, would chide him for letting his room become filled with stinking leftovers and swarming bugs—calling him "disgusting."

Those words seeped in, until he heard them as his own.

I see many depressed and anxious adult patients who recall moments just like this. Critical parental figures shamed them for not working hard enough, eating too much, or a general lack of achievement. Even after their parents are long gone, the sense of shame around being supposedly lazy, fat, or unaccomplished persists.

Psychologist Melissa Makes Mistakes Like All Parents
Psychologist Melissa Makes Mistakes Like All Parents
Melissa Goldberg Mintz, a child psychologist based in Houston, Texas, and her daughter.

Of course, no parent should let their child live in filth, like the case of the teenage boy. Parents have to make sure there is some kind of consequence when children break the rules. It just has to be done in the right way. One simple tip I often give to parents is to separate their child from their child's behavior.

That is, this teen boy is not a disgusting person, even if his choice to leave leftover pizza on his bedside table for a week attracted cockroaches. He's not gross, even though his hygiene practices and food habits call for some serious reforms.

That little trick may sound simple enough.

But years of addressing this as a professional was not enough to stop me from making the same mistakes at home. As my careful baby turned into a cautious toddler, I sighed with relief as my daughter avoided the scraped knees and forehead bumps that other parents had to deal with. She really had heeded my words.

Perhaps a bit too much.

It wasn't until a park playdate in Houston where we live, where she preferred to play on baby equipment rather than race down steep slides with her "besties," that I realized I needed to change how I talked to her.

It became clear to me in that moment that if I didn't stop and reverse course, my worries could stick with her her whole life long, inhibiting her from proper motor skill development as well as building her self-esteem.

I resolved to "sit on my hands" when my own anxiety popped up watching her play. I also praised her adventurous behaviors when she attempted something even slightly outside her comfort zone.

Nowadays, she comes home from school with more bruises, but I take pride in seeing how her confidence has blossomed with her newfound eagerness to explore. While I'm not looking forward to the day a trick on the monkey bars leads to X-rays and a cast, I know it's a small price to pay for a child who can keep up with her friends on the playground and is confident enough to try new things.

Frequently, I hear my kids' friends' parents opine that because of my professional training, I must be somehow immune to parenting mistakes. This is not so.

Parenting is tough and we all make mistakes. The most important thing is that we develop a strong, supportive relationship with our child, possessing the ability to reflect on our own parenting as well as a willingness to change course if we notice something isn't working for our children. And it doesn't take a doctoral degree to do that.

Dr. Melissa Goldberg Mintz is a clinical psychologist in Houston, Texas. Her book, Has Your Child Been Traumatized: How to Know and What to do to Promote Healing and Recoveryis out in August.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

Identifying information including demographics and visual descriptors have been changed to protect patient identity.