What Happens When You Let Your Kids Treat You Like Garbage
In today’s child-centred parenting approach, parents seem to confuse “being kind and validating to your child” with “letting your child treat you like garbage.”
Even if you yourself are masochistic and enjoy being treated disrespectfully and carelessly, this is teaching your child to treat their peers, and, later, their significant others and even their own children with selfishness and lack of respect.
How can you walk the line between not invalidating your child (a bogeyman of today’s parenting climate) and over-validating your child and making them think the sun rises and sets on their moment-to-moment happiness?
Parents who are hypervigilant about validating their kids’ every fleeting emotion and ensuring they are constantly kept happy do not intend to turn their kids into selfish and unkind people. They have likely been raised in a very invalidating home themselves and are trying not to replicate their own parents’ mistakes.
These are parents who were raised by narcissists, people with Borderline Personality Disorder, untreated depression, alcoholism, or other issues that made them, the parent, extremely (unintentionally) self-absorbed and unable to respond to their children’s needs. The parent swings 180 degrees in the other direction and tries to show their children that they are constantly prioritized, in a way that is similarly unhealthy.
Sadly, many of these parents have not resolved, processed, and grieved their own childhoods and are still dealing with unresolved childhood trauma.
Therefore, they cannot observe either their own past childhoods or their kids’ current childhoods clearly and are constantly triggered by their children’s unhappiness, which reminds them of their own past trauma.
They are parenting as a REACTION rather than as an ACTION; reflexively doing a 180 from how they were raised even when the healthiest place would be somewhere in the middle.
For example, a child who was humiliated by a parent, physically abused, or witnessed daily scary marital conflict will, as a parent, try to focus on enhancing their child’s self-esteem, give very little discipline, and ensure their child never witnesses any conflict at all.
An adult child who was placed unfairly into the role of parent’s confidante often overcorrects and “protects” their child from any glimpse into the parent’s own struggles, emotions, and needs. This prevents the child from learning to empathize with their parent in developmentally appropriate and healthy ways.
With the best of intentions, these Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families are over-parenting their children in ways that will ironically have a negative impact on their self-esteem and ability to relate to others down the road.
Kids are smart and learn quickly from both spoken and unspoken cues.
If they are allowed to put their own feelings and desires over those of the parents, and/or they never see the parents’ feelings or desires in the first place, how can they learn that their parents, like all humans, deserve respect, kindness, and compassion? These kids pick up on what they are being implicitly taught, which is that others’ needs are not as important as their own, and they should come first at all times.
In addition to these parents’ voiced desire to treat their kids differently than they themselves were treated, there are also subconscious variables at play that have to do with their tremendous discomfort at being treated with respect.
These adult children of dysfunctional homes are used to being disrespected and unprioritized from their upbringing, so they subconsciously train their kids to treat them just as poorly as they were treated years ago by their own parents.
Imago theory isn’t just for partners; it’s also relevant to how you subconsciously train your kids to treat you. If you are familiar with being treated with contempt, disgust, disrespect or distaste as a child, it is almost impossible to teach your kids to respect and love you in the present.
If parents who over-parent in this way think about their child’s later adulthood at all, they assume that the child has been observing the parent acting kind and validating (really, over-validating) to them throughout their childhood and will then be able to mobilize these skills to relate to peers, coworkers, and significant others.
However, oftentimes, the opposite is true. The child has learned that they are the centre of the world and should be attended to and validated, and this desire characterizes their adult relationships as well.
While it would be nice to assume that a child will mimic their parents’ kindness toward them, logic and observation both indicate that, instead, a child will keep doing whatever they themselves have been doing since before memory.
If they are used to acting selfish and disrespectful, they will likely keep acting this way.
And if (in the case of these kids’ parents), children learn to be people-pleasing, anxious, and self-effacing in childhood, in order to better cope with their own difficult parents, this way of behaving will carry forward as well. These kids will later become anxious, self-effacing, people-pleasing parents.
This is why selfishness often seems to skip a generation and people are angry with their kids for acting like their selfish parents.
The parent learned they were unimportant as a child, and then instead of breaking this cycle, which is difficult and takes a lot of insight and introspection, they train their kids to treat them as unimportant as well. They ignore this dynamic when their kids are young, and then are angry and sad when the kids don’t morph into caring, empathic young adults immediately upon their 18th birthdays.
They are even angrier and sadder when their child grows into a self-centred parent themselves, but this is to be expected, because, again, they have no idea how to NOT come first when this is all they were ever taught.
Training your kids to respect you is so difficult for people raised in homes where their needs were ignored that they often do not even know what I mean.
Here are examples of healthy boundaries set by parents that teach a child that they are not the centre of the universe and set them up to have kind, balanced interpersonal relationships later in life:
- Kids are not allowed to interrupt parents’ conversations
- Kids have a set bedtime and are expected to remain in their rooms after bedtime
- Parents can shut their doors and lock them if they are having sex or need privacy or anytime they want; kids are expected to knock
- Parents can watch their own TV shows and read their own books in front of their children and are not expected to always create entertainment for their kids or defer to the kids’ desired form of entertainment
- Parents can and should kiss and hug each other as much as they do the kids and not save their affection for after the kids go to sleep (this often ends up being “after the divorce”)
- Parents’ sleep should be respected should not be woken up unless there is an emergency or it’s a specific time that is not earlier than 6 or 7 am, especially if the parent is ill or exhausted (for kids about 4 years old and up)
- Parents should eat out at restaurants that they choose and if kids have “nothing they like” on the menu they can try something new or eat some bread and be just fine
A child’s every fleeting emotion should not be verbalized and discussed ad infinitum by a parent. (Often, the parent gets it wrong anyway and turns it into something far more negative. Either way, the child doesn’t learn that emotions can be fleeting and regulated internally without intervention.)
Young adults have a choice to respect the rules of their parent’s home or leave and support themselves
If this post resonated with you, use it to start a discussion with your partner, or as a springboard for personal self-reflection.
Are you ironically sabotaging your kids’ chances to have healthy interpersonal relationships later in life by training them to be selfish and disrespectful to you? Do you think this is motivated by your own discomfort with being prioritized, your terror of repeating your parents’ mistakes, or, most likely, both?
Therapy can be extraordinarily useful in helping you gain a wider perspective on your parenting and helping you reckon with unresolved childhood trauma.