Parenting advice for raising confident, secure kids tends to hit the same, albeit necessary, beats. Not yelling at kids and not spanking them are top of the list, along with staying away from phrases like “No offense, but…” that are essentially passive-aggressive bullying. However, there are other, more insidious habits parents commonly fall into that over time erode their kids’ self-esteem. In her book Fostering Connection, child psychologist Tish Taylor, Ph.D., refers to some of these common parenting mistakes as “disconnecting behaviors,” and clarifies that in comparison to more obvious culprits for lowering self-esteem, they may seem non-aggressive in nature.
“Disconnecting behaviors are those that decrease parent-child warmth, and lower a child’s desire to communicate with or be with their parent,” Taylor says. “They aren’t abusive like rejection and avoidance, but they’re more of a subtle holding back that tends to create a wall of separation.”
As disconnecting behaviors decrease parent-child warmth, they tend to chip away at a child’s self-esteem. As the walls of separation grow higher between parents and child, kids are less likely to feel seen, safe, and valued.
Below, Taylor points out three common parental behaviors that unintentionally erode kids’ self-esteem, as well as some ways to avoid them and effectively repair relational damage when parents prove that they are not, in fact, perfect.
Questioning Kids Actions Erodes Their Self-Esteem
A barrage of criticism — even constructive criticism — can make kids feel like they can’t do anything right. Avoiding catastrophic communication is a good starting point for parents; obviously you don’t want to tell your child they’re a failure or that they never try hard enough. But an awareness of the cumulative effects of less-intense interactions can have on kids is the next step in raising confident children.
In their attempt to keep a healthy affirmation-correction ratio, some parents end up incessantly questioning their kids, such as by asking “Are you sure you want to do that?” But this functions as passive-aggressive correction. When parents constantly ask their kids “Do you think that’s a good idea?” their kids internalize those statements and personal doubt begins to fester.
“When we question our kids, we subtly undercut their autonomy and the idea that it’s OK for them to have some independence even if they make a mistake,” Taylor says. “And a harshness of tone, an undercutting sarcasm or even a hint of sarcasm when parents question their kids, can create separation.”
The obvious caveat is that some situations call for immediate intervention. A child that’s hitting their sibling has to be told to stop immediately. And a kid who thinks it would be fun to jump out of a tree into their kiddie pool can’t be allowed to learn their lesson the hard way.
But there are dozens of other situations each day where it can be healthy to let kids struggle or even fail, as long as parents talk it through with them afterward. And in those learning moments, it can be perfectly appropriate to ask questions — sans sarcasm — that engage healthy reflection.
“You can ask your child, ‘What do you think happened there?’” Taylor suggests. “Waiting for a beat after a moment has passed and frustrations have cooled is a great time to connect with kids and give them a voice in the learning process.”
Nonverbal Cues Disconnect Kids And Parents
A parent who is able to keep from blowing their lid at their child in challenging situations may yet find that their nonverbal communication is undercutting their self-restraint.
Just like with kids, it’s understandable that parents have big feelings during moments of frustration. Walking in to set the table only to find that a sentimental and irreplaceable wedding gift has been smashed in a game of dining room dodgeball will have a parent feeling some kind of way. Not yelling at the kids in that situation would show remarkable restraint — but those feelings are going to come out somehow.
In the grand scheme of things, a frustrated facial expression is usually less disconnecting than yelling at your kid. But it still creates a wall between parent and child.
“Nonverbally, we communicate loud and clear to our children. They absolutely know our moods and our tones and our facial expressions, and they can read them very quickly,” Taylor says. “Young kids can read that a parent is upset about something, but they may not know exactly what caused the frustration. They may become unsure and start walking on eggshells. Or kids with some temperaments and personalities will kind of meet that perceived frustration and become more forceful, assertive, or even sometimes aggressive.”
Here’s the rub: No parent is perfect. There are going to be days when, no matter how hard you try, those nonverbals come through loud and clear. But even in those instances, all is not lost.
As the solution, clinicians point to a concept called “rupture and repair,” in which parents admit when they have done something to disrupt the relationship with their kids and show empathy for how it made their child feel. Did you raise your voice when your kid won’t let you finish an important work email? Apologizing for losing your cool and acknowledging that it must have been startling for your kid can restore the child’s sense of safety and security.
Moments of frustration are an opportunity to model how to talk about feelings. And in the inevitable event that those big parental feelings become apparent in less constructive ways, going back to your kid to explain the feeling and express that you still love them is a connecting opportunity that helps kids develop emotional awareness in the long run.
There’s value for a child in hearing a parent calmly say, “I love you, but I’m really frustrated that you’re having a hard time listening right now.” The child hears that your love for them isn’t contingent on their actions, but that a specific action is having a negative effect on your feelings. It provides a sort of script that they can follow when they get frustrated instead of lashing out or withdrawing.
Permissive Parenting Also Sinks Kids’ Self-Esteem
So is the path of least resistance the most effective for cultivating high self-esteem? If a parent caters to the child’s every whim and corrects them only sparingly, perhaps kids will develop otherworldly levels of confidence? Unfortunately not.
In academic psychological parlance, parents who are warm but lax are referred to as permissive parents. They don’t set firm limits, they fail to monitor children’s activities closely, and they don’t require appropriately mature behavior from their children. As a result, they raise kids that tend to be impulsive, rebellious, aimless, domineering, and aggressive.
“Permissive parenting can erode self-esteem because a child isn’t learning how to self-regulate, and in some ways, not learning how to cope,” Taylor says. “When there’s very little boundaries, they’re not learning how to manage their emotions, which is going to be very hard for them when they go out into the real world.”
So although permissive parenting may seem like a shortcut at first, it’s really a path to kids who grow up to find themselves unable to handle the disappointments life throws at them. A more strategic and informed parenting approach that gives children the tools, emotional capacity, and self-esteem to handle setbacks is better for kids’ long-term prospects — and for those of their parents.
Building A Strong Foundation
The parenting missteps that can erode a child’s self-esteem may seem difficult to navigate, but the solutions can largely be found in three strategies, two of which have already been mentioned: emotional awareness, along with rupture and repair.
The third? Laying the groundwork ahead of time to build relational capital for those times when you make a mistake.
“Put quality time in with your child,” Taylor says. “Even if it’s just 15 minutes of focused quality time each day where you’re enjoying each other and being playful and listening to each other. When you do that, you’re building and maintaining the relationship. And then, when it is time to give some feedback, it will be better received because it’s built on top of a solid relational foundation.”