When Parenting “Don’ts” Are Unhealthy

I have been writing about the symptoms of trauma in children.  Severe shame places a child in emotionally fertile ground, a brain state that predisposes him/her to trauma, particularly if the child has been shamed by someone significant. Therefore,  it is very important to be aware of the messages that we send as parents that could be toxic and lead to a child’s sense of shame.

11 Toxic parenting messages 

crying toddler boy
Children can easily internalize messages, especially toxic ones.

The following list of negative injunctions developed by psychotherapists Mary and Robert Goulding (Muriel James, Breaking Free, (pp. 52-56) are perhaps the most damaging list of messages a child could ever receive.  While some children may occasionally receive one or two of these messages, others may receive most or all of them on a regular basis.

The messages can be shame-producing or fear-inducing depending on the specific circumstances in which the messages are communicated, who communicates them and how they are communicated, the specific temperament of a child, and other considerations that determine how these messages are translated within the child’s belief system, especially when the translation includes a sense of abandonment for the child which is potentially traumatizing. 

father fights with son while younger son hears
Shaming messages can become part of your child's core beliefs.

As children internalize one or more of these message categories into their belief systems, they experience several results: some degree of shame, being unworthy, loathsome, deserving to be ignored, slighted, criticized or abused. 

Toxic (poisonous) injunctions:

  • Don’t be:

 “I wish you had never been born!” Parents and caregivers are wishing the child had never existed. Highly poisonous message!

  • Don’t be you:

“I wish you had been a boy/girl.” This is also highly poisonous because parents and caregivers are negating something essential and unchangeable about this child.

    • Don’t be close:
fearful preschool girl
Some "don't" messages can become traumatic to a child.

“Leave me alone! I don’t have time for you!” Parents keep their distance either physically or emotionally and want the child to keep his or hers, too.  This is the threat or action of abandonment. In divorce, the injunction may be to stop being close to the other parent, putting the child in an impossible, ethically unfair bind. [Note: This is not the same as the statement by a parent or caregiver, “Leave me alone while I take a shower.”] 

  • Don’t belong:

“You don’t fit in this family.” Parents and caregivers imply that the child does not blend well with the rest of the family. Children may fantasize that they were adopted.

  • Don’t grow up:

“You’ll always need me.” Parents and caregivers want and need the child to remain dependent on them, under the parents’ or caregivers’ control. 

  • Don’t be a child:

“You need to take care of me.” Parents and caregivers want the child to switch roles and care for them. Parents and caregivers who want children to develop early or be overachievers to make the parents and caregivers look good and also keep the child from acting and feeling like a child. Parents and caregivers abdicate their responsibilities, forcing those responsibilities onto the child.

  • Don’t be well:

“You’ll always need me to care for you.” Like the “Don’t grow up” injunction, this message keeps the child dependent on the parent and allows the parent to receive the sympathy of others for having this sickly, needy child.

  • Don’t be sane:
Fearful teen girl
Toxic messages can keep children fearful, indecisive or unable to succeed.

“You can’t even think straight.”  Some parents and caregivers do not want their children to believe they can think straight because they are afraid that they may see just how crazy, unfair, unreasonable or unhealthy the parents and caregivers are. This injunction also keeps children feeling powerless.

  • Don’t succeed:

“Just because you did part of this well, don’t think you’ll ever get it all right.” Another injunction to prevent a child from growing, this time by not allowing him or her to feel fully successful. This injunction can also serve to keep the parents and caregivers more successful than the child.

  • Don’t be important:

“Don’t be so arrogant. You are no better than anyone else. Parents and caregivers who do not want their children to realize their own uniqueness or special talents give this injunction.

  • Don’t….

The litany of negative injunctions about certain behaviors:  “Don’t talk to strangers or you may get kidnapped,” “Don’t eat anything that has dropped on the floor or you’ll get very sick.” Too many “Don’t” injunctions may make a child excessively fearful and suspicious of his or her environment; they may make it hard for him or her to be assertive, think for himself or herself, risk failure, make decisions, take charge of his or her life.

Do you remember growing up with these kinds of messages being given to you?

Conveying the opposite of what you wish to say

Sometimes, when there are emotionally charged situations with our children, we can say things that may feel like we are correcting a behavior when, in fact, we are conveying the very messages we wish to avoid. Therefore, it is important to recognize that in those moments of frustration we need to be careful to use language that is accurate to describe the situation without severely shaming our children. 

There are already so many situations in our world that give our kids toxic messages to deal with each day. Our parenting language is vital to the messages that our children believe about themselves!  So, be careful in the world of “don’ts”!

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network


Information taken from Deepening Trauma Awareness, Diane Wagenhals, 2008.  All rights reserved.  Licensed materials.

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