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How early parental interactions impact children's self-worth

Research proves that having a highly critical parent can impact your personality as an adult, making you overly dependent on the approval of other people

Early parental interactions can impact a child's self-worth either positively or negatively
Early parental interactions can impact a child's self-worth either positively or negatively (Pexels)

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The recent Netflix movie Qala, set in the world of Indian classical music, depicts many things. But at its core, it is a commentary and depiction of the shattered and fractured bond between a mother, who is a respected and renowned singer (Urmila Devi) and her daughter (Qala), who constantly tries to seek approval from her mother. Parental approval is clearly something that all children crave from their parents, whether verbal or non-verbal. And research proves that parental interactions, whether positive or negative, have significant long-term effects not only on a child's sense of self, and self-worth but also on their ability to make decisions later in life. Often, children who have been criticised as children often become adults unable to escape the need for approval because their self-worth is dependent on it. 

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Research has shown that the initial effects of appropriate parental approval can be seen at early stages in a child’s life. Parental acceptance (emotional warmth) contributes to the development of self-esteem, the formation of healthy personality traits, and the improvement of overall mental health in children. Attuned parents are sensitive to their child’s cries, are able to differentiate what the child’s different cries mean, and respond to their needs by feeding or soothing them. This paves the path for a healthy and attuned mother-child bond, framing the child's emotional development and they become adults who are emotionally healthy and good decision-makers. A parent who disregards a child's basic needs or is inconsistent in her responses in the early stages of child development may become a passive, anxious and withdrawn adult. 

Several well-established theories on personality development hold the view that some individuals are more likely than others to base their self-worth on approval or success in a relationship. Dr Ketoki Mazumdar, a Mumbai-based consultant psychotherapist says, “When a child is being nurtured in an environment which is peppered with experiences of  rejection, victimisation, and other stressful parental experiences, there is a tendency to internalise it and they start associating with self-blame, low perceived self-competence and self-efficacy, and diminished self-worth.” She adds that there is a potent interaction between parents' approval and children's self-appraisals. For example, both normal and disturbed parental caring patterns are internalised in the child’s mental representations of caring relationships. That impaired mental representations of disturbed relationship patterns may create a vulnerability to later mental health concerns. 

Mumbai-based Tanu Chokski, a psychologist and counsellor adds that while parental pressure may come from good intentions, it usually hampers the sense of self of the child; this carries forward into adulthood. “Parental approval plays an integral role in a child’s mental well-being. It assures the child that their parents' love is not conditional, and this assurance provides them with support,” she says. 

So what can one do about it?

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Experiences of rejection can be very painful and make a child feel helpless. The specific ways in which a parent interacts with their children leave a direct imprint on their mental map and future well-being and conduct. For instance, if a parent is authoritative (not authoritarian), that is, they are encouraging, and motivating, but also critical when they need to be, a relationship of trust and respect might be formed with their child. A child can communicate their needs only if they trust that their parents will not reject or dismiss them. This comes from the parents themselves accepting their children for who they are, being empathetic towards them, and giving unconditional positive regard.

Mazumdar adds that parents can begin by displaying self-regulation techniques, meaningful and healthy relationships and effective social skills. They should also offer safe spaces and opportunities for young people to practise these skills, encouraging them to seek help or support whenever needed. As Dr Chandana Shet, a clinical psychologist and therapist at Mimblu, an online therapy & counselling app, says it is important for parents to listen to their children.“Listening doesn't mean you do what the child wants or says; it simply means hearing them out with full attention, asking questions, and acknowledging the child's issues," she says, adding that parents can also share an opinion politely and keep the platform open for discussion/negotiation. "This will help the child slowly process the disapproval. And the approval/ disapproval has to be for the behaviour and not for the child.” 

As the lack of parental support or approval in childhood can manifest in different ways in adulthood, often leading to commitment or attachment issues, depression and anxiety, and other problems that hinder the person’s life, it is important for parents to acknowledge the role they play in being their child’s support system, believes Choksi. It is also important for parents to accept that their child is their own person,  not a reflection or extension of them; this prevents parents from having unrealistic expectations from their children. “To promote mental well-being and break the cycle of rejection and disapproval, parents and teachers must learn how to constructively criticise while motivating the child, rather than putting them down. You can correct and criticise what the child does, not who the child is,” she believes.

Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based therapist






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