Emotional Abuse: Are you really the ‘Best Mum in the World’?

Happy Mother’s Day to me. I got a lovely mnemonic poem from my little boy telling me how I’m the “most great” mummy in the world. Which of course I am, to him. But he wouldn’t know any better would he? I wasn’t the most great mummy this week when I moaned at him all the way to school about his dawdling and how he’d made us late.

Fortunately I turned it round before we got there and I assured him I always love him even when I’m cross, that he will have a great day at school, and that when I pick him up later it’ll all be forgotten about and not to worry about it.

The thing is though, my reaction to the dawdling and its consequences was too much. I could have chivvied him along better, or just not got annoyed by such a trivial matter. I think deep down, it was myself I was pissed off with for not being more organised. But I took it out on him. And while I’m glad I’ve got enough self awareness to realise this, that doesn’t mean that for those five long minutes where I was going on and on about how he needs to do better etc etc that this didn’t have a negative effect on him. It was a worthless and unhelpful rant.

It’s easy to take things out on someone defenceless when you’re stressed or upset or not feeling great mentally. What’s not as easy is to identify when you’re going too far. When a lecture or a telling off turns into making kids feel bad about themselves. Or let’s be honest here: emotional abuse.

One of the dangers of emotional abuse is that sometimes, left unchecked, it can escalate into more. Into neglect or physical abuse. And while news reports might suggest that men, eg when left alone with a crying child, might be more prone to snapping and causing unprecedented injury than women are, in the seemingly rarer occasions when mothers physically abuse children it rarely comes out of the blue: it starts off with undetectable emotional abuse and it builds up because they don’t ask for help or nobody offers help or they refuse help.

But let’s not underestimate the damage that emotional abuse alone can do by itself. And sometimes we might not even realise we are doing it at all, or until it’s too late.

Emotional Abuse

There’s loads of types of emotional abuse which there aren’t enough hours in the day to go into here so we’ll just talk in general terms and maybe pick out one or two examples.

In a nutshell, emotional abuse could probably be described as behaviour, words or actions that have a negative effect on your child’s well-being. And if like me you’re the primary caregiver then that’s a really big responsibility.

With that responsibility comes too much opportunity to abuse it, and since kids can’t stick up for themselves or even identify when their own mother’s behaviour is unhealthy and unfair (like I say, they don’t know any better – they love us no matter what), we can if we are not careful be actively mean to our children.

Now this can be caused by a lot of things – our own upbringing, depression, other problems and dare I say it sometimes people are just mean people whether parents or not – but at the end of the day it’s really not ok. So let’s remove judgement from the equation – a big task on today of all days – and talk about self accountability and solutions.

  • Shame words are powerful and I remember once reading that when you have to tell a child off that the goal is to make them feel an element of guilt but not shame. It’s stuck with me ever since and it makes sense. Guilt can help them learn what behaviour is and isn’t ok, and help them know what to do next time they’re faced with a similar choice. Shame just makes them feel like they’re bad and no child should ever feel like that.
  • Name calling again, words are so powerful the words you choose will stick with children long after they’ve forgotten what they were being told off for. I called my son silly this week during my rant and watched his little heart break. Sounds so trivial doesn’t it? But the message it sent was a negative one. If I was having a go at an adult I know I’d be saying a lot worse than calling someone silly, but to him it hurt. Deep down I should have known it would hurt him because I said silly but would never say stupid. Everything parents say to kids becomes their reality and we are building the foundations of how they see themselves and any future relationships they have. If you must criticise anything make it their behaviour not their character.
  • Raising your voice it’s not just what you say but the way you say it, and it’s a slightly contentious one this, because to a certain extent it depends on how noisy your household is anyway. But there’s a difference between shouting and shouting at, and experts say it doesn’t work as a discipline tool anyway. So even if you aren’t convinced that shouting isn’t that bad or everyone does it, put it this way: no harm comes from keeping an even volume if you can. I know I inherited my propensity for shouting from growing up in a shouty household. At the very least you’re showing that that’s the way to get your point across and engage in disputes. It’s not going to help them long term and it can be quite upsetting.
  • Slagging the other parent off As tempting as it might be, the only person you’re hurting here is your child. Whether you’re with their other parent or not, they are part of your child’s identity and you’ll cause them awful problems if they observe you attacking the other part of them even if they are the worst in the world. Whether you criticise the other parent to them or in front of them, even with sneaky digs and subtle pops, it’s damaging.

There’s loads of other examples – subtle and obvious – and you can go on the NSPCC website for more information. So using them as reminders of what’s suitable emotional behaviour from us as parents, what do we do if we find ourselves dropping the ball?

When to get help

It’s a very difficult thing to accept if you need help with any problem. Probably more so when it comes to parenting. Society tells us as mums that we have to be perfect; we are even lauded for enduring hardship (we all know someone’s saint of a nan who brought up ten kids single handed and they were always well turned out) and looked down upon if our kids don’t live with us (even if it was for the best) or we dare to have free time (god forbid you have a night out), spend money on ourselves, or have a life basically. The same set of pressures isn’t there on men though.

There’s a happy medium between being perfect and letting our kids down

I remember when my son was a new baby I felt very down. I didn’t realise at the time I had a hideous case of post natal depression although it should have been obvious to anyone around me. Unfortunately those people didn’t help me. In fact, even my own mum (who is loving and supportive) told me to ‘be careful’ what I said to the health visitor about how well I felt I was coping. Once she said that I felt as though I couldn’t be open with anyone or I’d have the baby taken off me. This feeling lasted for years and I suffered in absolute misery.

The baby was clean and shiny, well fed and in several changes of clean clothes throughout the day. I’d change his nappy hourly whether it needed changing or not because god forbid anyone thought I couldn’t keep him clean. I was so afraid of having him taken off me that I thought I had to be perfect. But there’s a happy medium between being perfect and letting our kids down, and that’s all we need to strive for.

A suitable time to seek help and support might be:

  • if you feel yourself losing your temper more often
  • if you feel you’re not doing a good job (whether it’s just in your head or you actually think you’re letting your child down)
  • your children get scared when you shout at them
  • you recognise any of the examples above or from the NSPCC website in your own behaviour

It takes a village to raise a child

Modern life and family life don’t always gel. But the old adage that it takes a village to raise a child is just as true today. The ‘village’ doesn’t have to be just family and neighbours though; we also have progressional resources we can and should use. There are no prizes for suffering in silence and I say this as someone who did.

There are no prizes for suffering in silence

We mustn’t be afraid to overcome the stigma that’s attached to asking for help as mothers. It’s not a slight on our capabilities. Whatever it is you need – whether it’s for your own mental health, anger management, more free time, relaxation, help with drinking or addictions, help around the house – don’t suffer in silence. A small step in the right direction can make a difference.

What you can do today

The good news is there are some quick wins out there. Sometimes all’s that’s needed is a coping strategy to stop you losing your patience:

  • counting to 20 in your head before saying anything
  • asking whether your telling off or lecture really needs to be said right now
  • stepping into the back garden or another room for five minutes to get your sanity back (I know we’ve all tried to go for a Peace Wee and been interrupted so good luck)
  • learn some breathing techniques
  • explore meditation or mindfulness to reframe your mind

Even if this works, and I hope it does, we need to do some deeper assessments around the causes or triggers of behaviour. We don’t always want to be ‘making up’ for damage that is already done, nor do we want to live a life that’s constantly moments away from losing our shit.

  • consider the underlying causes of our behaviour (eg depression, work stress, tiredness, money worries or our own relationship problems)
  • take whatever steps are appropriate to treat the effects on your behaviour that those causes have on you (eg see GP about depression, go to counselling about relationship problems, mediation with co-parent, get debt advice)
  • identify trigger points when you are at your worst (eg getting ready for school, when you’re tired or hungover, mealtimes, when your child is tired and uncooperative)
  • find solutions to these obstacles (eg putting school uniform out the night before, lowering your expectations at mealtimes, bringing bedtimes forward, getting more sleep for yourself)

We can’t get it right all the time, but we can keep reminding ourselves to assess how we interact with our own kids to make sure they’re being given the right kind of emotional safety they deserve.

If things are getting out of hand

If you read this and you’re at the end of your tether today, pick up the phone or have a conversation with someone today and ask them for help. It’s better to take up someone’s time than to let yourself get to a point where you’re taking things out on your child. Tell them you aren’t being your best mum self at the moment and identify what you need to change that – whether practical help, time, babysitting while you go to therapy, more help from the other parent.

If you think you it’s already gone too far and you recognise yourself in some of the examples on the NSPCC page then there’s another organisation called Respect where you can get help from their team of friendly phone line advisors who will listen to you without judgment.

Supporting your child’s emotional growth

Not being mean to our own kids might seem like the bare minimum but let’s just accept for a moment that it’s not as easy for everyone. Regardless of how confident we are that we’re doing a good job of treating our kids with kindness and dignity (and I know I regularly reflect on this to make sure I’m not slipping into shouty narky mum mode sometimes), we also need to be actively supporting our child’s emotional growth at the same time. Here’s what we do in our house which might work for you too:

  • we have recently been listening to the Big Life Kids growth mindset podcast which explores topics like resilience and not comparing yourselves to others. The Big Life Kids website also has a growth mindset journal that kids can work on;
  • we (and by that I mostly mean me) are making light work of a giant tub of Nutella that we are going to decorate when empty and make into a gratitude jar;
  • after school I ask my son to tell me: who made you laugh today, what was the best thing that happened today, what did you do or say that was kind? At bedtime we talk about what we are grateful for, what we are proud of, or what made us feel good.

We’re not perfect, and it took me a while to realise that neither of us have to be. But one thing I want to make sure we are is emotionally healthy. I want this for you and your kids too, so don’t be afraid to reach out if anything in this resonates with you and you want to make a positive change. I would love to hear about podcasts and other resources to boost kids’ confidence and self esteem.

Happy Mother’s Day to you all – perfect or not x


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