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Parents Blind to What Hurts Their Kids

One of the worst things parents can do to their children is send them a double message. On a nonverbal level they treat them as though they are bad or perhaps even evil (using tone of voice and facial expressions). Then on top of that, with words, they tell them they love them. Such parents are unconscious of their dark feelings and motivations, which are conveyed nonverbally; they project those feelings onto their children.

The result is quite damaging to the children. They are often made to feel as though they were born to make their parents’ lives miserable. The children, having no outlet for their frustration, become the parents’ self-fulfilling prophecy. They are told they are bad so they become bad. They are also told that their parents are good and love them despite their being bad. This leaves the kids angry but confused about being angry.

There are many people who live in a narcissistic bubble. Such people are convinced that they know who they are and know themselves and their motives completely. They would never deign to go into therapy. They may repeat the slogan, “I’m raising my kids the same way my parents raised me. I turned out all right, and so will they.” In truth such parents raise their kids to never doubt they turned out all right, and so they never doubt it while they are growing up. Only later, when they become aware of their psychological problems, do they doubt.

Sometimes such parents were the older sibling in their family and were idealized by their parents and made to feel that everything they thought and said and did was right, and nothing they thought and said and did was wrong. They thus treated their younger siblings however they wanted and were given full permission to abuse them. They were never given any incentive to look at themselves objectively or to develop self-honesty about themselves. They learned to view themselves in the same idealistic way as their parents viewed them.

When such people become parents, they can sometimes treat their children—or sometimes target one child in particular—as if they are bad, their judgment is bad, and they are in fact beyond help. They learned to repress their own evil as youngsters (by overly punitive parents) and now project it onto their kids. What is actually going on is that the parents are defending against the darkness within themselves. “It’s not me who is bad, but my child. I am a good person and had nothing to do with how my kid turned out. He’s just evil. He was born evil.”

A child of six may be brought to me for therapy and the parents will be upset. “We were told by the principal that we need to take him to a therapist.” He has been hitting other students, kicking teachers, and generally being out of control. The parents do not understand why he is doing this, and their way of handling it is to punish him by taking away his video games.

The parents begin fighting while in my office and I try stopping them from fighting so that I can get give some feedback, but it is a struggle. I feel myself getting stirred up by their fighting, and I can sense how the child is likewise getting stirred up by them. But if I do finally get a word in and suggest—in the most delicate manner—that perhaps their fighting may have some connection to how their boy is behaving, they both become defensive. Both blame each other. “You should talk to him, he’s the one…..” “You should talk to her, she’s the one….”

Upon further review, it becomes evident that one or both of them feel that the boy has some kind of disease, and the boy’s behavior is not related to anything they do. They want me to work with him, not them, and they want me to magically change him into a “good boy.” If I ask them how they think their arguments affect the boy, they will acknowledge that once, after a huge argument, he hit another boy at school the next day. But they qualify it with, “But he has also done things when we didn’t have an argument, so I don’t think that’s the reason.”

As I get to know them I learn that they both came from families where feelings were never talked about. If they were bad, they were punished in a token manner, but they were never asked why they were being bad. They were also both children that were idealized. They were left to their own resources and told those resources were wonderful. They were never given any guidance with regard to resolving disputes, looking at themselves objectively, giving and taking, and the other aspects of constructive communication.

They couldn’t resolve their own problems and therefore could not guide their child into resolving his problems. They couldn’t look at themselves objectively, hence they could not see how they were contributing to the boy’s problems. Instead they made him feel that he was simply a bad boy and punish him and guilt-trip him about being bad and about making their lives miserable.

This is a syndrome of parenting that can go on for generations. Many professionals will diagnose such children as suffering from ADHD, and they will side with the parents, and the child will be hit with a double whammy. Not only do the parents think he is bad, but also the doctor, and since both parents and doctor think he has a disease, there is nothing to be done but calm him with drugs. Chances are he will become a lifetime drug addict.

Such parents do not have the ability to do meaningful therapy, for that would require them to look at themselves realistically and to engage in constructive communication with their child. It is more important for them to maintain their narcissistic sense that they are OK and their child is not. Hence the child grows up to have problems involving anger, self-esteem and relating to others. And later the child will likely have a problem with parenting.

Parents Blind to What Hurts Their Kids

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2018). Parents Blind to What Hurts Their Kids. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 15 Oct 2018
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