Why You Shouldn’t Criticize Yourself in Front of Your Kids
The things you hate about yourself will become the things they hate about themselves
When you looked in the mirror this morning, did you sigh? Did you gripe about your weight or the bags under your eyes? Last time you struggled to calculate a tip, did you make a crack about being terrible at math? Ever casually blurted out, “I’m such an idiot”?
No one’s going to love themselves all the time. A little self-deprecation is normal — but be aware of the tiny, impressionable ears nearby. However you talk about yourself out loud, “Your children are picking that up,” says child psychologist Janet Lydecker, a professor at Yale School of Medicine. When you trash-talk your appearance or your abilities, you may be teaching your kids to feel bad about themselves, too.
“Parents should think of their children as alien observers,” says Michael Whitehead, a marriage and family therapist in Twin Falls, Idaho. Babies arrive on this planet with no understanding of our language or customs. To learn how to fit into their families, they scrutinize the other humans around them and imitate what they see. “They’ll pick up whatever behaviors they see their parents do, and interpret that as normal,” Whitehead says.
Studies on parents’ negative self-talk have mostly focused on weight, body image, and disordered eating. For example, a 2010 study of 356 teenage girls showed that when parents talked about their own weight at home, their kids were more likely to demonstrate “extreme weight-control behaviors,” like skipping meals or taking diet pills. A 2016 study on girls aged 5 to 7 found a similar effect. First, each girl stood by herself in front of a mirror and answered a researcher’s questions about whether she liked or disliked different body parts. Next, the researchers brought mothers and daughters together in front of a mirror and repeated the experiment, with the mother answering questions first. Nearly every girl changed at least one of her responses to match what her mom said.
“Children will pick up whatever behaviors they see their parents do, and interpret that as normal.”