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How Negative Labelling Can Harm Your Child

How Negative Labelling Can Harm Your Child March 31, 20223 Comments

Rosemary Oshiomah Ogedengbe, PhD.

Parenting is no doubt one of the most challenging but rewarding roles.  A crucial  aspect of parenting is  paying attention to  children ‘s behaviours,  and taking steps  to  strengthen adaptive behaviours and  correct maladaptive behaviours.    It is  a normal part of development  for children to learn and exhibit maladaptive  behaviours as they learn to understand  and adapt to the society.   There is hardly any child who is so prim  and proper  as to be able to transit from childhood to adulthood without  the  involvement of adults  in the process of  fine tuning their character.  All children exhibit maladptive behaviours though they may differ from one another with regards to the nature and severity of the  maladaptive behaviours  they exhibit.   While some  of these  behaviours   could be mild, others  may be extremely embarrassing  not only to parents and caregivers but to the entire family.  When a child’s behaviour becomes a source of embarrassment to parents, the tendency to label the child negatively is usually high. Hence, it is common to hear parents address their children  by negative labels that reflect their maladaptive behaviours,  such as  “  thief , liar, cheat, lazy.

Negative labelling is drawing conclusions about a child’s identity  too early.  Making mistakes and picking up negative behaviours are a normal  part of  development.  Most   children usually unlearn  many of  these  behaviours  with the necessary assistance . The fact that a child took what does not belong to him does not mean that they will end up as a thief.  Hence, giving a nagative  label  to a child amounts to drawing negative  conclusions about their identity too early in life.

A child’s  self-  esteem could be deflated by negative labelling.  A negative label could   make  a child to form a poor self – concept and consequently  low self-esteeem because it suggests to them   that they are indeed  their  maladaptive behaviours,  and consequently   makes it difficult for them  to separate themselves from such  behaviours.   I have had several touching experiences in my work with children and adolescents as a psychotherapist.   Some  of the most touching experiences  were those  instances when I asked for self-description while assessing self-esteem.  I once asked a 7 year old  child,  “ How would you describe yourself?” , and   he said to me,   “ I am a bad boy, I am always doing only  the wrong things”.   When I  asked how he arrived at that conclusion, he said  his  mother always called  him a bad boy who  does only the wrong things.  This can’t be a fair deal to a child.   How is it  possible that from waking up to bed time,  365 days in a year,  this  child never does anything that is good.?  The fact that a child has a problem does not mean that the child is all about the problem.  

Negative labelling could make  positive change more difficult for a child.  The more  a  child is addressed  by a negative label,  the more difficult it becomes for the child to change  as they  may  internalise the  negative  label  – accept  the identity  the negative  label  ascribes  to  them instead of viewing the behaviour as a problem that they  should make efforts to deal with.   It is important  to note that one of the reasons children strive to behave well is the desire to impress their significant others,    so as to earn their approval.  Hence,  a child may feel that there’s no reason to “try” when parents or other significant others  have already given up on them  or  written them off.  

Negative labelling  can worsen a child’s  behaviour.  When  a child  or an adolescent  is made to feel  unaccepted,  unloved and written off  by their parents or family, by labelling them negatively as a result of one or two  behavioural  problems, they could become completely disoriented  and  pick up  worse  behaviours.  For instance, a young person who feels they are not accepted at home is more likely to spend more time outside the home and consequently become more vulnerable to other vices.  

Negative labelling can  inhibit  a child’s development of self-efficacy.  Self-efficacy is the belief that one is capable of doing something well.  When adults adopt a  child’s inadequacy   as  a means of   identifying the child  or   label the child negatively,  once the child internalises this negative label – believes that he is all and only about the negative label,  it may be difficult for the child to recognize that they have potentials  and that they are capable of anything good or doing anything well.  Hence, it is common to find children and adolescents  with negative labels  failing in many areas of their lives.  The fact that a child is having a specific  behavioural problem  or an inadequacy in a particular aspect does not mean that there is nothing good about the child.

Negative labelling can cause serious mental health problems for young people. Negative labelling can lead to  rejection and social isolation which can cause severe mental health problems for the child including  depression, substance  abuse  and suicide. One of the effects of negative labelling  of children is that it makes others to want to avoid them.  For instance, if you  call your child a thief, you don’t expect your neighbours  or extended family members  to gladly open their doors to the child.  Rejection, loneliness and  social isolation have been identified as some of the reasons for substance abuse, depression and suicide among young people.

Children are not their maladaptive behaviours.  It is important  to separate children  from their maladaptive behaviours or inadequacies so that we would  be able to help them.   The problem is not the child but the unacceptable behaviour.  Therefore, it is the behaviour that should be  condemned  and  not the child.  For instance, instead of saying to a  child,  “You are a bad boy”, it is healthier to say, ” What you did is bad”.  It is possible to disapprove of a child’s  bahaviour without making them to feel disapproved of.   

Maladaptive behaviours are learnt and can be unlearnt.  Children are not born with maladaptive behaviours. They learn such behaviours in the course of their interaction with their environment. Hence, they can also unlearn the behaviours if they are given the right support.  Some maladaptive behaviours  may require professional assistance to unlearn. It is okay for parents  to seek professional help for children who need  such help to  unlearn their  maladaptive  behaviours.  The process of helping  children  to modify their  maladaptive  behaviour usually includes helping their  parents or caregivers to gain insight into the problem and  understand their role in the treatment  process.  It also  involves  equipping  them  with  skills needed to play  these roles effectively.  All these reduce the frustration that parents or  caregivers as well as the child  may experience while trying to resolve such difficult problems  without professional assistance.


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