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Describing your child’s personality — the dangers of using labels

Describing your child’s personality — the dangers of using labels

Labels, words used to describe and define a person, are used frequently in complimentary and pejorative ways. As parents we tend to discourage our children from using nasty labels and will tell them not to call each other names. However, it is easy to inadvertently label your child. We can do this out of frustration — “you’re lazy, bossy, naughty…,” or in a way intended to praise — “you’re clever, pretty, funny.”

Labels, meant positively or not, can be problematic for a number of reasons. Keep in mind that while describing our child’s personality is normal, the repeated, rigid use of particular labels can create issues, as described below.

 

Labels can negatively impact your child’s thinking by causing:

  • Exaggeration and oversimplification: Using one word to describe a person is unrealistic. Labelling is recognised as a ‘cognitive distortion,’ or unhelpful way of thinking (Beck, 1976). Children tend to follow our example, so if you use labels they may do so too (for themselves and others).
  • Negative self talk: Others’ words tend to make their way into our head if heard often enough. When derogative labels are used children can incorporate these into their own thinking. This may lead them to have thoughts like, ‘I’m lazy,’ or ‘I’m no good,’ which can become ingrained beliefs about the self that are enduring and impact their emotions and behaviour.
  • Reduced flexibility of thinking: Identity is more than just a label – we experience the self differently depending on the context and the people we are around (Jetten, Haslam & Haslam, 2012). Labelling leads to rigid thinking about the self and the world, and inflexible thinking is a risk factor for poor mental health (Beck, 1976).
  • Unstable self-concept: If a child develops a narrow self-concept (e.g. ‘the pretty one’) they will be less resilient to challenges. At some point even the smartest person will feel stupid, or the most beautiful girl will feel ugly. Having multiple aspects to one’s personality helps us feel secure in our self, even if we perceive we are failing in some areas (Jetten, Haslam & Haslam, 2012).

 

Labels can lead to unhelpful behaviours such as:

  • Self-fulfilling prophecy: If your child is given a label and internalises it, they can then live out the belief others have about them (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 2003).
  • Learned helplessness: If we try repeatedly without success, we may eventually stop trying (Seligman, 1972). This phenomenon can occur if a child is repeatedly labelled. For example, Sally is told she is quiet repeatedly even after she tries to speak up. This leads her to stop trying to voice her opinion.
  • Stereotype threat: Stereotype threat occurs when a person feels they will be judged based on people’s preconceived ideas and they subsequently perform poorly since they are distracted by this concern (Steele & Aronson, 1995). This sort of effect can happen on an individual level if a child has been labelled repeatedly. For example, a student has been labelled as a slow learner and worries his new teacher will think this too. This makes it difficult for him to concentrate and he thus confirms their preconceived idea.

 

Labels can produce difficult EMOTIONS, including:

  • Stress: Sometimes praising children can have the unintended effect of producing stress. If a child is told they are ‘smart,’ there is the unspoken pressure to live up to this name.
  • Low resilience: Complimenting your child often can seem like good parenting, but overuse of positive adjectives can reduce resilience in children. If they are constantly labelled as ‘good,’ or ‘clever,’ or ‘creative,’ then they may find it difficult when they experience failure or criticism.
  • Feeling misunderstood: If you are using a few words to describe your child then they may feel that you have not recognised all parts of their personality, or they may disagree with your description. This feeling of being misunderstood can lead to loneliness. Even intended positive labels may not be experienced as such, and some words can have different meanings for different people.

 

What to do instead

It’s difficult to get away from labels altogether, but the following tips can help ensure that you minimise the effects of labelling:

Describe behaviour, not the person

Rather than calling your child smart, creative, lazy or naughty, try using these words to describe their actions. This keeps the description to that particular instance, rather than being a reflection of your child’s worth. By labelling behaviour, not the person, we suggest that change is possible. For example, the statement “Alex, pulling the dog’s tail is naughty,” suggests that Alex can stop being naughty in future, whereas “You’re naughty Alex,” suggests the defect is within the child.

Educate your child on why labels are unhelpful

If you notice your child labelling their self or others (e.g. “I’m stupid”), help them to understand why labels are unrealistic. This can be by pointing out that using one word to describe a person is unrealistic, and by finding exceptions to their statement.

If children are using positive labels this may be less problematic, but it is worth reinforcing that they have more than one asset. For example, Sarah strongly identifies that she is a bright girl, but her mother also highlights her other qualities (being kind and funny) to avoid her limiting her self-identity to one area.

Encourage ownership of identity

People are told who they are from parents, teachers, friends and even strangers in the street. Encourage your child to develop ownership over their identity by talking with them about their interests and developing skills and qualities. Reading stories or watching films where characters have a strong sense of identity can help in discussing this area.

Stop others labelling your child or minimise the impact

It’s not just parents who use descriptors like ‘quiet,’ ‘outgoing,’ ‘hyper,’ and ‘shy’ for children. Teachers, friends, relatives and other children can also use words to label your child. If this is happening repeatedly you could bring it up with the person (e.g. asking a grandparent to not continually tell your child he or she is smart). You could also talk with your child about how sometimes people don’t see all of us (e.g. “your teachers say you’re quiet but they don’t see you at family parties!”). Looking into the positive aspects of a label (e.g. hyper might be the negative way to describe energetic and lively) can also help. You can also share your experiences of personal change (e.g. previously having put minimal effort into school but then working hard in your chosen career).

Summary

While it’s natural to describe your child’s personality there can be disadvantages in giving your child labels frequently. Both negative and positive words about identity have the possibility to harm a child’s thinking, behaviour and emotions.

If we use adjectives about behaviour, not the person, we can help reduce these effects. Helping your child define their own identity, as well as exploring why using labels to describe people is unrealistic, are also beneficial approaches. We can help protect our child from labels by deterring others from pigeon holing our child, and by helping children to see their self as a person with many positive qualities, and as capable of change.

This approach can foster positive self-esteem and can give your child an adaptive and flexible sense of identity.

References

Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders. International Universities Press.

Jetten, J., Haslam, C., & Haslam, S. A. (Eds.). (2012). The social cure: Identity, health and well-being. Psychology Press.

Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L (2003). Pygmalion in the Classroom. Crown House.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1972). Learned helplessness. Annual Review of Medicine, 23(1): 407 412. doi:10.1146/annurev.me.23.020172.002203PMID 4566487

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 797–811. doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.69.5.797

 

Author and Illustrator: Erica South, Psychologist at Young Minds Health and Development Network

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2019