We often hear that mental health issues, low self-esteem and traumas are caused by a negative experience during childhood. Singaporean teenager Von* has a suggestion on what kind of mindset we should adopt to prevent emotional scars in a child.
Many people get their first heartbreaks from their kindergarten sweethearts but mine was from my Gong Gong (grandfather).
It happened in Florida, USA in December 2013. I was only nine years old then. My Gong Gong shared with me a harsh reality on the last few days of our trip.
While my mother was shopping for souvenirs, Gong Gong was outside the store watching me when he suddenly said, “Von ah, do you think if mummy had another baby, would she still love you?”
Being the mummy’s girl, I responded with confidence, “Of course! Mummy says she will always love me no matter what. Mummy says that her love for me is greater than anything in the whole wide world.”
He then said this to me, “I don’t think so, you know. I think, if mummy and daddy had another baby, she wouldn’t love you anymore. Especially if it’s a boy. She won’t love you anymore.”
Those three sentences that came out of my grandfather’s mouth were the cause of my first heartbreak. Even now that I am already 18, it has caused so much agony and fear. It only got worse over time. I developed anxiety issues, fear of abandonment and the need to please my mother at all costs even if it meant suffering in silence. Ever since that incident, I could never look at my Gong Gong the same way again. I could never look at myself the same way again. Every time I looked in the mirror, all I saw was a useless girl who was unlovable and easily disposable.
Small yet impactful moments in our childhood often lead to mental health issues such as low self-esteem.
After the incident, my Gong Gong told my parents that he sincerely meant no harm and that he was merely joking. Had he known how much harm those three sentences would have done, he would not have said it to me. But damage had been done and my fear of abandonment and self- esteem issues still affect how I react. I know I’m not alone.
Small yet impactful moments in our childhood often lead to mental health issues such as low self-esteem. Studies show that we are often scarred by wounds unintentionally inflicted on us as children through the negative and insensitive actions of adults. There are few who would think “They’re just kids! There’s no way they will get offended by insignificant words said by grown-ups.” This is where the problem lies.
Take the recent incidents where children received negative reactions from adults in public. We hear about a 45-year-old woman who slapped an 8-year-old girl who accidentally stepped on her foot, and the 12-year-old boy who was assaulted by a grown-up for cycling on footpaths. These incidents are just some examples of actions taken by adults who were lost in their own emotions. These adults do not think it through. If they did, they would have realised that children have feelings too. When hurt, these feelings can potentially turn into a mental health issue.
A study led by Professor Qu Li from the Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) Psychology division showed that children who were exposed to the negative reactions from adults showed a significant decline in mood, motivation, confidence and cognitive performance. Children who experienced positive adult responses showed an improvement compared to their peers. Professor Qu also said “Adults can influence children’s immediate response to a situation…and subsequent situations.”
Of course, the older generation is not always entirely to blame. Looking back, I try to remind myself that Gong Gong did not mean to hurt my feelings. He intended to crack a “joke” and had no malicious intent. I can understand that in some incidents, adults took their anger out on children but do not think that they were not at fault because as someone older, they felt that they had the right to discipline the child for doing the “wrong” things.
To me, it’s actually quite simple. Think about the consequences of your actions and words. Whenever you interact with a child, before you say anything, especially if it’s unpleasant, stop and count to five, clear your mind and ask yourself this: “As a grown-up, would I like it if someone said this to me?” You will be surprised, children and adults are not that much different.
As we grow up and take on more responsibilities, I think it is necessary for us to remember our scars, acknowledge those wounds and be more sensitive to the next generation, instead of just dwelling on our own pasts and believing this behaviour is normal. Let us not repeat the mistakes of the previous generation. If we do not correct this behaviour and mind-set, we may inflict wounds and this vicious cycle will never stop.
*Name has been changed for privacy
Von is a Year 2 student from the Diploma in Creative Writing for TV & New Media (DTVM), at the Media Arts & Design (MAD) School in Singapore Polytechnic. She wrote this article about how we can prevent using words that hurt a child, as part of a journalism assignment where students are trained to write a personal, factual story.