Mind Matters: Words and the family

Don’t get me wrong, my mother was a great woman and the quintessential grandmother. However, there was one time I recall when I, as a new mom, stopped her in her tracks. Elaboration here: I thwarted her from going down those tried—yet often untrue—tracks of family mythology.

Every family has a set of unwritten rules about how to live, how to think, how to feel. Some of those unwritten scripts are, of course, necessary. We hope to learn from our families how to have good hygiene, how to be polite, and how to manage the words, “thank you” and “please” from an early age. Just by observing adults, especially parents, children learn to model behaviors for good or ill. I loved mimicking my mother’s smoking, holding candy cigarettes with aplomb. Luckily, I hated the smell of the secondary smoke and, so, am a non-smoker.

If we are fortunate, we feel loved as children and will thereby learn to love ourselves and others.

Yet, even surrounded by love, families make mistakes. You can bet I made plenty as a mom. Being a mother and psychologist/family therapist is a double-edged sword: I have made parenting mistakes and observe myself at the same time, either at that moment or afterwards. Trust me, I “analyze” myself as much as I “analyze” the behaviors of anyone else.

Well, back to the incident with my mother, many years ago. My daughter was a toddler, new to walking. One day, when my daughter had tripped and fallen, my mother said, “Oh, you’re so clumsy.” She may have said it “cutely” but the words burned for me. I promptly spoke up to the attentive grandmother and requested she not label my daughter as “clumsy.”

My mother retorted, “Well, I called you that too, and probably my mother called me that as well.”

I replied, “Yes, mom, I know you said that to me, but the buck stops here. This kind of labeling gets a child stuck and limits her. Keep telling a little one she is clumsy, she’ll begin to believe it and not move into the world with confidence.”

I don’t know if those were my exact words, but it was the essence of my narrative that day, almost 35 years ago. Point is, words and labels get passed down from generation to generation and can impart a negative emotional load on an individual into adulthood.

We need to reflect on the words we use, unconscious of their possible consequences. Do our words have a long history in our family of origin? Are they derogatory, hurtful, limiting, in any way? Are they creating self-fulfilling prophecies? If we call a child stupid, lazy, spoiled, clumsy, and so on, repeatedly, a child can then internalize those labels and eventually create a negative self-image.

This is not to say that the child does not need discipline, boundaries, and firm guidance. Yes, behaviors need correction.

What has prompted my reflection on the theme of words and labels passed from one generation to the next is that the little toddler who fell in the story is now going to have a baby daughter herself. And she is a rock climber among other things.

So how will I, as a grandmother, and my daughter, as a mother, learn to edit out whatever vestiges of family history that are limiting? What other words, besides “clumsy,” need to be stricken from the “label” train that rides that tired—yet untrue—track of family mythology? This is a question for all parents and grandparents.

Kayta Curzie Gajdos holds a doctorate in counseling psychology and is in private practice in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. She welcomes comments at MindMatters@DrGajdos.com or 610-388-2888. Past columns are posted to www.drgajdos.com. See book.quietwisdom-loudtimes.com for information about her book, “Quiet Wisdom in Loud Times: The Rise of the Wounded Feminine.”

About Kayta Gajdos

Dr. Kathleen Curzie Gajdos ("Kayta") is a licensed psychologist (Pennsylvania and Delaware) who has worked with individuals, couples, and families with a spectrum of problems. She has experience and training in the fields of alcohol and drug addictions, hypnosis, family therapy, Jungian theory, Gestalt therapy, EMDR, and bereavement. Dr. Gajdos developed a private practice in the Pittsburgh area, and was affiliated with the Family Therapy Institute of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, having written numerous articles for the Family Therapy Newsletter there. She has published in the American Psychological Association Bulletin, the Family Psychologist, and in the Swedenborgian publications, Chrysalis and The Messenger. Dr. Gajdos has taught at the college level, most recently for West Chester University and Wilmington College, and has served as field faculty for Vermont College of Norwich University the Union Institute's Center for Distance Learning, Cincinnati, Ohio. She has also served as consulting psychologist to the Irene Stacy Community MH/MR Center in Western Pennsylvania where she supervised psychologists in training. Currently active in disaster relief, Dr. Gajdos serves with the American Red Cross and participated in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts as a member of teams from the Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.Now living in Chadds Ford, in the Brandywine Valley of eastern Pennsylvania, Dr. Gajdos combines her private practice working with individuals, couples and families, with leading workshops on such topics as grief and healing, the impact of multigenerational grief and trauma shame, the shadow and self, Women Who Run with the Wolves, motherless daughters, and mediation and relaxation. Each year at Temenos Retreat Center in West Chester, PA she leads a griefs of birthing ritual for those who have suffered losses of procreation (abortions, miscarriages, infertility, etc.); she also holds yearly A Day of Re-Collection at Temenos.Dr. Gajdos holds Master's degrees in both philosophy and clinical psychology and received her Ph.D. in counseling at the University of Pittsburgh. Among her professional affiliations, she includes having been a founding member and board member of the C.G. Jung Educational Center of Pittsburgh, as well as being listed in Who's Who of American Women. Currently, she is a member of the American Psychological Association, The Pennsylvania Psychological Association, the Delaware Psychological Association, the American Family Therapy Academy, The Association for Death Education and Counseling, and the Delaware County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Board. Woven into her professional career are Dr. Gajdos' pursuits of dancing, singing, and writing poetry.



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