Is Being Told You Are Special Detrimental To Emotional and Developmental Wellbeing?

It wouldn’t be too big a stretch to see how proud and loving parents could perceive their child(ren) as the smartest, cutest, and most special little beings in the world. Rare is the parent who will shrug their shoulders when someone oohs and ahhs over their tiny bundle of joy, and respond, “Yeh, I guess they are okay.” 

Every person on the planet is a unique individual with their own set of gifts and talents with which they came into the world or cultivated over time. They can choose how to use those endowments or developed skills to support themselves and contribute to the wellbeing of society. What are the ramifications of treating a child as ‘special’ or exceptional? 

When raising several children, there may be a temptation to play favorites if the parent feels an affinity toward one child or another or if a parent sees a spark of the exceptional. It is not unusual to hear the complaint of “That’s not fair! S(he) gets to stay up late, and I can’t.” Regardless of intent, perception is more powerful than reality for the one who feels unfairly treated. This child may grow up with an inferiority complex and an inner critic who constantly tells them they fall short of how they “should” be. 

As well, the child referred to as “special” will likely go through life doing their best to stand out -–sometimes to the extreme—to continue to feel deserving of this label. And that can lead to some adverse effects on this child, such as identifying themselves with their achievements and struggling with a strong inner critic when they fall short. 

Take the example of two daughters raised in a loving home with parents who adored them and each other. Two and a half years separated them in age. The first born was labeled ‘precocious’ and ‘special,’ and said her initial words at six months.  This child spoke in full sentences (so family legend goes) before she was one. She was offered the opportunity to skip kindergarten and leap into first grade. She was inquisitive and would ask questions beyond what could be expected for her age. Carrying books around with her like they were teddy bears, she could be found reading at all hours nearly any place she went. She was praised for her maturity, her ability to keep up in conversations with adults and for her good behavior. Her sister was intelligent and on target in most developmental measures, but not out of the ordinary. The youngest had interests that were more of a physical nature, and she was labelled a ‘tomboy,’ while the oldest was more of a ‘special little lady’. The younger child thought of her older sister as ‘the Golden Child who could do no wrong,’ while she was risk taking and got caught after her antics. The older sister was praised by teachers as well, and when the youngest walked into the classroom, she was confronted with the statement, which an educator should never say, “I hope you are as good a student as your sister.” As a result, she was resentful and rebellious. The girls would acknowledge that their parents loved them equally but treated them differently. Both carried these roles into adulthood and only recently, as they are both in their 60s, have they come to peace with the roles they held in the family. 

The oldest became a professional with graduate degrees and the youngest went into various service jobs after graduating high school. 

What the youngest didn’t know is that the oldest felt tremendous pressure to maintain the façade that she had it all together since she didn’t want to lose the approval that she received for being a ‘good girl’. 

Being seen as ‘special,’ carries with it the expectation that grades would always be high, that goals would always be met, that performance would always be exceptional and that good enough, would never be that. Children who are deemed special, are usually high performers who are hard on themselves when they don’t meet expectations. They tend to distinguish themselves in their chosen career paths. Perceived failure can be kindling for the fire of personal disapproval. 

What are some alternatives to telling your child that they are special?

· I can tell that put your best into writing that paper for school.

· Are you proud of yourself for climbing the monkey bars to the top? 

· How does it feel when you finish something you started? 

· I want you to believe in yourself. 

· I like how kind you were to your brother. 

· I love seeing you use your creativity. 

· You are uniquely YOU! 

· Thank you for being so patient and waiting your turn in line to go down the sliding board.

And best of all: I believe in you no matter what. 

Focus on progress and not perfection, such as, “I can see how much more comfortable you are talking to new people.” 

Every single person is sacred. Sacred means special, precious, a treasure of true beauty. That means you.
― Amy Leigh Mercree 

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