The Inferiority Complex and the Nature of Children

This article/post was written by Matthew Sabatine

Disclaimer: the following article reflects only the views of the author and not everyone at Common Issues.

“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” ~Proverbs 22:6

The ancient author(s) of this Biblical book probably didn’t realize that this pithy statement would be a precursor to a lot of 21st Century science and moral values reflecting it. I am sure that any family, in agreement with this Scriptural passage, can admit to imperfectly upholding it. But despite our misapplications of the principle, Westerners and other Christian-based cultures would still at least learn to this very day that adults are the cornerstone to a child’s life.

Many Christians today interpret this passage of Scripture to mean that your child’s righteous behaviors in adulthood will be guaranteed if you set him/her on the righteous path in childhood. Some Christian teachers caution against such an interpretation, saying it is often misquoted, while others will interpret this to mean that allowing a child to go his/her own way will inspire waywardness in adulthood. [1]

One thing that psychology teaches us today is that bad parenting can set a child on a course toward specific, rigid adulthood misfortunes that they otherwise wouldn’t have without the bad parenting.  

What is the inferiority complex?

Wikipedia expresses the premise that “children reared in households where they were constantly criticized or did not live up to parents’ expectations may also develop an inferiority complex.” [2] The inferiority complex is the intense feelings of hyper-inadequacy, inspired by real and imaginary sources, that causes dysfunctional, maladaptive behaviors, such as overcompensating in performance via terrific triumphs or asocial behaviors. [3]

The inferiority complex, as a concept, traces back to the psychoanalytic branch of psychology and the days of Alfred Adler, the Austrian psychiatrist responsible for the idea that the order in which you were born in your family has impact on your personality. Pop psychology and popular culture have taken a great liking to this idea, which has been professionally and repeatedly controverted. [6]

It was believed by Adler that a child will frequently try to “outstrip every other member of the family and become its most capable member” in order to transcend their own low position of power, strength, and size. Eventually, the child would reach a fork in the road on his/her journey to maturity, at which he/she must decide to either emulate adults to gain ascendancy or express weakness to gain aid and attention from adults. [6]   

Alfred Adler’s ideas may not be the standard in modern-day psychology, but I believe some plausibility existed behind his belief that the human psyche is formed in early childhood, and that behavioral patterns build persistence and consistency in the journey of maturity. As the need for recognition and self-importance is realized during the same time as inferiority’s emergence in life, we cultivate “a thousand talents and capabilities” to overshadow our weaknesses. Despite inferiority’s presence in our lives, a healthy relationship or secure attachment with our parents should dwarf the temptation to always win over others in costly ways. [6]

Alfred Adler’s 1928 book, Understanding Human Nature, expresses other plausible ideas

Every child can be at risk of defective development. It is normal for a child to find himself/herself in a dubious, dicey situation every now and then. But recurring situations that make the child see himself/herself as defeated, neglected, and discriminated against “by nature and by man” leaves him/her with the vain striving to gain control over his/her surroundings or supremacy over peers. A child’s basic needs are the harmony of his/her internal and environmental social forces and freedom from threats and disturbances. Caused by “an exaggerated, intensified, unresolved feeling of inferiority” is this need for power and control that exceeds the basic needs. Consequently, this inferiority affects the child’s capability of learning. [7] Children cannot direct their attention in the right places nor concern themselves appropriately with their peers if they are distracted by the constant preoccupation with themselves and the dominance they impress upon others to overcompensate for the privations, negligence, and miseries of existence that occurred so early in life. [7]

Try to remember how you felt when you were little. Anytime you were in the presence of adults, people who were towering above you, they made behaviors and decisions that always expressed their wisdom that was infinitely greater than yours. They made you aware of your inability to make crucial, autonomous choices for your own well-being and survival. According to Adler, children as young as 2 can identify within themselves an inability to defend themselves against the harsh realities of life. As the child is already acutely aware of his/her “smallness and helplessness”, any dehumanizing act against the child, that demands of him/her more than what he/she can handle, makes the child aware of his/her inferiority in excess. [7]

Adler recognized the diversity in how children are treated in society; some are handled like “toys” and “animated dolls”. Others are “treated as valuable property” whereas others are treated like “useless human freight.” How the child is made to feel wanted and important, as a possessor of dignity and rights, and whether he/she is expected to just be seen and not heard, plays a role in whether the child is taken “seriously.” Such treatment of a child sends one simple message to his/her brain: he/she is responsible for the delight and dolor of his/her caretakers. [7]

The child can’t be taken seriously when he/she is laughed at by peers and made to feel ridiculed, thereby inspiring feelings of dread that carry on into adulthood. Children can’t be taken seriously when they are told “palpable lies” that make them question not only their “immediate environment but also to question the seriousness and reality of life.” These dehumanizing acts contribute to the maladaptive feelings of inferiority. “This feeling of inferiority is the driving force, the starting point from which every childish striving originates. It determines how this individual child acquires peace and security in life, it determines the very goal of his existence, and prepares the path along which this goal may be reached.” [7]

21st Century research on parent-child interactions

I discovered a 2016 US National Library of Medicine article, titled Parents’ Use of Praise and Criticism in a Sample of Young Children Seeking Mental Health Services. This study was performed on 128 parents self-reporting on how often they commend versus censure their child. After most parents claimed to commend their children more than censure them, the opposite was discovered: the parents censured their children 3 times more often than commended them. I imagine a lot of us would say that the parents’ overestimation of themselves is quite embarrassing. [10]

Perhaps many would assert that it is a waste of time to pontificate about the boons of parental praise, but it can’t be a waste of time if so many assume that children need constant criticism.

The reality of parental influence as the hammer and anvil acting to shape a child’s sense of self, competence, and feeling loved was demonstrated well in a 2002 study on “attachment relationships” where scientists tracked 96 children from the time they were 15 months old to age 8-9 years.  [4]

The effects of parental praise have been scientifically demonstrated since 1997. Researchers from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Department of Psychology studied 36 mothers with their children competing in a game where the mother offered intermittent instructions. The experimental group, who used positive parenting and praise, were found to have higher success with cooperation, obedience, and contentment. [8] A study done in 2012 found similar results when studying African American and Latino mothers who were able to enhance their children’s self-efficacy by using “less corporal punishment and more consistent discipline.” [9]   

Although many have raised concerns about whether too much praise can spoil a child, further research revealed that children’s confidence and aptitude is increased when praise is shrewdly used, not making children feel they must strive for unachievable standards, and not comparing them to their peers in ways that focus on performance over effort. [10] [14]

Our culture makes it seem commonsensical that verbal criticisms against children help them become good human adults and become acclimatized to an unforgiving, disappointing world. But a 2011 University of Minnesota study on “267 high-risk mother-child dyads” suggests that criticism inspires more recalcitrance in children. [11] Low self-esteem and behavioral problems are said to be inspired by criticism. [10] A demonstration of the counter-productivity of criticism can be found in a 2009 study on 99 families with troubled preschoolers. Treatment failure occurred in 71% of those studied, due to “more maternal negative talk, and less maternal total praise at pretreatment.” [12]

Entering the mental health system is stigmatizing for many people, and parents can be very sensitive to being blamed for their child’s illness. Hence, professionals often question the accuracy of parents’ appraisals of their private praise versus criticism technique. Parents are susceptible to retracting what they initially said and underreporting the facts about their private lives.

Relative to what cognitive attribution theory has to say about how one interprets the causes of certain events and behaviors, there has been concern that a parent’s depression symptoms interfere with their perception of the extent to which their child’s roguery and destruction is volitional. Perhaps this could be one of many avenues through which depression infiltrates the next generation. [10] As the child is innately hypersensitive to parental scorn, the parent’s depression symptoms are making him/her hyper-vigilant of misconduct, and biasing the parent’s perception, which leaves a dark cloud always hovering over the child. Once the latent mental health struggles break through the surface, it is hard to recuperate with absent support from the parent. [5] 

In her 2018 Mother Jones article, Katherine Reynolds Lewis argues her opposition to parental criticism based on what was brought to light with sociologist George Brown, in London’s Camberwell district of the 1950s, who wanted to know why schizophrenia patients couldn’t convalesce in their post-hospitalization period of going home to be with a spouse or parent. To Brown, the likelihood of being symptomatic was greatened when going back home versus staying with strangers, because a high-conflict household roused the symptoms whereas a supportive environment in a boardinghouse did the opposite. [5]

Brown’s results were evaluated, and what came thereafter was the making of a scale (1-10) for gauging people’s irritability levels to criticism from a loved one, a number which has helped gauge people’s mental health and well-being since then. A score of 6 or higher indicates a great probability for retrogression whereas 2 or 3 is a propitious sign for healing. [5]

To quote Katherine Reynolds Lewis:   

“…the mere presence of a critical family member can spike a patients’ blood pressure, one study showed, whereas having a non-critical relative around helps people self-regulate. Researchers have seen similar results over the years for people with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, and substance abuse problems.” [5]

Unfortunately, that could be overstated as I have struggled to find the exact study she mentions, nor have I been able to find a similar study to verify this premise in the slightest. However, a U.S. National Library of Medicine report from several years ago states that “previous studies have suggested that parental criticism leads to more somatic symptoms in adolescent children.” Somatic symptoms would be “physical problems such as vomiting, nausea, and headaches” while “parental criticism” would be “dislike, disapproval, or irritability directed towards the child.” But no such direct causation has been confirmed in further studies. [13]

I imagine that many might want to say that I am defending a permissive, milquetoast parenting style that encourages rebellion and delinquency. But that wouldn’t be the case. However, perhaps I want to secretly argue against the possibility that many parents want the freedom to do as they please, to leave their rage unchecked, and heap vengeance on their kids for being such a huge source of stress.  

About the author: Matthew is interested in discussing social psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, human biology and anatomy, mental health disorders, philosophy, the psychology of religion, and the history of religion. Matthew loves his friends, his family, and his dog named Sampson. You can contact Matthew at

Disclosure statement: I am not a licensed therapist nor doctor. My intention is to not pretend to be either. The information contained in this article is not meant to be accepted instead of a doctor or licensed therapist’s advice. All information contained herein is based on my interpretation of the books and articles I read. My hope and desire is that any troubled person reading this would feel encouraged to get help from a licensed practitioner.







[6] 50 Psychology Classics, Chapter 1 on Alfred Adler and Understanding Human Nature, pg.17-18, published in 2017 by Nicholas Brealey Publishing









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