5 Things You Should Never Say to Your Kids
All parents say the wrong things sometimes, but experts say choose your words wisely.
By: Laurie Sue Brockway
Parents sometimes say things they regret. Your child may do something that grates on your very last nerve, or that is so upsetting you can’t curb your reaction and, wham, something not so nurturing or supportive comes out of your mouth.
“All parents say the wrong things occasionally, but the ones who parent intentionally and mindfully do so less frequently than parents who don’t bother to reflect on how their words or actions impact their children,’ says psychotherapist Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, MEd.
Part of our behavior stems from how we were treated as children. Some may be related to current stressors.
“Feeling overwhelmed, helpless, frustrated, worried can all lead to making these types of comments," says psychologist Elizabeth R. Lombardo, PhD, MS, PT, author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. “But our children tend to generalize and personalize statements, and even flippant comments have a lasting impact.”
We asked several experts to comment on some of the worst things that come out of the mouths of moms. Here are a few of the most damaging ones:
1. What's wrong with you? Although you may feel there is something terribly wrong with a behavior your child is acting out in the moment, these words can stick for life. “Your child can interpret this to mean ‘there is someone wrong with me,’” says Lombardo.
2. That is so stupid. Children do stupid things -- a lot of them -- but when you shout it out as an exasperated statement, they can take it literally and take it to heart. Lombardo says, “What your child hears is, ‘You are so stupid.'"
3. Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about. Every mom has moments when she is driven to try to stop unending sobs and whining, but this oft-repeated phrase can do a lot of damage. “First, you're threatening a child with some form of harm and thus calling into question their sense of safety in the world,” says Tina Gilbertson, LPC, author of the book, Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings. “Second, you're implying that the child has control over her tears and, by extension, over her feelings. In order for her to stop crying, she needs to stop feeling sad or mad.” Controlling feelings is not something a child, or an adult, can do on cue, she says.
4. Go to your room and don't come out until you can speak/act nicely. While kids need boundaries, physical banishment is not the way to go. “It is often used as a consequence for inappropriate behavior,” says marriage and family therapist Meredith Silversmith, MA, LMFT. “If we tie that consequence to their expression of emotion, it can cause them to feel as if we do not accept all of them. Just like us, kids have good and bad days. If your child is having an off day, take a few minutes to help sort out what's bothering him.”
5. You don’t feel that way: Trying to deny a child’s feelings is as bad as saying something negative. “Even if a parent disagrees with what a child is saying, it’s important to validate the feeling the child has,” says Koenig. “Children are just as entitled to their feelings as their parents. If they’re not validated, they grow up not to trust their feelings or thoughts and can become dependent on pleasing others.”
Psychologist Alex J. Packer, PhD, author of How Rude!, asked hundreds of teens about the most offensive things parents say. Comments included these phrases: “How can you be so dumb?” and “You’ll never amount to anything.”
“Children look to their parents for love, support, and approval,” says Packer. “The thing kids fear most, apart from abandonment, is disappointing their parents. So these phrases, often spoken in fits of anger or frustration, hit kids where they are most vulnerable.”
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This doesn’t mean parents should never communicate disappointment. “But these phrases convey parental disappointment in a way that censures the entire being of the child, thus making improvement difficult, if not impossible from the child’s perspective,” he says. “The most hurtful and harmful phrases are the ones that condemn the entire personhood of the child.”
Rather than feeling guilty, experts say parents should learn from past mistakes and become aware of how what they say affects their children.
“It’s helpful for parents to ask children what they say that feels offensive or confusing,” says Koenig. “This gives children a voice, validates that they matter, and encourages them to get their emotional needs met.”
Have you ever said anything to your kids that you later regretted?
Laurie Sue Brockway is a journalist and author who has written extensively on love, marriage, parenting, wellbeing, and emotional health. Her work has appeared in hundreds of print and online publications, including Everyday Health and The Huffington Post.
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