Why words hurt
We’ve all said the wrong thing at times, leaving our kids feeling angry, hurt, or confused. Words can be eternally damaging, especially coming from parents who are supposed to be safe and supportive figures in their child’s lives. “Parents’ support and approval are essential for kids’ well-being,” says Jill Whitney, LMFT, who practices in Old Lyme, Connecticut and blogs about relationships. “The words you use can be constructive or destructive to kids’ developing sense of self. If they’re negative, they can negatively color our self-image for decades.” Find out the worst offenders and what to say instead.
Your child may be slow as molasses getting dressed in the morning when you’re trying to head out the door to school and work. Pushing her to get a move on, though, will only make her more stressed. And while you may be making her feel guilty about running late, your screaming won’t motivate her to move any faster. Instead, look for calm ways to speed things up, like making getting out the door a game by racing to see who can get dressed first. “By making it into a ‘we event,’ you’ll teach your child the importance of collaboration,” says Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, a clinical and consulting psychotherapist and author of the forthcoming Fragile Power: Why Having Everything is Never Enough.
“Leave me alone”
Every parent needs a break at times. Yet, you shouldn’t be telling your kids that, otherwise, they’ll think that you’re brushing them off and that there’s no point in talking to you. “Kids like to be acknowledged and heard; in fact, it can help cut down on meltdowns and tantrums,” says Jennifer Trachtenberg, MD, a pediatrician, the creator of Pediatrician in Your Pocket, spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, and assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. “Answer in a way that is age-appropriate and give them specific tasks to do while they wait for you,” she says. You may instead say, “I have to finish one thing. I need you to play with your cars for just a few minutes. We can play outside as soon as I’m done.” “Just make sure you then follow through with whatever you promised you would do together afterward,” says Dr. Trachtenberg. Some compliments can actually be hurtful to kids, too.
“Why can’t you be more like your brother or sister?”
It’s natural to compare your kids, but you shouldn’t let your kids hear you doing it. When you ask kids why they’re not more like their sibling, it promotes unhealthy competition and kids may not feel like they’re good enough. You’re implying that you wish your child was someone else when you compare him to his sibling. Besides, the comparisons aren’t likely to change the behavior, says Dr. Trachtenberg. You’ll only be pressuring a child to do something he doesn’t want to do or isn’t ready for, undermining his self-esteem. Instead, encourage and inspire your child about what he can do and praise him when he does something good, such as, “Thanks for telling me you had to use the potty” or “Wow, you zipped your coat up all by yourself.” “Each child is an individual with his own strengths and weaknesses,” says Dr. Trachtenberg. “Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool to help shape other wanted behaviors. Remember to encourage and praise the child for the actions they succeed at instead of harping on what they can’t do.” Besides, you’ll want to stop sibling rivalry before it starts.
“Practice makes perfect”
“There is no such thing as perfect; being perfect isn’t a good goal as it doesn’t exist,” says Betsy Brown Braun, child development and behavior specialist, author of two best-selling parenting books, and founder of Parenting Pathways. “You’re sending the message that she didn’t train hard enough if she made a mistake.” Instead, acknowledge how frustrating and hard practicing can be and give some examples of things she practiced and did improve. “I like to give the example of babies learning to walk. They try and try, fall down, and try and practice, over and over,” she says. “Then they become good walkers, just like you did.” Explain that doing something repeatedly teaches you how to do it, says Brown Braun. “Nobody can do something well unless she has done it a lot,” she says. “Some things take a lot of work; some take less.”
“Let me help”
It’s natural to want to give your child a hand as he is finishing a puzzle or building a tower; after all, you don’t want to see your child struggle. But if you jump in too soon, you can undermine his independence. “Allow your child to complete a project to build his self-esteem and core competence,” says Fran Walfish, PsyD (aka Dr. Fran), a child, couple, and family psychotherapist in private practice in Beverly Hills and author of The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child. “Each disappointment is a golden opportunity for your child to develop frustration and build coping skills to deal with life’s inevitable daily ups and downs.” Constantly helping prevents him from getting the satisfaction of learning to do it for himself and teaches him to always look to others for answers. Instead, wait for him to ask for help first. Then, ask him questions to help him solve the problem. “Should the big piece go here? Why? Try it yourself.”
“I’m on a diet”
If you’re watching your weight, keep it to yourself; talking this way about physical appearance can lead to your child developing an unhealthy body image. If they see you’re struggling with how you look, they may feel that they need to look a certain way, too. “Obsessing about your weight or appearance isn’t delivering a good message,” says Elizabeth Berger, MD, a child psychiatrist and author of Raising Kids with Character. “Children need to feel that their parents are in control of their own lives.” Instead, say “I’m eating healthy because I like how it makes me feel.” Promoting positive body image like this is one of the tiny ways you can encourage your kids every day.
When you tell a child she’s fine as she’s bawling over a scraped knee, you’re invalidating and discounting her feelings. Kids will think they have to brush off their emotions and that can lead to more explosive outbursts. Dr. Walfish suggests you say instead, “You got hurt and scared. It’s okay to say ‘Ouch! That hurts!’ Mommy sees you’re scared and hurt, and I’m right here with you.” Or give her a hug, acknowledging and verbalizing her feelings. “That was a scary fall.” That can help give her the words to express herself. “This is what I call empathic narration,” says Dr. Walfish. “This style of compassionate attunement to your child’s feelings will help her feel seen, acknowledged, validated, and accepted—flaws and all. The attuning narration also teaches your child to be a kind and empathic person to others.”
“I could do that when I was your age”
Kids all develop at different rates. So expecting your son to ride a two-wheeler by age seven as you did will only make him feel like he disappointed you. “Parents are under a lot of pressure to make sure that their children meet a long list of expectations, and some of this anxiety tends to be passed on to children,” says Dr. Berger. Still, you as a parent should appreciate your child’s efforts, regardless of what they are. “A calm attitude towards ‘success’ helps children get over their own sense of shame when they haven’t met their own—and social—expectations,” says Dr. Berger. Dr. Berger says you can say, “Wow, I can see you’re making a lot of progress; keep it up!” or “Don’t worry—you’ll get there.”
“Because I said so”
When you’re in a rush, it can be easy to fall back on this clichéd parenting phrase, but avoid this empty phrase in favor of one that’s more thought out. “As parents, one of our most challenging tasks is to convince our children to do something they don’t want to do,” says Janie Feldman, PsyD, a licensed psychologist in New Jersey. You can say something like, “I know you want to play outside today. But you have to finish your homework first. How about we play outside after?” Dr. Feldman says you can offer an incentive to promote interest in completing the task. “It would be a great help to the family if you raked the leaves. If you rake them for us, you’ll earn ___.” It’s not guaranteed they’ll help, but they may be more interested. “In our society, we do work for incentives such as our salaries, vacation time, and other benefits,” says Dr. Feldman. “Offering an incentive can not only motivate our children but also socialize them to recognize the value of their efforts.” Beyond your children, find out more things you really shouldn’t be saying to the people in your life.
“I do everything for you”
You may feel like you do everything for them—cooking, cleaning, and chauffeuring them. But you know this isn’t true. “Do what you do for your kids with an open, generous heart or don’t do it,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, a psychologist based in Princeton, New Jersey and author of Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience, and Develop Real Self-Esteem. “Don’t expect that you’ll be repaid with effusive gratitude or even good behavior,” she says. She says you can help teach your child gratitude and good manners by mirroring them yourself with your spouse, family, friends, and others. Say something like “What a delicious dinner! Thank you so much, Daddy!” “Your kids will probably pipe in with their thanks,” she says. Or point out someone’s efforts made on their behalf, along the lines of, “Grandma went to three stores to find the yellow paint you need. Remember to thank her when you see her tonight.”
“It’s not that big of a deal”
It may not be a big deal to you that your daughter wasn’t invited to Mary’s party, but it’s a big deal to her. Telling her you disagree with her invalidates how she’s feeling, making her ashamed or embarrassed. “When our kids are upset, we want to reach for empathy,” says Kennedy-Moore. She says that a useful formula is: “You’re feeling ___ because __.” “It bothers you when___.” “It’s hard for you when ___.” “You wish___.” “Don’t interpret or judge, just describe the feelings you see,” she says. “We adults tend to want to skip the feelings and go straight to the solution. But when kids don’t feel heard, they tend to get louder. Wrapping kids’ feelings up in words makes them seem more understandable and more manageable.” When your child feels heard and understood, it will do wonders. Beware of these other things parents say that ruin kids’ trust, too.
“You’re a liar”
Even if your child did take money from your wallet, that tone will only make him feel like he’s being personally attacked. Find out why he lied instead of being accusatory; then start an open dialogue about why it’s not okay to lie. Edward Kulich, MD, is a pediatrician who provides house calls in the New York area with his practice KidsHousecalls. He says you can say something like “Hey bud, I just wanted to let you know that I’m always here for you if you need anything or if you have a problem. I noticed some money is missing from my wallet. I’m not mad but I think we need to talk about this.”
These words can have the opposite effect, making your child more likely to fall as she’s attempting the monkey bars. You’re distracting her from what she’s doing, so she’s losing focus. Instead, quietly spot her in case she falls. Dr. Kulich says you can say something like “You got this.” He says if your child is more hesitant, you can say, “I saw you do this yesterday. I know you can do it.” These compliments your kids really need to hear also help to build self-esteem and foster a loving relationship between the two of you.
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