15 Things Never to Say to Your Child
Words matter — and the words we use when we talk to our kids really matter. Never think your child is too young or too immature to be affected by the things you say because that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Any child who can hear can take a meaning from their parent’s words. Plus, young kids believe everything their parents tell them, meaning using negative words and phrases can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to low self-esteem, unhealthy relationships and difficulty dealing with their emotions.
Nobody deals with every parenting situation perfectly, all of the time. But by knowing the things you should never say to your child — and what parenting experts recommend you should say instead — you can build a better relationship with your child based on encouragement, respect and positive reinforcement.
The "Bad" Calling
Calling your child a “bad girl” or “bad boy” is something you should never do, says licensed clinical social worker Jean M. Campbell. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t scold them for bad behavior. Campbell recommends distinguishing between the child as an individual and their behavior by saying something like, “I love you, and what you did is a bad thing. The choice of language can make the difference between developing a sense of shame (you are bad) and healthy guilt (you did a bad thing),” explains Campbell.
If a child thinks they are wrong at their core, they will wonder how they can change that. But if they realize they have done something wrong, they can make amends by apologizing and committing to changing their behavior.
“Shame breeds fear, and when fear is present, the logical, reasoning part of the brain shuts down,” adds Campbell. “If parents want to teach the child a sense of right from wrong, the clearer the guidelines are about the behavior — and not them as a person — the more effectively the child will integrate the information.”
This might seem like a harmless question, but it can inadvertently put pressure on kids who want to have alone time to unwind and regroup after a full day of school and other activities. “Most kids need to decompress when they get home,” explains Susan G. Groner, author of “Parenting: 101 Ways to Rock Your World.”
Groner suggests leaving your child alone and not asking about their day until dinnertime. “Instead, tell them about your day,” she says. “If they’re getting in the car, play some music they like. When they come off the school bus, have a snack waiting. These little acts show love.”
A Harsh Request
While it’s important to give your child the alone time they need, it’s not always possible to get a lot of downtime for yourself. This is simply part and parcel of being a parent. If you do need to be alone, never tell your child to leave you alone, which can feel hurtful. “Even adults do not want to hear this from anyone,” says Groner. “If you need to be alone, explain this to your child; tell them when you will be available and how you look forward to spending time with them.”
If your child does not yet tell time, Groner suggests keeping a little kitchen timer on hand, setting it and ask your child to come get you when it goes off. If you need to be alone because you are exhausted and need some me-time, explain this, too. Don’t worry about being human in front of your kids. In fact, Groner sees this as an excellent opportunity to model communication skills and teach your child that self care is important.
Every child has strengths and weaknesses, and part of your responsibility is to remain positive and optimistic about your child’s efforts in all aspects of their life. Saying “you’re really not very good at [science, soccer, art or whatever]” comes from a place of judgment and negativity. “You want to be coming from a place within yourself that is non-judgmental, positive and optimistic,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Heidi McBain.
This means that, even if your child is going through something difficult, any conversation you have with them about it should leave them feeling good about themselves and their particular skills.
If there’s one word all parents should lose from their vocabulary, it’s “stupid.” This applies even if you’re talking about the child’s behavior and not them as an individual, explains Groner. In other words, you don’t have to say the phrase, “You’re stupid” to make your child think that is the case. “Any way you use it, it’s insulting,” says Groner. “And if your child did do something really stupid, chances are he or she already knows it.”
She recommends choosing your words carefully and using your best judgment to decide how not to sound judgmental.
A Question of Feelings
“Parents should never tell their kids that what they are feeling is wrong, bad or not okay,” says mental health therapist Karly Hoffman King. “Feelings are neither good nor bad … they just are.”
Telling your child to stop being scared or upset sends the wrong message, encourages them to feel shame for having normal human emotions and doesn’t help them learn how to manage their feelings in a healthy, constructive way. Instead, Hoffman King advises helping your child recognize and understand their emotions, which is the first step toward coping with them effectively. “Let your kids know that it is okay to be angry, and help them express it and talk about it in a safe way,” she says.
What to Know
Kids are curious creatures, and as they get older, they usually want to know more about “grown-up” topics, like sex and reproduction. While this might lead to an awkward, embarrassing conversation, it’s one that you can’t avoid. You might be tempted to say “you don’t need to know about that” or “we don’t talk about that” in order to delay the “birds and the bees” chat, but shutting it down can have a detrimental effect, says licensed marriage and family therapist Jill Whitney.
“Avoiding the question tells your child that they can't turn to you when they need information about some topics, meaning they'll eventually turn to peers and the internet, which is not what you want,” explains Whitney. “Possibly even worse, they may think there's something wrong about asking or something wrong with them for wondering about it. That begins to create shame around sexuality that can cause problems for a lifetime.”
A better approach is to give short, honest answers to any questions your child asks. “You want the answer to come from you, someone with adult perspective who loves them,” adds Whitney. “And remember, if they're old enough to ask, they're old enough to hear the answer.”
Certain questions belittle your child and make them feel bad about themselves, says Groner. Examples are “What were you thinking?” “Why would you do that?” and “What is the matter with you?”
“Chances are, your child wasn’t really thinking at all,” she explains. “When your children make mistakes or do things they should not have done, instead of accusing or yelling, ask them what they might have done differently.”
Then, give your child time to reflect, remembering that they may not figure things out right away. Asking “How could you have handled this differently?” gives them a chance to problem solve and revisit a poor choice — without making them feel any worse than they already do.
Keep It Neutral
Statements that generalize or compare genders, such as “that’s a girl’s toy” or “boys don’t wear pink” instill early, erroneous concepts of gender, warns licensed marriage and family therapist Steven Reigns. Drop gendered phrases from your parenting lexicon when your child is young, and by the time they’re old enough to understand about the importance of equality and freedom of choice, you won’t have to try to reverse deeply ingrained attitudes.
The same goes for phrases like “man up,” which teaches kids that strength and weakness are connected to sex and gender — which isn’t the case at all.
Avoid Being Overly Critical
However you end this sentence, it comes across as critical and judgmental and is likely to put your child on the defensive. Instead, Groner suggests helping your child come up with a better way to remember a responsibility or whatever was forgotten. “This helps children learn to problem-solve now and throughout their lives,” she explains.
Additionally, you have to let things go when your child makes a mistake or forgets to do something. Bringing up past indiscretions isn’t productive or supportive, and it gives kids the message that they never do anything right.
Engage, Engage, Engage
You might react with praise to your child’s latest artwork or term-paper grade with only the best of intentions, but there are better ways to engage with their achievements. In some cases, a generic phrase like, “That’s great,” actually comes across as uninterested or dismissive, explains Groner.
Instead, she suggests saying something more specific, like “Tell me about this piece of art!” or “I love your use of colors!” Focusing on details in your child’s work helps build their self-esteem.
Isolation Isn't the Answer
Sending your child to their room as a form of punishment for a type of behavior can make them feel alone and unloved at a time when they need your love and support. “Your reason for sending your child away is most likely because of some sort of acting up or bad behavior,” says Groner.
A better approach is to let your child know you recognize that they are angry, frustrated or sad, and then hold them close to you. “If this doesn’t work, tell your child you are going to give them a little time in their room to let out their frustrations,” she adds. “Check in a few minutes later and give more hugs.”
“Isolation is a form of punishment, and punishment is inflicting pain on someone in order to stop them from doing a behavior we or society doesn’t like,” says psychiatrist Edward V. Haas, M.D. “While punishment can work as a method of molding behavior, most experts agree that it is harmful to a child’s emotional development and to the child-parent relationship.”
A Pawn in a Game
Without the proper context, sending your child to a different parent can come across as a lack of interest or as dismissive, warns Groner. She suggests the alternative phrases, “I don’t know how to do that, but I think Dad might know” or “I am in the middle of something, but Mom might be available. If not, I am happy to help when I am done.
“If your child is asking for permission, tell them you’re not sure yet, and you’ll discuss it with the other parent,” she adds. “This allows you and your partner to be on the same page without your child feeling pawned off on the other parent.”
Absolutes Are Negative
Avoid using absolutes, such as “you always make me late” or “you never clean up after yourself” when you talk to your child. This can cause a child to feel like they cannot do anything right, says licensed marriage and family therapist Virginia Williamson. “With enough of these messages, over time children lose confidence in themselves and their efficacy in the world and may begin to see themselves as lazy or a burden or have other negative, fixed characteristics that cannot be changed,” warns Williams.
She suggests focusing instead on when your child gets it right, i.e., when they are on time or clean their room the first time you ask or make their bed without being reminded, and encouraging this positive behavior through acknowledgement and reinforcement. By keeping things at an observational level, you avoid evaluating your child.
Words That Sting
No matter how triggering your child’s behavior becomes, try not to use phrases that tell your child you cannot take another moment of it. Saying something like “I’m done with you” or “I’ve had enough” tells your child that you’ve given up on them altogether. “If a child believes that a parent has given up on them and interprets that as a withdrawal of love, the child is much more likely to give up on themselves as well and may over time detach from efforts to change the problematic behavior,” explains Williamson.
Instead, she advises removing yourself from the situation and doing something that is centered on you, or putting headphones in and listening to a podcast, music or meditation to block out the family noise for awhile.