The Ten Worst Things to Say to Your Child
In an effort to influence Caitlin’s behavior in the grocery store, her father told her, “If you don’t stop that I’m going to leave you here.” Following Mack’s confession that he had helped himself to recently baked cookies, his mother scolded him with, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.” Both parents were attempting to control their children. Both believed they were providing love and direction. Both potentially harmed their children by using Parent Talk that wounds the spirit. The style of Parent Talk and the words we use to communicate are critically important to the self-esteem, emotional health, and personal empowerment of our children. There is an undeniable link between the words we use and the attitudes and outcomes those words create in our children’s lives. Words can empower and words can wound. They can nurture or shame, encourage or scold, uplift or bring down. No parent wakes up in the morning and thinks to himself, “I wonder what I can say today that will build negative core beliefs in my children, tear down their confidence, and leave them feeling dependent and out of control.” Yet, parents often do just that unintentionally, because they don’t understand the full impact of their words.
Here are the ten worst things you can say to your child.
1. “If you don’t stop that, I’m going to leave you here.”
A young child’s worst fear is that he or she will be lost or left alone and unsafe. Threatening a child by playing into that fear of abandonment in an effort to manipulate him into a desirable behavior is a sure sign that the parent needs to be in time-out. One alternative is to give your child a choice. Instead of scaring your son, tell him, “Brian, if you keep choosing that behavior we’ll go home. If you choose to talk in a normal voice, we’ll stay and shop. You decide.” Another alternative is to stop and take a break. It’s possible that one or both of you needs a rest or a nap.
2. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
Using this kind of language is an attempt to create guilt in the heart of the recipient. The belief is that if the child can be shamed into feeling guilty, she’ll change her behavior and do what we want. There are times when shaming works and produces the behavior we want from a child. But at what price? Along with the shame and guilt come core beliefs of “I’m wrong,” “I’m not enough,” and “I can never do anything right.” When children act out of these core beliefs, they attract more shaming, which confirms their beliefs and perpetuates the cycle of behaviors that elicit further shaming responses.
3. “I wish I never had you.”
“If I had it to do over again, I would never have children” or “We never wanted you anyway” are inexcusable comments to make to a child. Regardless of what he or she has done and no matter what his or her tone of voice, these parental responses are always inappropriate. This language should serve as a signal that something is more than amiss in your child/parent relationship. Use it as a catalyst to get some help. Turn to a counselor, clergy member, or school authority. Do it now. You and your child are worth it.
4. “You’re the reason we’re getting a divorce.”
No child is ever the reason his or her parents are getting a divorce. And no child should be expected to carry that emotional burden. Even when we explain carefully and lovingly to a child that she is in no way responsible for our decision to separate or divorce, she holds fantasies that somehow it’s her fault. “If I had only been different,” she thinks, “my parents would still be together.” “If I had just been better, they wouldn’t have fought so much” is a common, if unspoken, belief that children often hold.
5. “Why can’t you be more like your brother (sister)?”
When parents compare siblings, what they communicate is that someone is deficient. They send messages to the child being unfavorably compared that he is not smart enough, good enough, fast enough, or thorough enough. “You’re not good enough” messages internalize as core beliefs and contribute to undesirable behavior in the future. Comparisons increase sibling rivalry, intensifying the natural rivalry that already exists and creating more hassles for the parents. Comparisons also damage the relationship between siblings by fostering feelings of separateness. Accept each child in your family for the unique person that he or she is. Each has personal strengths, capabilities, and needs. Help your children see the beauty of their own uniqueness by focusing on each individual without using comparisons.
6. “Here, let me do that for you.” If “Here, let me do that,” “Let me handle that,” and “I’ll do it this time” are a regular part of your Parent Talk, you could be contributing to learned helplessness in your children. Taking over and doing things for a child that she could do for herself dis-empowers her. It encourages her to view herself as incapable. Taking over and doing may save some time in the present, but you make more work for yourself in the future. If you do something for your child once, no problem. If you do something twice, you’ve created a pattern. If you do something for your child a third time, congratulations—you now have a new job.
7. “Because I said so, that’s why.”
The words may be “Because I said so, that’s why!” but the silent message is “I’m big and you’re little. I’m smart and you’re dumb. I have power and you don’t. My job is to tell; your job is to obey.” This style of Parent Talk breeds resentment and creates power struggles. Instead, try using language that communicates respect while you directly tell the child your feelings and desires. “It’s frustrating for me, John, when you continue to ask why. As the parent here, I make some of the decisions. This is one of those times when I’m making the decision. I won’t be changing my mind on this one.” Language is the primary delivery system in the emotional abuse of children. Eliminate abusive Parent Talk by monitoring your manner of speaking. If you become conscious of using one or more of the seven worst things to say to a child or other abusive language, stop. Take a deep breath. Go for a walk. Take a hot bath. Give yourself and your child time to cool off and regain perspective. Then begin again, remembering that words can empower or words can wound.
8. “You’re lying.”
When you say to your child, “You’re lying,” you label him a liar. A liar is something you are, a part of your being. An occasional lie does not make your child a liar. It is a behavior he chose, not a permanent part of his essence. If you suspect your child is lying, say, “I don’t believe you,” rather than “You’re lying.” When you accuse children of lying, it’s easy for them to argue that they were telling the truth. They cannot argue, however, with your beliefs. “I don’t believe you” is about you and what you believe.
9. “I told you so.”
Being right feels good. It helps us to be on top. There’s only one problem. In parenting, being right doesn’t work. Being right builds resentment. Saying, “I told you so,” to remind your child of your correctness rubs his nose in the fact that he was incorrect. It’s hard enough for children to admit when they made a mistake. Reminding them that you were right only makes it more difficult for them to admit to themselves that they were incorrect.
10. “What did I just tell you?”
“Haven’t you started yet?” “Do you know where your bedroom is?” You already know the answer to these questions. Asking them reveals a thinly veiled accusation. It often smacks of sarcasm and ridicule. When you hear yourself asking questions of this nature, stop. Ask a different kind of question, this one of yourself. Ask, “What is my motivation for asking this question?” Consider your answer seriously. If the purpose of the question is to communicate anger or irritation, drop the question and state your irritation openly. Tell your child, “I’m angry that it’s late and you’re not in your bed,” or “I get angry when you ignore my directions.” Watch out for questions that require no answer. You could be starting the cycle of disrespect.