10 phrases toxic parents casually say to their kids, according to psychology

Fact: Our kids are listening to us all the time.

They may seem like they aren’t or pretend not to. 

But the truth is, our children pick up on the things we say.

They’re like sponges, soaking up every comment we say and even how we say it.

And if we’re not careful, our words -even the small ones we use every day – can unintentionally send the wrong message.

Thinking about how much our kids look up to us, here are 10 phrases toxic parents casually say to their kids, according to psychology.

1) “We’ll never be able to afford that”

There is nothing wrong with telling your kids that something they want is out of your price range.

What makes this phrase a no-no is the use of the word NEVER. 

Using this single word instills in them that something is impossible forever.

According to psychotherapist Amy Morin, the best way to rephrase this is using language that shows them you have control over your finances.

So instead of saying, “We’ll never afford Disneyland”, Amy suggests saying something like:

“We can’t go to Disneyland this year because the tickets are out of our budget. But we can save up for it and go next year.” 

See the difference? 

It’s negating something forever versus showing your kids that getting something they can’t afford is just a matter of patience, perseverance, and prioritization.

2) “That’s life”

Speaking of not getting what we want, our adult experiences have taught us that sometimes, it is what it is.

C’est la vie as they say.

Because of this, we’ve normalized uttering the phrase “that’s life” when something unfavourable or awful happens. 

I mean, have you ever said, “That’s life,” when something great happened? 

Rarely, if at all, right?

Experts believe this blanket phrase we use as a default response to negative circumstances can be toxic when said to our children.

Apparently, it can cause them to internalize that life is inherently terrible. 

And this can trigger a domino effect:

They develop a negative expectation of life, which in turn causes them unwarranted anxiety and distress.

So next time your child comes running home upset they didn’t make the basketball team or that their classroom pet died, instead of saying, “That’s life,” maybe switch to:

 “I’m sorry you’ve had to go through this, but can I help you think of a way to make things better?”

This way, you’re teaching them resilience without imparting a negative view of life.

3) “Let me help”

Notice the use of “can I” in the last question?

That was intentional and based on advice from Dr Myrna Shure, author and psychology professor.

Part of our reflexes as parents is to help our kids the first chance we get. But Dr Shure discourages us from it, saying that jumping too soon to help can undermine our child’s sense of independence.

Here’s something to keep in mind next time:

Instead of imposing help on your child, start by asking them if they want you to, then go from there. 

Or, as Dr Shure suggests, ask guiding questions like “What do you think is the first step?” or “What else could you try here?”

Reframing your intentions to help this way can help stimulate your child’s problem-solving skills without trampling on their independence.

4) “I’m very angry at you”

raise confident and resilient children 10 phrases toxic parents casually say to their kids, according to psychology

Kids will be kids and do things that get on our nerves.

But our rage shouldn’t be directed towards them.

I was guilty of this once with my firstborn, but I slowly learned to direct my anger toward the action, not the person itself.

So now, with my two kids, our conversations after their timeouts would sound something like:

Me: “Was I angry at you?”

Them: “No.”

Me: “What was I angry at then?”

Them: “With what I did.”

Then, we talk about why their behavior was not on and how they’d avoid acting that way next time.

I’m not saying you follow the same script, nor am I claiming this is the right approach.

But according to psychotherapists, staying calm and focusing on the misbehavior is a healthier alternative to blaming your anger on your kids.

They say that by doing this, we encourage and discourage our children. 

That is, encouraging them to be aware of how their actions affect others.

And discouraging them from growing up constantly blaming others for the way they feel.

5) “Calm down”

While we’re on the topic of anger, try telling an adult to calm down when they’re angry and see if it doesn’t backfire on you.

It likely has the same effect on our kids, too. 

We say it to try and soothe them, but it actually makes it worse.

According to clinical psychologists, this phrase isn’t particularly helpful because it doesn’t guide them on how to manage the difficult emotions they’re currently going through. 

They suggest using specific instructions like, “Let’s do some deep breathing” or “Let’s go for a walk and cool down.” 

By providing them with clear and simple steps, you’re helping them redirect their focus away from their anger and towards strategies that will help them calm down.

6) “Don’t cry”

I get it. 

Our kids can sometimes cry over the silliest things.

But here’s the thing:

It only looks silly to us. 

For all we know, it’s a big deal for them.

“You’re too sensitive,” “It’s not a big deal,” or “Stop crying” are phrases we casually use as parents that can actually be harmful to our kids.

Here’s why:

These phrases,along with any other phrase that insinuates expressing feelings is bad, could give them the impression that their emotions don’t matter. 

In short, these words invalidate their emotions, especially if they hear the same phrases frequently.

A study published by the American Psychological Association found that when a child’s feelings are consistently belittled or dismissed, it can undermine their emotional development.

Apparently, this can lead to low self-esteem and an increased risk of mental health issues like borderline personality disorder.

But wait, there’s more:

It could also result in your child lacking empathy.

Look at it this way:

How do you expect your kid to understand that other people’s feelings matter if you teach them early on that their own emotions don’t?

7) “Because I said so”

Saying “Don’t cry” is one thing, but uttering “Because I said so” is another.

Clinical neuroscientist Dr Caroline Leaf says giving only “because I said so” as an explanation after a command does nothing but leave your child confused.

She says it also robs them of their natural curiosity and inhibits their reasoning skills. 

So what does Dr Leaf suggest we say instead?

Clearly explain why you said what you said. For example:

“Too much screen time makes it hard for your brain and eyes to rest; that’s why we limit your time on the iPad. We want to keep you healthy”.

8) “I don’t know”

If you recognize these signs your children genuinely respect you 1 10 phrases toxic parents casually say to their kids, according to psychology

This is another phrase that suppresses our kids’ curiosity.

I feel you.

It’s very tempting to give this reply to your toddler’s constant barrage of whys, hows, and whats.

But experts warn that not only does this phrase limit our kids’ growth, but it could also boomerang on us.

Imagine asking your child a question, and they get back at you with “I don’t know.” 

Infuriating, right?

It’s crucial to admit to our kids that we don’t have all the answers to life’s questions. That teaches them humility and prevents them from growing up as know-it-alls.

But how we relay this message is equally important. Which is why a good alternative is to say something along the lines of:

“That’s a great question. I’m sorry I don’t know the answer, but let me find out for you.”

9) “Those people…”

We may or may not have any malicious meaning behind this phrase, but we should avoid saying it, especially in front of our kids.

Let’s also refrain from saying, “they’re not like us” or “that group of people” around our kids.

Here’s why:

Based on the findings of a 2021 study, these types of phrases could instill negative biases and stereotypes on our children.

Saying these phrases indirectly teaches our kids to see others as very different from them. 

And it doesn’t end there. 

It also unintentionally reinforces to them that it’s okay to judge or exclude others.

The aim therefore is to use more inclusive language.

So instead of saying, “Those people have strange habits,” try this instead:

“Isn’t it interesting how people from various cultures celebrate the holidays differently?” instead.

The key is to treat everyone’s differences with kindness and respect.

10) “That’s perfect”

Most phrases we’ve discussed so far veer toward the negative. 

But this one’s a seemingly positive phrase casually said all the time but may turn out to be damaging for our kids.

Experts believe praising your kids with “that’s perfect” creates a perfectionist. 

Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with a kid that strives for excellence. 

But a kid who aims for perfectionism risks developing a range of mental health disorders, from anxiety to obsessive compulsive disorders, as studies suggest.

But how then should we celebrate our kids’ achievements?

An expert psychotherapist’s advice is to highlight their effort instead of the outcome. 

Praising the effort encourages their growth mindset and teaches them the value of hard work and perseverance rather than fixating on flawless results.

The takeaway

If there are two things you take away from this list, please let it be these:

  • Our kids look up to us.
  • Our words have power. 

Even the most casual of comments leaves a lasting impression on our children, so it’s important to choose our words carefully. 

“What should not be heard by little ears should not be spoken by big mouths.”

– Unknown

Sarah Piluden-Natu-El

Sarah Piluden-Natu-El

Sarah is a full-time mum, wife, and nurse on hiatus turned freelance writer. She is on a journey of diving deeper into life through life itself and uses her writing to share the lessons learned along the way. When not on her computer, she enjoys time with her family strolling along the Gold Coast's stunning beaches and captivating hinterland.

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