5 things good parents will never say to their child, according to psychology

Many parents—perhaps yourself included—will regret a thing or two they’ve said to their children in a flash of anger or annoyance.

One Quora user and parent says they regret telling their child the harsh phrase: ”Shut up!”

“Every parent has those days where they are exhausted,” he wrote. “It was at one of those moments that I was trying to talk to her mother, and my daughter came up and interrupted.”

The father told his daughter he was sorry that very day. “She just shrugged and said, ‘It’s ok.’ And then she went out to play.”

This parent doesn’t think his daughter remembers the incident and he doesn’t believe she was permanently scarred from the exchange but it has stayed with him for years. 

“I remember it as if it just happened five minutes ago,” he wrote. 

He said that now that he lives in another country, sometimes, whenever he tries his daughter by phone and she doesn’t answer, his mind goes back to the incident: “It haunts me.”

While even the best of parents can have moments like the one this father had, there is an issue if it happens repeatedly. 

But there are other phrases—some of them more subtle and seemingly “harmless”—that parents should refrain from saying to their child so as not to undermine, disrespect, or even do some psychological damage. 

Here are five of them. 

1) “Stop crying.”

I don’t think there is a parent on the planet who hasn’t uttered these words at one exasperated point or another. 

But the problem is that phrases like like “Stop crying” and “Calm down” point to a lack of empathy and they teach children to deny or repress their feelings and it isn’t good for their long-term emotional development and well-being, says clinical psychologist Martha Deiros Collado, who is also author of the book How To Be The Grown Up.

“Telling someone who is upset to ‘calm down’ or ‘stop crying’ is also likely to backfire, leading to an outburst,” she says. 

You may not realize it, but you’re actually teaching your child to bottle up their emotions instead of expressing them. 

“You cannot bottle up emotion that needs to be released. Before the calm, the emotion needs to come out, and what it is trying to communicate needs to be heard.” 

Teaching your child to bottle things up can make trouble in the long-term, says Kristin Loiselle Rich, who is a pediatric psychologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital as well as a pediatric professor at the University of Cincinnati. 

“This can cause children to suppress feelings of sadness, which can lead to them withholding other emotions and can contribute to anxiety and mood problems down the road.”

This learned behavior is something that they might be prone to carry into adulthood as well which can affect their personal and professional relationships. 

2) “What’s wrong with you?”

Psychologists say that if there’s one phrase parents need to stop saying to their kids, it’s “What’s wrong with you?” 

Instead of asking this of a child, it’s better to slow down, discuss their feelings, and relay the information they need, says Karyl McBride, PhD

“Shame that results from the phrase ‘What is wrong with you?’ can be long-lasting and difficult to overcome.

Of course, if your tone is compassionate and you are actually asking what is wrong or what is the matter with your child (phrasing it this way is better and more accurate), then that’s different. Because in this case, you’re wondering if they want to share their feelings with you. 

But that is a lot different than a parent who is exasperated throwing up their hands in desperation and asking this question, says McBride. 

“Then it becomes a question that indicates a defect in the child’s being.”

The problem with this is that when a trusted adult—a person who the child is dependent on for everything—indicates that something is wrong with the child, the child will internalize it and believe it, emphasizes McBride.

“They will ask themselves what is wrong with them—they won’t be able to find the answer. They may rely on their limited life experience and knowledge, and likely come up with something that is wrong, and this can have a lasting effect.”

The child will perhaps think: “I am not good enough,” or “I am a bad person.”

“The devastation of these kinds of internalized messages can take a lifetime to get over, even with therapy,” says McBride. 

It is important to avoid creating shame. 

While it is necessary to speak directly about the concerning behavior, it’s also imperative to let your child know that they are special and loved

Let them know that you don’t like a certain behavior and that you want them to address or work on it, says McBride. 

Say for instance that your child throws a tantrum in a public setting (as many children do).

Don’t let “What’s wrong with you?” slip out. 

“You simply take the child to a quiet place, find out what is bothering them, and discuss their feelings.”

It doesn’t mean that they get their way, McBride stresses, but they will feel heard, seen, and visible. 

“This will calm down the tantrum more quickly than anything else.”

3) “I do so much for you!”

parents didnt have a healthy dynamic 5 things good parents will never say to their child, according to psychology

One Quora user posed the following question:

“Why do parents say ‘you should be grateful’ because they gave you a roof over your head, food, and clothes even though that is the bare minimum when you sign up as parents? I didn’t ask to be born.”

She goes on:

“I hate when parents say that, they make it seem like it’s an OPTION to put a roof over your head and give you food and clothing?? It’s not an option, people. That’s what parents do: they are supposed to nurture, take care of you, and guide you, PARENTAL THINGS! You’re right, you didn’t ask to be born, They CHOSE to have you, now they’re gonna throw it in your face, by telling you all the things [they] do? Uhh, it gets me so mad.”

This person isn’t off base. This toxic phrase is a form of manipulation that gives children a guilt trip. 

Parents might say this to make their children feel bad for behaving badly or to make them be more accommodating and grateful, says Sinead Cafferty from Bolde

“As a parent, it’s your job to keep your kids happy and healthy, and it doesn’t do them any favors to throw all your efforts back in their faces.”

This doesn’t mean that parents should spoil their children and give them their every heart’s desire, but it doesn’t mean making them feel guilty for things that are parental responsibilities. 

4) “Because I said so!”

If you want to talk about the most cliché phrase a parent can use, well then, this is it.

But you should still avoid it, says Jennifer Eberhart from Care

“It’s a powerful phrase, but it takes all the control away from your kids,” she says. 

“You don’t always have time to explain your reasoning, but you should try to give your kids a better context of why you’re asking them to do (or not to do) something.”

For instance, try saying this instead:

“I know you really want to go to the movies today, but I have a lot of errands I need to do today. How about we go tomorrow?”

Eberhart says that it helps letting your children know that their feelings matter and that you want to listen to what they have to say. 

“No matter what you say to a child, it’s important to think before you speak,” Eberhart emphasizes. 

“Understand that youngsters are naturally curious and active, and speaking to them candidly about any problems or questions they have is always your best bet.”

5) “Don’t be so sensitive.”

Parents might think they’re teaching their children to have a thicker skin when they tell them not to be so sensitive, but what they’re actually doing is shifting the responsibility and blame from their behavior to the child’s perceived inadequacies, says Peg Streep, author of Daughter Detox: Recovering From an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.

Parents who say this don’t realize that a young child doesn’t have the self-confidence to counter this assertion and will assume she has done something wrong, says Streep. 

“She will often believe that their sensitivity is the problem and that, in turn, leads her to mistrust both her feelings and perceptions.”

What the parent is communicating when they say this is: “What you feel doesn’t matter to me or anyone else,” and “The fault is yours because something is wrong with you.”

Why do some parents say such things to begin with?

There are a number of reasons why a parent might resort to reiterating the above phrases to their child, says Pamela Li from Parenting for Brain

Of course, the obvious one is that their harsh words are a reaction to stress, frustration, or anger. 

“Parents might react impulsively under stress or when frustrated or angry,” says Li. “This doesn’t excuse their behavior but can sometimes explain it.”

Another is that they’re projecting their own emotions

“Parents might project their insecurities or emotional pain onto their children if they haven’t found constructive ways to deal with the feelings,” she says. 

Some parents want to win an argument with their child. In the heat of the moment they might say hurtful things to “win” the argument or “one up” in reaction to something their child said to them. 

Criticism is also a common culprit.

“Attempts to correct or modify a child’s behavior through criticism can sometimes be harsh and hurtful, especially if not done thoughtfully,” says Li. 

Comparison is a kind of mind game that some parents don’t even realize they’re doing. They also think comparing their children to other children is “for their own good.”

“Comparing children to others, like siblings or classmates, is a common pitfall,” says Li. “While intended as motivation, it often makes the child feel inadequate or like a failure.” 

You may not think you say phrases similar to the above but the next time you have a stressful or heated exchange with your child, try to observe yourself. 

Could you have handled the situation better?

Reflecting on why you sometimes say these kinds of phrases can go a long way to mitigating them, and even putting an end to them altogether.

Picture of Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has been published by The Globe & Mail, ELLE USA, ELLE Canada, British Vogue, Town & Country, and others.

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