Here's where I recommend when parents should zip it!
What parents say to their children can profoundly effect their emotional well-being. In our stressful lives, juggling career and family, it's easy to unleash a torrent of hurtful words. And we forget when snapping at a child how big and tall we look - frightening when looking up at an angry parent. The result can be damaging.
Many adults remember unkind remarks from childhood. Recently I coached a client who couldn't forget her mother saying she “wished she'd never been born”. Undoubtedly her mother didn't mean this but had reached the end of her tether. Thirty years later, though, those words retained their sting.
Here are the seven worst things to avoid saying to your child.
1/ What’s Said: "Your sister/brother always does X, Y or Z better than you!" Or "Why can’t you be more like your so-and-so?"
The Damage Done: Any negative comparison initiates a sense of failure and also establishes sibling rivalry. If you tell your child that, e.g., their sister always does as she's told, then that child starts to hate their sister.
Alternative To Try: If you want your child to do something better, differently, etc., then suggest it without a negative comparison. Say, "Just think, if you get your school work done quicker you can go out to the park sooner." Keep repeating such "logical" messages.
2/ What’s Said: "You’re stupid," or, "you’re bad," or, "a waste of space!"
The Damage Done: All children can be annoying at times. But this is a sure-fire way to get your child believing they are stupid or bad. Children don't have the psychological mechanisms in place to realise their parent is referring to their behaviour at that time. They believe 100% their parent means they’re, e.g., bad across the board leading to poor self-esteem - and bad behaviour!
Alternative To Try: Tell your child that this particular behaviour is annoying, unacceptable, etc., without reflecting it on them as a whole person. Explain that that this behaviour will not be tolerated without making them feel they're bad through and through.
3/ What’s Said: "I wish I'd never had you!"
The Damage Done: As with my client, a child who hears this never forgets it. It’s terribly cruel and leaves a child thinking their whole existence is a problem for their parents.
Alternative To Try: When at your wit’s end it's better to say, "Mummy’s very stressed and has to go sit quietly for a moment." By saying that you're stressed it reflects on you rather then your child. Calm down and then tackle the misbehaviour in a rational way. This provides a good role model showing parents can get upset but take control, calm down and then sort it out.
4/ What’s Said: "I told you so!" Very tempting to say when you could’ve predicted something your child was doing would go wrong.
The Damage Done: Children need to learn from their mistakes rather than to be embarrassed by them - saying this adds humiliation. It makes a child wary of learning how to do things for themselves, thinking they'll always do it wrong.
Alternative To Try: Say something like, "I wonder what you could’ve done differently?" Or, "Did you learn something from this?" This develops trust with your child that you’re not always going to ridicule them.
5/ What’s Said: "Big boys don't cry!"
The Damage Done: Having your son always bury his hurt feelings means he doesn't learn to discuss them, leading to anxiety over difficult emotions. You might establish long-term communication problems.
Alternative To Try: When your son’s hurt or worried give him a hug, ask what's up, and tell him you understand. With this approach tears dry up quickly.
6/ What’s Said: "Hurry up or I'm going to leave you behind!"
The Damage Done: You know you're not going to abandon your child, but they don't. Fear of abandonment is a big issue for children. They think in literal terms rather than thinking you're simply threatening them. Particularly if you’re divorced this issue may already be lurking in your child's mind.
Alternative To Try: When your child’s being slow, stop what you’re doing, focus on what's holding them up, and learn for next time how to instigate a more efficient routine. For example, maybe your child needs 10 extra minutes to get dressed before school - set the alarm 10 minutes earlier.
7/ What’s Said: "Do you know what happens to children that X, Y or Z…" followed by some horrible, imaginary punishment like a monster swallowing them up.
The Damage Done: Particularly with young children they don't realise that the "bad witch that eats naughty children" doesn't exist. You can set off nightmares and childhood fears with such threats.
Alternative To Try: If your child won't eat their dinner, tidy up, etc., make it into a game. Tell them you'll time them doing the activity and excitedly say, "let's see if you can beat my time!" Children love harmless competition. If they’re still not doing as asked, you can, e.g., switch off the TV telling them that once things are done they can have it on.
Do tell them you love them, praise them, and ask what they're thinking!
Published in The Express Newspaper