STOP! Before you regret saying something mean, read up. Here are some things you should never say to your child.
Kelli was multitasking as usual, cooking in the kitchen while trying to review some paperwork. She’d been interrupted numerous times by her two kids with requests for snacks, she’d absorbed multiple and refereed arguments, and wondered if her knee pain was worse than the throbbing of her head.
Nevertheless, she still feels badly about her behavior early that evening. She’d erupted like only a mom volcano can: “Enough! Get out of here! I can’t stand you anymore! Leave me alone!”
The look on her 4-year-old daughter’s face said it all: the eyes were wide and she immediately jabbed her thumb between her lips. Her other child began to whimper.
She wished she could take back her bubbling spew, but of course she couldn’t. The words hadn’t come from her heart, only from some dark, stressful place that had pushed her limits.
The truth is, we all say the wrong thing sometimes — some of us more than others — and we leave our kids hurt, angry and confused. They may bounce back a little while later, but they won’t forget so quickly.
Try hard to guard from saying some of the more hurtful things that can bubble up at the worst possible moments:
“Leave me alone!”
We ALL need an occasional break from the kids from time to time. Trouble is, if you tell your child, “Don’t bother me” or “I’m busy” regularly, he’ll internalize that message and begin to think there’s no point in talking to you because you’re always brushing him off. If you do it a lot when your kids are little, they may be less likely to tell you things as they grow up.
Instead, set aside “me” time for yourself by trading off child care with your partner or a friend or even parking your child in front of a video so you can have half an hour to relax and regroup.
Also, learn how to recognize your breaking point and be prepared to make a statement in the event it could happen, says psychologist Madeline Levine in her latest book, Teach Your Children Well. Calmly say to your kids, “I have to finish something, so I need you to do something on your own for a while. When I’m done, we’ll go outside together.” Just be sure you follow through!
“You’re so …”
Avoid shortchanging your child by labeling him, saying for instance, “Why are you bullying Thomas?” or “How can you be so lazy?” or sometimes your child may overhear you telling someone, “She’s my shy one.”
Little kids believe what they hear without question, especially when it’s about themselves, so anything negative you say to them about themselves can affect who they become.
Joey gets the message that bullying is in his nature. “Lazy” Molly begins to think of herself that way. Even labels that seem true or safe like “smart” pigeonhole a child and put difficult expectations on her.
Think back: you can remember your parents saying something to you that cut like a knife. “You’re so hopeless” can be your child’s memory if you’re not careful.
Better to respond to your kids’ specific behaviors and omit the adjectives altogether, says Laura Markham, Ph.D., in her book, Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids. For example, “Thomas’s feelings were hurt when you told the kids not to play with him. How can we make him feel better?”
“Don’t be a cry baby”
Kids get upset enough to cry — especially toddlers who struggle with expressing how they feel. While it may feel natural to warn your child about his feelings, saying, “Don’t be” doesn’t help. It’s OK to be sad or scared.
Help him understand his feelings so he can learn how to deal with them: “It must make you really sad when Joshua says he doesn’t want to be friends anymore.” By naming the real feelings that your child has, you empower him to understand and express himself, says Levine, and he’ll begin expressing himself better and crying less in due time.
“Why can’t you be more like …?”
This kind of comparison will almost always backfire. You may think it helps to hold others up to your child, but he sure doesn’t. Saying, “Look how helpful Mary Kate is!” in front of your unhelpful child won’t work. Your child is herself, she’s not Mary Kate. So while it’s natural to compare your kids, don’t let your kids hear you. Being pressured by comparisons can confuse your child and even cause her to resent you while undermining her self-confidence.
Encourage the unique qualities your child has and the things she achieves for herself instead.
“You can’t do anything!”
Quick snarky remarks hurt a child’s feelings quickly just like they do adults. Learning is always a process of trial and error and everyone has a different learning curve. Did your child really mean to spill milk when he tried to pour it from that heavy gallon jug? Or was he trying hoping that he’d succeed? See?
And even if he’s made the same mistake before, your pointing it up to him doesn’t help. Stay away from saying things like, “It’s about time!” and “I can’t believe you!”
Without feeling “I can do it,” a child is gravely handicapped from succeeding in every arena, says Michele Borba, Ph.D., author of Parents Do Make a Difference.
What he hears is that he’s hopeless and incapable of doing things right. Is that what you want him to hear?
“You do that one more time and I’ll …”
You just may start sputtering idle threats when you’ve reached the end of your rope. The trouble is, if you don’t follow through on what you’re threatening, your words will mean nothing and eventually your child will see you as a doormat.
Remember as you parent your young kids that the younger a child is, the longer it takes to learn. With older kids, idle threats are 100 percent useless.
It’s much more effective to develop some parent tricks you can employ such as redirecting behavior, time out or consequences rather than to tell your child what awful thing will happen if he doesn’t stop what he’s doing and then not doing anything at all, says psychologist John Mayer, author of Family Fit.
Forget this one. Everywhere we turn we’re being told to hurry up. Tell your child to hurry up and he’ll slow down on purpose, never fails.
If you’re starting to impatiently screech about how busy you are to your kids and that they need to get a move on to help you out, caution.
It can be very hectic in households when everyone’s preparing to go their separate ways — don’t let the last image they have of you from the morning be your angry face, says family therapist Paul Coleman, author of How to Say It to Your Kids.