As much as you love them, kids can get on your nerves sometimes. They can be moody, and they can come home with terrible report cards. But no matter what their age is, there is a right way to talk to them about these things and there is a wrong way. According to Dr. Meg Meeker, pediatrician, mother, and best-selling author of six parenting books, the language that you use to communicate with a child is of the utmost importance. Parents often choose the wrong words and don’t even realize how much damage they’re doing. “There are a lot of things I hear parents say to their kids that they mean well, but they really shouldn’t say them,” Dr. Meeker told me. “I always try to approach things from the perspective of the child. What does the child see, what does the child hear, what does the child take away?”
So what are the phrases parents should avoid at all costs, and why do they hurt? Read on for more of Dr. Meeker’s insight and advice.
Taking teasing too far
Maybe you’re one of those people who has a sarcastic sense of humor. Most of us tease people in a friendly way to have a laugh or two. But your kids aren’t your peers. Teasing them too much can have the opposite effect of what you intended. “One of the first things I’m pretty keen on telling parents is never to name call,” Dr. Meeker says. “Even if the parents think they’re kidding, from a child’s perspective it’s not kidding. Parents will think they’re trying to be humorous, but kids will see the bite in there.” Whenever you talk to your kids, it’s important to remember that they are always vulnerable to you. Making fun of them, even if it’s in jest, can look to your child like a legitimate criticism and make them upset or self-conscious.
“You’re driving me crazy!”
There probably isn’t one person on planet Earth who hasn’t uttered this phrase, but when parents say it to their kids it can be pretty devastating. Your child doesn’t want to feel like an annoyance or a bother to you. Even if they are disobeying you or irking you, you have to be careful about how you let them know. “One of the most common things for parents to say is, ‘I love you, but I really don’t like you right now,'” Dr. Meeker revealed. “That’s sort of their way to say ‘You’re driving me crazy.’ What the child hears is ‘You really don’t love me and you really don’t like me.'”
No matter how a child acts, at the end of the day they want to please their parents. It’s from their parents that they learn things like their sense of self worth. Feeling like their parents don’t care for them can cause longterm harm. A commonplace expression like “You’re driving me crazy!” ends up stinging more than you meant it to.
Commenting on their weight
One of the most prevalent issues in our society is that of body image. While we can blame the magazines and the TV advertisements for creating the so-called “perfect body,” we also have to admit our own roles in this problem. If your child is overweight, you have to approach that topic with extreme sensitivity. The way you talk about your child’s body will stick with them. Dr. Meeker advises, “I would never say to a child ‘You’re fat.’ What a kid hears is ‘I’m ugly,’ particularly a girl.”
You may think your words are just words, but kids are extremely impressionable and take what their parents have to say to heart. Negatively commenting on your child’s weight can create a negative self-image for your child, who could even end up developing an eating disorder. The National Eating Disorder Association asserts, “By age six, girls especially start to express concerns about their own weight or shape. Forty to 60 percent of elementary school girls (ages six to 12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat.”
“I think if you want your child to lose weight there are other, better ways to go around it,” Dr. Meeker added. “When it comes to body image, rather than saying ‘Oh, you’re so chubby’ or ‘You’re getting kind of thick around the middle,’ focus on [their] character. Focus on strength. When you speak to a girl about weight you never want to encourage a girl to get skinny, become a waif, and go away. It’s important to be strong physically and to be strong mentally and to have a strong presence. Encourage her to exercise or encourage her to find something that will focus on her strength and [getting] healthier, rather than focus on her vanity.” Judging your child by their weight or making them feel badly for how they look isn’t just damaging to their self-esteem, but it’s also dangerous in terms of what values they learn. If you put pressure on them about their image, they learn that the way a person looks is more important than characteristics like intelligence or kindness. Once a parent sows those seeds of negativity and doubt, that’s when outside influences like judgmental peers and skinny models start to hurt your child.
Making them feel weak
It’s not just girls who suffer from self-image or self-esteem issues brought on by their parents. Boys are affected by negative comments relating to their bodies as well. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from clinical eating disorders in the U.S. Dr. Meeker said, “I know sometimes parents will say to a boy, ‘You’re too skinny.’ What a seventh grade boy hears is, ‘You’re weak. You’re not strong enough.'”
Each culture has its own idea of what it is to be a man. Usually it involves being big, strong, tough and unemotional. Telling your son that he’s too skinny, too small or too weak feeds into this kind of culture and makes him feel like he’s failing in his masculinity. It can instill warped ideas of what it means to be a man, making it seem like the measure of one is his physique and authoritativeness, not his intellect or his feelings.
“Why don’t you just quit?”
Parents should always be a solid support system for their kids. However, when some parents find that their child is having too much difficulty with something or has what they believe to be unrealistic expectations, they think deterring their kid from possible failure is the best option. In reality, telling your child to just give up is one of the worst things to say to them. “I would never say to a child ‘Well, why don’t you just quit?'” Dr. Meeker said. “Parents really need to be encouraging kids to persist and to persevere.” Even if you’re not sure your child has the potential or the skills to achieve lofty goals, it’s important to keep them working hard and trying their best. If they do fail, they can learn a valuable lesson from that failure. (After all, failure is something we all have to deal with at some point.) If they succeed, you’ll get to be by their side to watch their dreams unfold. Don’t sabatoge your child’s future.
“Don’t hurt his feelings”
No one should be unnecessarily mean, but there are instances in life where you can’t be honest without someone’s feelings getting hurt in the process. According to Dr. Meeker, trying to make your child obliging to everyone isn’t good for their well-being. This problem especially comes into play when your teen starts dating. “Many times nice, sensitive girls don’t want to hurt a boy’s feelings,” Dr. Meeker said. “‘Don’t do that, you’re going to hurt his feelings’ — a parent shouldn’t say that to a daughter. What they want to communicate to the daughter is it’s really OK to hurt somebody’s feelings if you need to be assertive. I think we cause girls to be too timid in their dating relationships.”
A girl has to know that they can’t satisfy everyone. They have to look out for themselves, and if they don’t feel comfortable in a situation they need to be confident about vocalizing it. Breaking up with someone might be hard and painful, for example, but it’s best for both people in the long run. “Encourage girls to tell the truth, to be honest,” Dr. Meeker added. Teaching the value of honesty and showing your daughter that her feelings matter is much more important than protecting someone else’s ego.
“You’ll never amount to anything”
It’s hard to imagine a loving parent saying something like this, but some parents do get frustrated to the point where they let a phrase like this slip. “When parents make an offhanded comment like ‘You’ll never amount to anything,’ that can be a devastating thing,” Dr. Meeker imparted. “Parents will say it in passing: ‘If you don’t pull your grades up, if you don’t check that attitude, you’ll never amount to anything.’ When you say negative comments like that to a child during a very vulnerable time in their life, they stick.”
If a child is struggling with their grades or with their behavior, pressuring them with threats of worthlessness is the least helpful move. It will only make the child less willing to change or improve and perhaps even more willing to defy their parent. They’ll internalize those offhanded comments and start to be extremely hard on themselves. You’ll be thwarting any attempt at progress, which is the opposite of what you want.
“You shouldn’t feel that way”
“One of the things I think we tell girls and boys, too, is ‘You shouldn’t feel that way,'” Dr. Meeker said. This phrase is one that is common even amongst adults. While a person may think they’re being helpful by saying this, really what they’re doing is brushing off the other person’s feelings. “We teach them to invalidate their feelings,” Dr. Meeker continued. “What they learn to do is to second guess their feelings or their responses to things.” If a parent says this to their child, what they’re essentially conveying is that the child’s emotional response is wrong or that it should be suppressed. That idea stays with them into adulthood and can cause major problems in their relationships. Instead of dismissing your child’s feelings, Dr. Meeker recommends acknowledging them and helping them get through it. “Kids feel the way they feel,” she said.
What to say instead
Telling someone what not to do is only so helpful. What’s more helpful is teaching someone the right way to conduct themselves. This is what a parent should do with their kids, and it’s what Dr. Meeker wants to teach parents. Even if you do have a criticism of your child in mind, you have to find a good way to go about broaching the subject. “Always put a positive spin on it,” she said. “If a parent is disappointed with a child’s grades, say ‘How can I help you pull your grades up?’ or ‘I know you worked really hard. What was your biggest struggle during this class?'” By choosing positive reinforcement instead of negative reinforcement, you will not only help your child better themselves but you’ll also bestow self-confidence.
How you affect your kids
The way a parent communicates with their child is crucial to the child’s development. Children learn from their parents, and if what a parent is showing them is negative, they will respond in kind. “I think parents don’t realize how they’re coming across to their kids,” Dr. Meeker said. “And then of course the kids start to imitate. If a parent yells, the child becomes a yeller. If the parent is constantly critical of the child, the child becomes constantly critical of himself and then constantly critical of other people.” While to some this may seem like an exaggeration, parents need to remember that they are the ones who mold and guide their children. Those children eventually grow up and become adults. So the things a parent says during their kid’s childhood really can leave a lasting impact.
“What parents need to understand is kids are always looking to their parents,” Dr. Meeker concluded. “Kids don’t really know who they are and what their identity is and what they should believe or even what to feel. So they’re constantly looking for cues as to what the parent believes about the child. According to the cues the child gets from the parent, he internalizes that and sort of becomes that person. It’s through a parent’s speech and body language and communication that a child shapes his identity and his belief about himself.”
Every parent should want their child to grow up happy and healthy, mentally and physically. Whether or not that happens is up to the parent themselves.