19 EXPERTS SHARE THE #1 THING PARENTS SHOULD NEVER SAY TO KIDS — AND WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD
Insights from psychologists, addiction specialists, social workers and more.
By Carter Gaddis
Too often, a mom or dad’s greatest regret as a parent is tied to something careless or cruel they said to their kids out of anger or frustration.
Sometimes we get tired and let slip some snide remark or a thoughtless comment. Sometimes, we just say stupid things without taking a second to consider the effect they’ll have at the moment — or the emotional damage the words might inflict in the long run.
We know that Parenting is hard. How do we find the will and the patience to always say the right thing? The good news is, with a bit of advance thought — and an ongoing commitment to calm, kind communication — parents have the power to pre-emptively avoid foot-in-mouth syndrome.
To help equip moms and dads with the right words for the right circumstance, we asked our YourTango Experts, “What one thing should you never say to your kids? And what should you say instead?”
Your mileage may vary, but this list is a good place to start if you’d rather not say something you regret.
What not to say to your kids — and what to say instead
1. Reinforce your words with action
Never say: “Do as I say, not as I do.” Better to say: “Sometimes we just have to take a deep breath — and just do it.”
– Pegi Burdick, coach and owner of The Financial Whisperer
2. Steer clear of unnecessary comparisons
Avoid comparing a child to another child, positively or negatively. Instead, laud one specific characteristic or behavior that is positive.
– Ruth Schimel, PhD, career and life management consultant, author
3. Take a positive approach
Our deepest desire is to feel seen, heard, and understood. Children are no exception.
They are working hard to figure out how they fit in the world and connect with others. At times they will do things exceptionally well, while at others, they will fail miserably.
It’s how they learn.
One thing you should not do is negate their experience.
No matter what they think, say, feel or want, use the Yes Principle.
It’s a principle I teach families and couples where you say “yes” to whatever shows up. Then acknowledge it, share what is proper, and offer a solution in question form.
For example, say: “Yes, you want to hit your brother, but we don’t do that.” And follow up with the question: “What do you need to do to calm down?”
Offering solutions and giving choices will go a long way to helping your child deal with their feelings when they don’t get their way. It then empowers them to find their own solution.
– Britta Neinast, LCSW and relationship expert at Healing With Britta
4. Support and explore their emotions
Never say, “Don’t be mad (or hurt, sad, nervous, etc.).” Instead say, “It’s OK to be angry. Let’s talk about it.”
– Jonice Webb, PhD, clinical psychologist and author
5. Use uplifting, encouraging language
When it comes to raising kids, there are a lot of things that parents should never say. For example, phrases like “I’m so disappointed in you” or “You’re such a burden” can do tremendous damage to a child’s self-esteem.
Instead, try to use phrases that will encourage your child and help them to feel good about themselves. For instance, you might say something like “I know you’re trying your best” or “I’m proud of you for (fill in the blank).”
Of course, every child is different, so it’s important to tailor your words to fit your individual child’s needs. But by using positive language, you can help your child to feel valued and loved — which is one of the most important things that any parent can do.
– Claire Waismann, registered addiction specialist and substance use certified counselor
6. Emphasize the power of choice, rather than a shortage of resources
Never tell your kids “We can’t afford that.” When you say this, you are building a sense of poverty and lack into the mental program that they will carry with them throughout life.
Say instead, “We are going to use our money for something else right now.” That speaks of choice on how to direct your money flow, rather than emphasizing a shortage of money or resources.
– Jean Walters, life coach and author
7. Create space for their point of view
When something’s happened, never ask “Why?” which usually sounds like an accusation and only invites a defensive story from your kids.
Instead, ask “What happened?” which invites your kids to tell you their side of an event or occurrence.
The response to “Why didn’t you do your homework?” might be “It’s not my fault. My teacher is mean and hates me.” The response to “What happened with your homework?” might be “The words were too hard and I didn’t understand them.”
This second response gives a parent something tangible to work with, which is something “Why?” rarely does.
– Sharon Saline, Psy.D., clinical psychologist
8. Be mindful of unjust or harsh judgment
The hardest slam to any person’s self-esteem is hearing, “What’s wrong with you?” — even if said in jest. Your defenses go up, the frantic search for personal flaws begins, and internal judgment wheels start turning.
Saying this to a child, who is just figuring out who they are and how this world works, is devastating. And it can have a life-long impact.
If your child has missed the mark, behaved poorly, or even done something shocking, first deal with your judgments about the situation and the child.
When you are calmer, get sincerely curious as to why, indeed, would they do that, not do that or say that. Then ask the genuine question, “What happened before that?” Or “What happened to you?” Or “What were your thinking steps before that happened?” (Asked in age-appropriate language, of course.)
– Leezá Carlone Steindorf, author, “Connected Parent, Empowered Child — Five Keys to Raising Happy, Confident, Responsible Kids”
9. Encourage them to thrive in the future
Never tell your child: “You aren’t going to amount to anything when you grow up.”
Instead, say: “I am concerned that your behavior/attitude is taking you down a path that won’t allow you to live up to your full potential. I believe that you can do anything you put your mind to, and I hope you realize the same thing — so you can begin to make wise choices.”
– Vena Wilson, licensed clinical social worker and psychologist
10. Show empathy and compassion
If your child is struggling and you want to engage them, try saying, “It looks like you’re having a hard time with this. What’s up? How can I help?”
Remember that your child is not trying to give you a hard time — they are having a hard time, and need your love and support, not your criticism and judgment.
No one ever became calmer, more focused, more on task, and more productively organized by being criticized and judged. Only love and kindness, empathy and compassion can help them make that shift.
– Judith Pinto, focus coach for entrepreneurial moms
11. Avoid blaming and shaming
Using the words, “This is your fault” is something I would never want to say to a child.
We live in a society filled with blame, judgment and shame. Children learn best when they are assured that everyone makes mistakes and that we are here on earth to learn how to be better and to do better and that we are all learning along the way.
I would want to take the opportunity to understand the child and his or her behavior. Any challenge is worth the chance to grow and expand our awareness of anyone’s actions and the consequences of these actions.
– Janet Whitney, licensed marriage and family therapist, author
12. Help them develop self-esteem
Instead of saying, “Good job! You’re so smart!” say things like “You must be so proud. You worked so hard.”
The ideal outcome is that they seek their own approval and draw pride and satisfaction from that.
– Erika Jordan, love and relationship coach
13. Provide a constant source of love and support
Never say to your kids, “I hate you.”
Instead, say “I love you. I may be upset at the moment at what you did, but it doesn’t change my love for you.”
– Dr. Barbara Holstein, positive psychologist, author, filmmaker and creator of The Enchanted Self
14. Let them know you value their opinion
When disciplining a child, never say, “What you say does not matter. It isn’t important.”
Instead, say, “I understand you are upset with this consequence, but I will always think what you say is important. You matter to me, and I love you.”
– Heather Allen, social worker
15. Use words that distinguish the child from a problem
“What’s wrong with you?” This loaded question tells a child that there is something not good enough about them or that they are “different or weird.”
It enforces brokenness and is a foundational crack to the emotional and psychological being.
Almost every human has a belief that they are not worthy of love in some fashion and that they are “too much or not enough.” These beliefs are strongly supported and even created potentially through this seemingly innocent parenting statement that we are most likely all guilty of at times.
Instead of asking this debilitating question try saying, “What’s troubling you?” or “What’s challenging you?”
These word choices separate the child from the problem instead of making the child the problem.
– Rene Schooler, relationship coach
16. Let them know your love is unconditional
In my experience, something that parents (and society as a whole) tend to do a lot, usually with the best of intentions, is implying that self-worth and/or our love and support are conditional. We’re quick to reward the best results and downplay the losses, often focusing on appearance over substance.
In doing so, we are saying that we’re prouder of the win. We’re happier with the prettiest. Anything else is met with criticism, excuses and denial.
That isn’t to say winning shouldn’t be the goal — winning is awesome — but there is immeasurable value in a loss, and there will be lots of them.
There isn’t anything wrong with an “I’m proud of you” during the best of times, but a similar sentiment when things don’t work out can go a long way, for all of us. Add hugs whenever possible.
– Whit Honea, author of the Parents’ Phrase Book
17. Mind your own menu
It’s seldom that anyone reacts well to being told what they should or shouldn’t eat.
“You shouldn’t eat that,” and its variations such as, “Do you really need that?” are relationship-damaging comments.
Even advice such as “If I were you I wouldn’t eat that” is entering dangerous territory. Probably any phrase starting with “You shouldn’t …” is damaging, but eating is particularly sensitive and personal.
The best practice is to focus on your own eating and otherwise keep your mouth shut.
If you feel it’s absolutely necessary, stick to suggestions like “Why don’t we eat dinner then have a treat?” or “We could also have that tomorrow.”
Or, try to use statements of your preferences like, “I do better with less meat and more vegetables.” So long as you mind your tone, these phrases open the door for further consideration and don’t come across as directly telling someone what to do.
– Lisa Newman, positive psychology and mind-body eating coach
18. Encourage them to try their best
“I wish you were more like …” — this is the worst sentence you can utter to your little ones. These words can destroy their self-esteem, psychological safety and individualism.
Instead, set up your child for success and emotional stability by saying things like, “It’s okay to fail at things. What matters more is that we try our best.” Or “I have absolute faith in your capabilities. Give this thing your best shot.”
– Sidhharrth S. Kumaar, Astro numerologist and relationship coach
19. Leave open the channels of communication
“You don’t really think that, do you?”
This phrase can be invalidating and make a child question their own judgment. It implies there is an error in the child’s thinking or something wrong with the child’s thinking. And that can lead to the child feeling shut down or defensive.
And that’s a lost opportunity if there really are concerns about what the child is thinking. Simply saying “I’m really interested in your thoughts about this. Tell me more” encourages open dialogue and can start the conversation without judgment or implied criticism.
– Curren Trusty, licensed graduate professional counselor