10 Of The Worst Things You Can Say To Your Child

Mother Shouting At Young Children
Mother Shouting At Young Children

1. "Why can't you be more like your brother or sister?"

It's often tempting to try and use one sibling as a role model for another, but Dr Amanda Gummer, psychologist and founder of Fundamentally Children, says this is one of the biggest mistakes parents can make. "It makes them feel unappreciated and less worthy than their sibling, causing long term problems with self-esteem and motivation," she says.

"It causes friction between the children and can be detrimental for the child who is being portrayed as the 'good' one too as they can develop behaviours that are designed to maintain the status quo and make themselves look good and the 'naughty' child trapped in that role."

"This can have a huge impact on the future success, happiness and well-being of that 'naughty' child as after a while they take the 'may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb' approach and become increasingly badly behaved."

2. "Because I say so"

Most parents swear they'll never use this cliché when they have children. But then comes a time when they just don't have the energy or time for full explanations.

Not only is "Because I say so" the most unsatisfactory explanation ever, but it removes any potential for the child to learn about why they shouldn't do the thing you've told them not to. It also removes any sense of responsibility on their part. Finally, there's risk of a power struggle ensuing because the silent message is, "I tell; you obey."

Take the scenario of your child asking why they can't swing from the bannisters. If you take the time to explain the danger element, there's a lesson in actions having consequences. Plus, it gives them an opportunity to get down themselves because they realise what might happen, thereby giving them back some control and autonomy. Finally, it could, just possibly, avoid an argument.

Explanations can also help kids understand that their feelings matter and that you are hearing what they say. For example, "I know you really want to visit George this afternoon, but I have some errands to do in town and I need your help. How about we see him tomorrow?"

3. "Are you sure you need that second cake?"

Whilst it's a good thing to keep your child healthy, comments that can foster a negative body image should be kept well clear of under all circumstances, according to the UK's eating disorder charity, Beat.

If you are genuinely concerned about what your child is eating, start stocking your kitchen with healthier foods and introduce more physical activity into your family life. That way, when there are cakes, for example at a party, it doesn't matter if they indulge.

Lead by example too. If you're telling your kids not to eat too much when you're the one who is always chomping on crisps or biscuits, your messages will probably fall on deaf ears.

The main thing is to avoid turning food into a power issue and to keep food-related comments positive.

4. "You always..."/ "You never..."

"Why do you always spill your water at night?" "You never come down to breakfast when I ask you to!" Few parents will be immune from prefixing complaints about behaviour with "you always" and "you never." But says Jenn Berman, psychotherapist and author of The A to Z to Raising Happy, Confident Kids. "At the heart of these statements are labels that can stick for life."

Children become what we label them as, he explains, so telling your kid that she's the one that never tidies her room means she's more likely to become the child who, guess what, never tidies her room.

Next time you're about to say it, take a step back and think about how you can help your child change. "I notice you have trouble storing your pens and making your bed. Is there anything we can do to help make that easier?"

5. "If you don't do what I say, I'll leave you here!"

This plays into kids' worst fear - abandonment. Indeed, a young child's worst fear is that he or she will be lost or left alone and unsafe. Threatening them by playing into that fear in an effort to manipulate him into doing what you want is bordering on cruel.

Instead, give your child a choice. Instead of scaring them, say, something along the lines of, "If you leave the park now, we might be able to come here again tomorrow. If you don't, then Mummy will say that you can't come here tomorrow. You decide." Or try to make it fun. "First one to the car gets a star!"

6. "Leave me alone!"

All parents crave a break from time to time. The problem is that when you frequently tell your children to stay away from you, they internalise the message, warn psychologists.

They start to think there's no point in approaching you because there's a good chance you'll brush them off, particularly if you show signs of the mood that normally pre-empts you saying it. If that starts when they are small, they may be less likely to bother trying to talk to you when they're older.

Of course, children need to learn that you sometimes need time to yourself. But there are more productive ways of teaching them this, such as telling them you are going to have time with your friends when your partner is around or booking a babysitter to go out sometimes. When they are home, and you desperately need space, why not them off with some arts and crafts or even a little bit of TV.

At times when you can't plan the need to be left alone, take the time to look them in the eye and tell them how long you think you'll be and that you'll do something specific when you're finished – going outside to play with them, for example, or sitting down and having a cuddle.

7. "Don't cry!"

The stiff British upper lip has always been something that has been held in high regard ("nobody likes a cry baby"), but shouldn't we be encouraging our children to be more expressive with their emotions?

Dr Amanda Gummer, psychologist and founder of Fundamentally Children, believes that "emotional intelligence is one of the most important skills in longer term measures of health and wellbeing". She explains that "suppressing emotions habitually leads to increased cortisol levels which is like your body being in long term stress mode. Giving children the freedom to express their emotions is the first step in helping them learn to manage them. Physical expressions of emotion are all very young children have until they learn the vocabulary to say how they are feeling."

Rather than telling a child not to cry, acknowledge and validate the emotions by telling your child that she or he is upset because she fell over (only add in the reason if it's obvious and don't try to second guess it), and that it's OK to feel sad, she says. "By giving your child the freedom to really feel, you're helping him/her develop emotional literacy that will serve as a buffer against a raft of mental health issues in later life."

8. "Just you wait until Daddy hears about this"

This is a classic from the 50s and 60s, when mums were often seen as the softer parent, while dads were the ones who held the real authority. But it's a cop-out. You're just passing the buck to someone else, as well as making them the bad guy.

It's also ineffective because the chances are your child will have forgotten all about what they've done by the time Daddy does get home. If you really want them to learn a lesson about what they've done, you need to deal with it in the here and now.

Also think about the messages this gives. Kids will just start to think, "Why should I bother listening to Mummy if she's not going to do anything anyway?"

Finally, the statement can foster long-term anxiety problems among children as the anguish of anticipating a punishment becomes the focal point for the child.

9. "That's not how you do it – here, let me"

"No, no, let mummy show you." "Hey, I can finish that off." These are common parenting phrases, but actually they just breed helplessness in your child. In turn, this can make them feel disempowered and incapable, which can affect self-esteem and confidence.

You've asked your child to do something – make their bed, put on their trousers or wash the car – yet as soon as they don't do it the way you think they should, you jump in and take over. For one thing, they'll never learn how to if you do that and for another, it takes away any sense of accomplishment or ability.

Clearly, your child will need help with certain things and of course there will be times when you're in a hurry, but you can still use more positive phrases. "You just used the sponge really well. Shall I show you a great way of using the water spray?" Or, you can step in, but in a collaborative rather than dismissive way. "Here, let me show you a great trick my mum taught me about making the bed!"

10. "You should be ashamed of yourself"

What you're doing here is trying to create guilt in your child. The idea is that if the child can be shamed into feeling guilty, they'll change their behaviour.

But at what cost? After all, there's a good chance that the shame and guilt will be accompanied by beliefs of "I'm not enough," and "I can never do anything right."

In any case, the child may not feel ashamed of themselves. Learning is a process of trial and error. Did your child really understand that the heavy milk carton would be difficult to pour? Even if he made the same mistake yesterday, your comment isn't remotely constructive.

What phrases do you regret using?