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Things Parents Shouldn’t Say to Their Child

Reading time: 17 minutes
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| Updated on
February 8, 2024
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The worst thing a parent can say to a child

What you’ll learn

Children's earliest experiences shape their developing brains and establish patterns that can last a lifetime. Parents play a significant role in their child's development, and their actions and behaviors can have a profound impact on a child's future outcomes.

Children’s earliest experiences shape their developing brains and establish patterns that can last a lifetime. Parents play a significant role in their child’s development, and their actions and behaviors can have a profound impact on a child’s future outcomes.

Perhaps one of the worst things you should never say to your children is that they are not loved or wanted. This can create ingrained feelings of rejection and abandonment and may lead to long-term emotional issues such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. 

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Read on to discover how lasting the effects of misplaced words are, the main reasons why parents snap, and all the things parents should never say to their child.

How do words affect child development?

Parents’ words shape a child’s self-image. It can make a child feel like a superhero or a supervillain. Criticism, ridicule, or verbal abuse can activate the flight or fight response in the brain and trigger the release of cortisol, a stress hormone. Chronic exposure to stress and cortisol can impair brain and emotional development and lead to negative outcomes such as anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems.

Language development plays a crucial role in shaping a child’s personality, beliefs, and values. For example, studies have shown that reading books with positive and uplifting messages can have a positive impact on a child’s self-esteem and emotional well-being. Books such as “The Little Engine That Could” or “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” can instill a sense of optimism, resilience, and self-efficacy in children.

On the other hand, exposure to negative and critical language can have detrimental effects on a child’s self-esteem, emotional regulation, and cognitive development. 

Additionally, the choice of words and attitudes that parents and caregivers have towards others, can shape a child’s values and beliefs. For example, being constantly exposed to negative comments about certain groups of people can lead to the development of prejudice and discriminatory beliefs.

Parents have a powerful influence on their child’s development and well-being, and there are things you should not say to your child to ensure optimal development.

👉 If you want to gain profound insights into the powerful impact you have on your child’s growth, behavior, and overall well-being, read our article on ”The science behind how parents influence children’s development”. You’ll find that your attitude and the way you educate your kids are shaping their physical, emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and social development.

Why Do Parents Sometimes Say Hurtful Things to Their Children?

There are several reasons why parents may sometimes say hurtful things to their children. One common factor is stress and frustration, thus they may be more likely to lash out at their children.

Another factor is childhood experiences. Growing up in environments where hurtful comments were commonplace, parents may not realize the impact of their words on their children.

Unresolved conflicts can also play a role in making you resort to things you should never say to your child. Grappling with unresolved conflicts in your own life spills over into your interactions with your children, leading you to say hurtful things you don’t necessarily mean.

13 Things You Should Never Say to Your Child

1. Negative self-image

  • “You always mess things up.”
  • “I can’t believe you did that again.”
  • “You never listen to me.”
  • “You’re so lazy.”
  • “Why do I even bother trying to help you?”
  • “You’re the reason we can’t have nice things.”
  • “You’re just like your (negative trait) father/mother.”
  • “What’s wrong with you?”
  • “I can’t believe you’re my child.”

What is the most psychologically damaging thing you can say to a child? Unintentionally, any of the above statements can make a child feel guilty, ashamed, and responsible for things that are not his fault. It can also make him doubt his abilities and feel inadequate or unworthy of love and acceptance. 

Repeated use of blaming language can lead to a negative self-concept and emotional distress. In time, the child internalizes the idea that he is to blame for everything that goes wrong. 

Instead, you can acknowledge the child’s feelings and perspective. For example, say “I understand you’re feeling frustrated right now” instead of “Stop crying, it’s not a big deal.” or take responsibility for your actions and feelings. For example, say “I’m sorry I yelled at you earlier” instead of “You made me yell at you.”

2. Dismissive or invalidating 

  • “Just forget about it, it’s not a big deal”
  • “You are fine!”
  • “Stop being so dramatic”
  • “I don’t want to hear it”
  • “You should be grateful for what you have”
  • “Don’t cry, it’s just a toy!”

Some of the worst things parents can say to their children send off signals of rejection. When children’s emotions are not acknowledged or taken seriously, it can make them feel uncomfortable and insignificant. This can cause them to struggle with expressing their emotions healthily and can lead to mental health problems like anxiety and depression. 

Parents may unintentionally dismiss their child’s feelings. This happens because they don’t understand the importance of emotional validation, or because they are overwhelmed or stressed.

Parents are the main source of validation for children. When children are sad they might simply need to hear “I see that you’re feeling sad. It’s okay to feel that way.” When their children are angry, parents can help them regulate their emotions by empathizing.

Using  “I can see that you’re feeling frustrated. Let’s talk about what’s bothering you.”, the parent might help reduce the intensity of the struggle, when the child feels overwhelming emotions.

3. Unhealthy Comparisons

  • “Why can’t you be more like your sister? She always gets straight A’s.”
  • “Why can’t you be more like Johnny? He’s so well-behaved and never causes trouble.”
  • “You’re not as pretty as the other girls in your class.”
  • “Your friend is a much better artist than you are.”

Some of these comparisons might be well intended. Parents want their children to succeed. However, these are some of the things you should never say to your child. 

When parents compare their children to others, it can make them feel like they’re not good enough. They constantly feel judged and criticized. This can cause them to doubt their abilities and constantly try to prove themselves. 

If a child is constantly compared to their sibling or peers, they may develop feelings of resentment towards those children or their parents for perpetuating the comparisons. They may also struggle with developing a healthy self-concept and may find it difficult to form positive relationships with others, as they may feel like they are not worthy of love and acceptance. 

A healthy approach to this might be to avoid labeling children with negative or limiting stereotypes. Instead of telling a child, you are “the quiet one” or “the troublemaker,” focus on encouraging what he does well and inspire him to keep that trait.

4. Criticism

  • “Why do you always mess things up?”
  • “You’re not living up to your potential.”
  • “You’re not very smart. You’ll never be successful.”
  • “You’re so clumsy. You always make a mess.”

Studies on parents’ harsh words show that some common things all moms say might actually be hurting their teens more than helping them. Harsh criticism makes it to the list of things to never say to your daughter.

Excessive or harsh criticism can be harmful to a child’s psychological development. It can create feelings of inadequacy. This could contribute to feelings of low self-esteem or anxiety. For instance, negative remarks related to physical features that kids can’t change (“You’re too short.” or “You have so many freckles.”) are just some of the things parents should never say to their teenager.

Constructive criticism focuses on offering feedback that is specific, actionable, and delivered in a supportive and respectful manner. It emphasizes the child’s strengths and encourages positive behavior, rather than focusing solely on their mistakes or shortcomings.

Avoid things you should never say to your child by resorting to this type of constructive criticism “I think it’s great that you have a passion for art, but let’s also make sure you’re keeping up with your other responsibilities.” or  “I appreciate the effort you put into that project, but I think there’s still room for improvement in these areas.”

5. Labels 

  • “You’re a bad child”
  • “I wish you weren’t born to us” 
  • “You’re worthless” 
  • “You’re dumb and good for nothing” 
  • “You’re a burden to us” 
  • “Your brother is much smarter than you” 

These are only a few examples of messages parents should never transmit to their children, either verbally or nonverbally. The common outcome that follows the internalization of these words is scaring young brains and the development of a deep-seated belief that they are not worthy. 

You can replace things you should never say to your child with constructive talk and by being there for your little ones. Foster growth, rather than tearing down your child’s self-esteem. Encourage good behavior and promote a positive sense of self-worth in your child by communicating with respect and understanding.

6. Threats

things you should never say to your child - parent admonishing baby girl with a pointing finger
  • “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about.”
  • “If you don’t behave, I’ll leave you here by yourself.”
  • “If you don’t get good grades, you won’t be able to do anything with your life.”
  • “If you keep doing that, I’ll take away your favorite toy.”
  • “If you don’t eat all your food, you’ll go to bed hungry.”
  • “If you don’t stop talking back, I’ll give you a spanking.”

Reacting to a child’s behavior by using threats may only instill fear in the child.  They don’t get to understand why their behavior was inappropriate. 

The child may become compliant or obedient to please the parent, but internally they may feel afraid of losing the parent’s love and connection. This can create an unhealthy dynamic where the child’s actions are motivated by fear rather than understanding or respect.  

Instead of imposing punishment, let the natural consequences of the child’s actions play out. For example, if a child refuses to wear a coat on a cold day, let them experience the discomfort of being cold. 

In other situations, give the child a choice between two positive options, rather than threatening them with negative consequences. For example, ask if they want to clean their room before or after dinner. With this approach, parents can ​​foster a supportive and respectful parent-child relationship.

7. Guilt-tripping 

  • “If you don’t do this for me, I’ll never ask you for anything again” or “You never care about how I feel.”
  • Using emotional appeals to manipulate the child into doing something, such as saying “I’m so disappointed in you” or “You don’t love me anymore.”
  • Using past sacrifices or hardships to guilt the child into feeling obligated to comply with their demands, such as saying “I gave up so much for you” or “After everything I’ve done for you, this is how you treat me?”
  • “You’re breaking my heart” or, “I thought you loved me.”

These are some of the worst things toxic parents say. These types of behaviors can be emotionally manipulative and damaging to the child, leading to feelings of obligation, guilt, or shame. It’s important for parents to respect their child’s boundaries and emotional autonomy, and to communicate in a way that is respectful and supportive.

8. Personal attacks

  • “You are stupid”
  • “You are selfish”
  • “You are ugly”
  • “Only you could do like something like this”
  • “You are fat”

Parents’ negative comments about the child’s personality, appearance, interests, or abilities can leave the child believing he is flawed in some way. These comments might be perceived as personal attacks that can damage a child’s body image and self-image overall.  

They might start nurturing feelings of resentment, anger, or mistrust. The child may begin to feel that they cannot trust you and may become emotionally distant from you over time.

Providing constructive feedback is more effective in fostering optimal self-esteem than blaming and criticizing using things you should never say to your child. By offering specific suggestions for improvement and actionable steps, children can identify areas for growth and feel empowered to make positive changes.

9. Inappropriate disclosure

  • Relationship problems: Sharing details about marital problems or conflicts with a partner can be inappropriate for a child, as it can lead to confusion, anxiety, and a sense of responsibility for the parents’ relationship issues.
  • Financial problems: Discussing financial problems or stresses with a child can be inappropriate, as it can create a sense of instability and worry in the child.
  • Adult issues: Discussing adult issues such as substance abuse, mental health issues, or legal problems with a child can be inappropriate and may be too much for the child to handle emotionally.
  • Family members’ secrets: Sharing family secrets or sensitive information with a child can be inappropriate and may lead to confusion or distress.

Inappropriate disclosure can create an unnecessary emotional burden for a child or a sense of responsibility that is not age-appropriate. Parents should consider their child’s emotional readiness, maturity and use discretion when sharing personal information.

10. Shaming language

Things parents should never say
  • “What’s wrong with you?”
  • “You’re acting like a baby”
  • “I can’t believe you did that”
  • “Why do you always have to make mistakes?”
  • “I have told you to hurry up, now we are not going to the park because you took your time!”

Out of frustration, parents might say hurtful things. Sometimes, they are not even aware of the damage they do. 

Shaming language can make a child feel like they have no control or power in sharing opinions. This can lead to a sense of helplessness and a lack of trust that they will get their parent’s support and validation. 

To improve this, parents have to treat any situation with respect. They can take responsibility for the words they use and show children that communication is a two-way street.

11. Instilling Prejudice 

  • That religion/culture is weird/strange/bad
  • People from that country are lazy/dangerous/dishonest
  • You shouldn’t play with them because they are different from us
  • You can’t wear that because it’s not appropriate for your gender/age/race
  • People with disabilities are less capable or less valuable
  • That person is ugly/fat/stupid
  • You shouldn’t like that kind of music/movie/show because it’s for aggressive people
  • Gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender people are wrong/bad/sinful

When parents model bigotry, making unfavorable comments about other people or situations, they make their children engage in discriminatory behavior or social isolation. These comments might make the children look narrow-minded to others. This prevents them from being part of a more inclusive and tolerant society. 

To prevent prejudice in children, it’s essential for parents to not only talk the talk but also walk the walk, avoiding the pitfalls of “do as I say, not as I do” parenting. Modeling tolerance and respect, encouraging empathy and critical thinking, and actively exposing children to diversity are crucial steps in fostering a positive and accepting attitude towards people from different backgrounds.

12. Making toxic promises

  • “I’ll help you with your homework later” (but never actually make the time to do so)
  • “We’ll go on a family vacation this summer” (but never actually plan or book the trip)
  • “You can’t go to the concert with your friends, but I’ll take you. “I’ll let you have a sleepover with your friends this weekend” (but change your mind at the last minute)
  • “We’ll have a family game night tonight” (but never actually make it happen)
  • “We can’t afford classes, I’ll teach you how to play basketball” 
  • “I have to work long hours this week, but we’ll bake cookies together this weekend, what do you say?”

Do these sound familiar? Children can easily understand why these promises are conditional, and they might put in the extra work and patience. What they might not understand is why parents don’t keep their promises. These are things you should never say to your child.

Adults should be cautious when making promises to children. Rather than causing long-term harm, parents would better work more on themselves, to ensure they come across as genuine and grounded-in-reality adults in the eyes of their family.

13. Unadulterated praise 

  • “Good job!”
  • “Good boy/girl!”
  • “You are the best … in the whole world!”
  • “Clever boy/girl!”

They may seem encouraging at first sight,  but these are things you should never say to your child because they don’t tell the child what he did well. These forms of praise can lead to a fear of failure and a lack of effort in improving their attitude and skills. They create a power dynamic where the child is constantly seeking approval from others. 

Move your attention to the child’s unique strengths and efforts and help them acknowledge them. For example, if you want to see your child helping you more often with cleaning, make sure to vocalize what you appreciate, “I noticed how you helped clean up after dinner without being asked.

Your responsibility and helpfulness make me proud.” When you choose to praise action and effort children develop a growth mindset. They start seeing mistakes as opportunities for learning and improvement, rather than a source of failure or shame.

Mistakes Parents Make When Talking to Kids

The worst thing a parent can say to a child

1. Using a harsh tone of voice

Yelling can evoke feelings of fear, anxiety, and tension in the child. If this becomes an interaction pattern between parent and child, it might stunt learning and cooperation. 

The fight-or-flight response triggered by your harsh tone when you turn to things you should never say to your child can make conversations ineffective. It can make children overly shy and obedient or impulsive. 

Using a harsh tone of voice can also make children engage in power struggles with their parents. This attitude comes from their innate need to have control over their decisions and show that their opinions matter.

2. Not actively listening

Not taking the time to deeply listen to our close ones can put an incredible strain on family relationships. Children suffer the most because the cognitive filters that can help them set neglect apart from temporary unavailability develop over time.  

When parents frequently dismiss opinions and don’t consider children’s emotions, might have them perceive a sense of isolation. The lack of attention and active listening can lead to a very hard-to-mend breakdown in communication.

3. Interrupting 

Interrupting children can have negative effects on their cognitive and emotional development, as well as their ability to communicate effectively. Children’s working memory can be overloaded when they are interrupted, which can make it difficult for them to process information and retain important details.

Parents should make a conscious effort to give their children enough time and space to express their thoughts and feelings without interruption. This is particularly important when children are trying to explain their side of the story in a conflict or express their emotions. 
In fact, being mindful of the things you should never say to your child is just as important as being patient in communication. Composure in communicating with children is a key formula for developing strong communication skills, a positive self-image, and the confidence to navigate any social interaction.

4. Overreacting

Other things you should never say to your child sound like “you always do this” or “you never do that.” These remarks can make a child perceive that their efforts are not being recognized or appreciated. The feeling a child could get from hearing these phrases is one of discouragement and helplessness. Fear of failure and even feelings of resentment towards their parents might develop.

The remedy for these negative communication patterns is to set realistic expectations for your child and to avoid using sweeping generalizations like “always” and “never.” It’s also important to avoid nonverbal cues like eye rolling or other negative facial expressions. Try to focus on specific behaviors and offer constructive feedback that will help your child improve.

5. Not being clear 

It’s important for parents to communicate with their children in a comprehensive and consistent manner. Even unfinished sentences or ambiguous instructions are some of the things you should never say to your child.

One effective way to improve communication and create greater clarity is by holding regular family meetings. This provides an opportunity for everyone to share their thoughts and feelings, as well as to discuss any issues or concerns that may have arisen.

It can also help to establish a sense of predictability and routine, which can be comforting and reassuring for children. 

Another way to promote clear communication is by giving notice of plans and changes. When parents let their children know what to expect in advance, it can help to reduce anxiety and uncertainty.

6. Not following through

Consequences are tools for parents to use when guiding their children’s behavior. When enforced consistently, children will eventually understand that their actions have predictable consequences, regardless of their mood or behavior. Caregivers should aim to be firm but loving. Children need to feel that their parents are setting boundaries and following through on them out of love and concern for their well-being.

Keeping in line with their parenting style, some parents might refrain from applying any consequences, while others might go as far as physical punishment. Each parent should strive to find a balance between results that are too severe or too lenient. Consequences must be age-appropriate and focused on learning from mistakes rather than punishment.

👉Are you still not sure what your parenting style is? Read our article on “What are the different parenting styles?”. Understanding the strengths and potential drawbacks of each parenting style will empower you to make conscious and intentional choices in raising your child.

7. Lecturing

Lecturing our children about desired behaviors can be counterproductive if it’s not done in an effective and engaging manner. While parents want their children to learn and follow directions, lecturing can have the opposite effect and make parents appear superior and unapproachable. This often leads you to turn to things you should never say to your child when you are trying to teach a lesson.

Children should feel comfortable coming back to us with questions or concerns. A good way of making messages more engaging and effective is by using positive reinforcement. 

Instead of lecturing your children about what they’re doing wrong, you should focus on what they’re doing right and offer praise and encouragement for their efforts. This can create a more positive and supportive learning environment, and make it more likely that your children will continue to exhibit the desired behavior in the future.

8. Not being present

It’s counterproductive to expect children to be the best version of themselves when they don’t get enough support and guidance, while also being mindful of the things you should never say to your child. Parents who only pay attention to their children when something goes wrong might send conflicting messages, possibly damaging their emotional well-being.

Parents should be actively involved in their children’s lives. When children feel supported and connected with their parents, they are more likely to feel secure and confident. Setting aside time for family activities, such as game nights or outings, and actively listening to children are great ways to make them feel supported.

Conclusion

The things we say to our children have a huge impact on their emotional well-being. When it comes to discipline, understanding and respect weigh more for their growth than fear and intimidation. By being present and engaged in our children’s lives, setting aside time for family fun, and offering lots of love and support, we can create a nurturing and positive environment. 

Be sure to use lots of positive statements too, like “I love you,” “I believe in you,” and “I’m proud of you.” 

And lastly, be on a quest of learning and growing as a parent. Seek out support and stay open to new ideas. This is the best way we can help our children thrive emotionally.

Are you looking for practical ways to improve your parenting skills and strengthen your relationship with your child? Join our upcoming masterclass “How to Calm You And Your Child During Tantrums, Hitting or Yelling Hurtful Things: 4 Steps”. This session will provide you science-based techniques to help you communicate with your child in a way that builds trust and respect, and improve your overall parenting effectiveness.

References

Dougherty, E. (2009, February 20). Cutting words may scar young brains. Cutting Words May Scar Young Brains | Harvard Medical School. https://hms.harvard.edu/news/cutting-words-may-scar-young-brains 

Hibbard, R., Barlow, J., Macmillan, H., Child Abuse and Neglect and American Academy of Child And Adolescent Psychiatry, & Child Maltreatment and Violence (2012). Psychological maltreatment. Pediatrics, 130(2), 372–378. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2012-1552 

Krauss, S., Orth, U., & Robins, R. W. (2020). Family environment and self-esteem development: A longitudinal study from age 10 to 16. Journal of Personality and Social psychology, 119(2), 457–478. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000263 

Mirabile, S. P., Scaramella, L. V., Sohr-Preston, S. L., & Robison, S. D. (2009). Mothers’ Socialization of Emotion Regulation: The Moderating Role of Children’s Negative Emotional Reactivity. Child & youth care forum, 38(1), 19–37. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10566-008-9063-5 

Mooney-Doyle, K., Deatrick, J. A., & Horowitz, J. A. (2015). Tasks and communication as an avenue to enhance parenting of children birth-5 years: an integrative review. Journal of pediatric nursing, 30(1), 184–207. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pedn.2014.03.002 

Slatcher, R. B., & Trentacosta, C. J. (2012). Influences of parent and child negative emotionality on young children’s everyday behaviors. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 12(5), 932–942. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0027148 

Shute, N. (2013, September 5). Parents’ harsh words might make teen behaviors worse.NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2013/09/04/218972701/parents-harsh-words-might-make-teen-behaviors-worse 

Thompson, R. J., & Bernal, M. E. (1982). Factors associated with parent labeling of children referred for conduct problems. Journal of abnormal child psychology, 10(2), 191–202. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00915940 

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Discover our parenting expert

Patrick Ney
Lead Trainer at All About Parenting
Patrick Ney

Patrick Ney is a Neurodevelopmental Specialist who has been working with parents at All About Parenting for 5 years. He is husband to Maja and father to 2 beautiful daughters, Zofia and Mia. Patrick joined All About Parenting, determined to become a better parent before becoming a Certified Trainer. To date, he has run over 1000 workshops, events, and masterclasses for more than 100,000 parents.

Patrick is certified in a range of other methodologies, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Solution Focused Brief Therapy, and the HANDLE Methodology for neurodiverse children. He is a Certified DIR Floortime Practitioner and has been described as a ‘natural born play therapist.’ Patrick bases his work with parents on neuroscience, studying Applied Neuroscience at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London. Patrick has appeared as a TEDx speaker, and his first book, ‘The Storm: How To Stop Shouting At Your Kids’ will be published in Autumn 2022.

But more than anything else, Patrick is a father. His love for his daughters has led him on a journey to being a better dad for his girls and sharing that story with other parents. His work inspires thousands of parents to start learning parenting, and he shares both his successes and his many failures.

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