8 Phrases to Stop Using With Your Kids

words hurt
Image via Katie Hurley

I'm a sensitive person. I was the kind of kid who cried over things that probably seemed minor to others. I was in tune with emotions — both my own and those of the people around me. Words hurt. A lot. I remember retreating to the safety of my bedroom after a harsh comment left me sobbing. That became my coping strategy — to play alone. I would play with my dolls, write stories, read Ramona, or draw. I would stay there for hours, calm and happy … and free from my sensitivity for a while.

All parents experience moments of frustration. When you've asked your kids to put on their shoes three gazillion times and the shoes are nowhere to be found? When the kids bicker over something so small that you struggle to even understand the source of the problem? Frustration is part of the deal, and sometimes, we say things in the heat of frustration that we shouldn't. Sometimes, our words hurt.

Whether your child is highly sensitive or not doesn't really matter. Small words can leave big wounds.

Children internalize the words and feelings of their parents, and negative feedback when they're at their worst can cause feelings of sadness and anxiety. It can also impact self-esteem.

The truth is that the moment when our kids are at their lowest point is the moment that they need us the most. They need us the most. They need us to love them anyway. They need us to understand. They need unconditional love.

With that in mind, there are some common phrases to avoid using with your kids:

“Be a big boy/girl.”

Parents often say this to empower kids — to help them make a big transition with ease. They're big! They can handle it! The intention is usually good – I know you can do this; you just need to believe in yourself.

Here's the catch: Kids experience fluctuating emotions throughout the day. One minute, they can conquer the world; the next, they want to curl up in your lap for a while. Sometimes they feel big, but sometimes they feel very, very small. Telling a child to “be a big boy” when he doesn't feel big at all won't help him make that transition.

Give your kids permission to feel small sometimes. It's all part of growing up.

crying boy
Image via Flickr/ creative donkey

“Don't cry.”

Sometimes this is said during a tantrum. Other times, this is said in an attempt to avoid a meltdown over something. And sometimes it is used to dismiss an event as insignificant. This little phrase sends a terrible message to young kids.

It's OK to cry. It's OK to feel overwhelmed sometimes. It's even OK to be upset when someone takes your toy without asking! When we say “don't cry,” we dismiss emotions. Children need to learn that all feelings count, and crying is a perfectly acceptable expression of emotion.

Convey your understanding and hold your child close while he/she cries, then talk about ways to feel better and what to do next time.

{ MORE: Could Modern Parenting Styles be Hurting Children's Brain Development? }

“There's nothing to be afraid of.”

I hate to be the bearer of bad news here, but if you have to use this phrase, your child is already afraid. Childhood fears are perfectly normal, and fears change as kids grow. The magical thinking of the early years that triggers fears of monsters and ghosts changes to real-world fears (think earthquakes and death) as kids grow.

Telling your child there's nothing to fear doesn't actually eradicate the fear. Try talking about the fear and grounding it in reality while empathizing with the feeling behind it instead.

“You're fine.”

This one can also be disguised as “walk it off” or “you're not bleeding” or any other number of slightly dismissive statements. That small scrape might not seem like much to you, but it might feel like a big deal to your child.

Try to consider how your child really feels in the moment. Tired? Embarrassed? Frustrated? Sometimes tears from a scrape mask a bigger feeling. Show a little love and understanding to help your child work through it.

{ MORE: Coping with Traumatic Birth }

“Because I said so.”

The loose translation of this one is “I'm in charge, and you have no rights.” Sound familiar? Sounds a lot like the thinking of a bully, if you ask me. We all have moments when we just need the kids to do something, and kids don't need lengthy explanations for every statement we make, but this kind of empty statement doesn't really give them a reason to stop doing what they're doing. And, depending on voice tone, it can actually leave kids feeling scared.

Provide simple instructions. Example: Game time is over now. It's time to turn off the games and start your homework. Repeat as necessary.

“I'll just do it.”

Little kids don't always get things right on the first try, and that can lead to tears of frustration. It can also cause parents to jump in and fix everything to stop the tears. Tears of frustration are healthy — kids need to get their feelings out. Running in to fix everything, however, is not so healthy. It sends a clear message: “I can do this; you can't.”

Try this instead: “That looks super frustrating. I can see why you're upset. How can I help you with that?”

{ MORE: Using the Montessori Approach with Infants }

kids climbing on different ropes of adventure playground
Image via iStock

“Why can't you be more like …?”

It's tempting to make comparisons between siblings, cousins, and even friends. It might even feel like making a comparison will inspire your child. What your child hears is this: “You're no good. Be more like this person, and I'll love you more.”

All kids are different. They all have different strengths and weaknesses. They all have different personalities and different needs. Comparisons are useless and can lead to hurt feelings.

Get to understand your child's unique personality and start there.

“Get over it!/Calm down!”

Have you ever tried to calm yourself down with someone standing by telling you to “get over it,” or worse, to “just calm down”? It's no easy task, I can assure. When people dismiss our feelings, it only makes us more upset!

Help your child learn how to calm down by teaching relaxation breathing. Talk about triggers of frustration instead of dismissing them. Help your child work through his/her emotions so that he/she can feel happy again.

{ MORE: 3 Ways to Stop Rushing Your Kids Through Childhood }

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8 Phrases to Stop Using With Your Kids

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about helping parents enjoy the ride, she provides parent education and simple strategies to take t ... More

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  1. What I noticed helps especially for toddlers who can understand phrases; for example DD falls down and starts crying, I say in a sympathetic and calm tone ‘it’s ok, jump up’ she walks over to me and tries to tell me what happened and of course I can’t understand a word she’s saying because she’s crying at the same time. I get her attention off of her owie for a second by saying her name then ‘look at momma’ She looks at me with big sad eyes. I tell her ‘You don’t need to cry, tell me what happened.’ She stops crying long enough to tell me what happened then I tell her that it’s ok. She gets a big hug and a kiss and she’s as happy as can be. She just learned that you don’t need to feel sorry for yourself and have a fit over every little thing and mom will still give her the help and love and attention when she needs it. When I told her she doesn’t need to cry and she mostly stopped crying she learned how to control her emotions by herself.
    I also do this when she got frustrated she’d yell and if she’s holding something in her hand most of the time she’d throw it. I just tell her calmly ‘you don’t need to act like that’ then ask her if she needs help. I see what she did do by herself and tell her ‘wow’ and how big she is for doing whatever it is she did even if it’s just a tiny thing. I help her do whatever then tell her how neat it is that she can do that. One she knows in our house we don’t yell or throw things, 2 rules which she violated. I can clearly see that she’s frustrated but she also needs to realize it doesn’t matter what situation you’re in you need to do the right thing(yes toddlers understand expectations like this). Also I want her to learn that it’s ok to ask me for help when she needs it, that’s why I’m here. Now when she’s frustrated she looks at me and I can tell she’s trying to contain that energy so she doesn’t do something she’s not supposed to. I just go over to her and again ask her if she needs help then I help her to use that energy to accomplish whatever it is.

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