tmcphotos/Shutterstock
Source: tmcphotos/Shutterstock

What’s wrong with saying the phrase, "What is wrong with you?" to children or adolescents? Nothing, if your tone is compassionate and you are wondering if they want to share their feelings with you.

But that is far different from what we hear all too often when a parent is exasperated with a child, throwing up their hands in desperation, and asking this question. Then it becomes a question that indicates a defect in the child’s being.

Not something we want to do, right? 

There are no perfect parents and we are constantly learning and growing and we all make mistakes. But I vote for curbing this phrase when we are upset with kids.

Why?  

When a trusted adult—a person upon whom the child is dependent for everything—indicates that something is wrong with the child, a child will internalize this and believe it. They will ask themselves what is wrong with them—and they won’t be able to find the answer. They may rely on their limited life experience and knowledge, and likely come up with something that is wrong, and that can have a lasting effect. Sometimes it will be something quite broad, like, “I am not good enough,” or, “I am a bad person.”  The devastation of these kinds of internalized messages can take a lifetime to get over, even with therapy

What to do instead?

Speak directly about a behavior you are concerned about, but continue to let the child know that they are special and that you love them. You just don’t like a certain behavior and you want them to address that or work on it. Don’t globalize to their whole being and create shame. Shame is tough for kids or adults to carry around and a difficult thing to get over.

Let’s talk examples:

  • A child is rushed and not paying attention and accidentally breaks something. You are exasperated, rushed, and stressed yourself and the words come out of your mouth: What is wrong with you? Rather… be direct but also instructive: “Honey, let’s slow things down, it is OK, we are all rushing here and I know you did not mean to do that. Next time, just tell Mom or Dad that you are feeling rushed, stressed, or upset and we can discuss it. Let’s figure out what to do.”   
  • A child throws a tantrum in a public place and you are exasperated. But you don’t let What is wrong with you? slip out. You simply take the child to a quiet place, find out what is bothering them, and discuss their feelings. It does not mean they get their way, but they will feel heard, seen, and visible, and this will calm down the tantrum more quickly than anything else. 
  • Your teenager makes a serious mistake, like sexting or writing something inappropriate on Facebook. You don’t say, What is wrong with you? You use this as a teaching moment to teach what you want them to know about the dating scene and how to deal with it in appropriate ways. 

What is wrong with you?, when used with exasperation, is a phrase I would put in the shaming and humiliating category and it can have long-lasting effects. Fortunately, it’s an easy one for us to be aware of and fix. Sometimes simple tips and awareness can make the most difference. Remembering how we talk to children is important, as it is part of what forms the way kids view themselves.

Alice Miller puts it another way: “We produce destructive people by the way we are treating them in childhood.”   

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