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We’ve all been there: A toddler is whining incessantly, or a teenager won’t stop arguing when we’ve already told them, “No.” On top of that, maybe we’re on a tight deadline for work, upset from an unpleasant interaction with a relative, or exhausted after a long day. While it can be incredibly difficult to choose words carefully in these heated moments, our words do have a significant impact on our kids, especially when they are repeated regularly. If those words are often harsh or blaming, odds are our relationship with our kids will suffer. 

Here are 3 things we should never say to kids:

1. “You’re making me crazy! 

This phrase, and others like it, uses guilt to motivate a child to change behavior. Yes, we may feel like our kids are driving us crazy—in that moment—but we don’t have to say this out loud to them. In fact, expressing our feelings in this unedited fashion is likely to worsen the situation at hand, and, over time, negatively impact our relationship with our kids. Worse, it primes kids to feel responsible for causing other people’s feelings, a recipe for low self-esteem and anxiety.

2. “What’s wrong with you?” 

This phrase, and others like it, uses shame to motivate a child to change behavior. As with the guilt-inducing phrase above, this shame-inducing phrase frames the situation as being your child’s fault, rather than acknowledging that all situations are a complex product of many different inputs, including our own perceptions, moods, prior experiences, and expectations.

For example, if you walk into the bedroom and find that your five year-old has just cut your favorite shirt into pieces, you might be tempted to exclaim: What’s wrong with you? Instead, remember that, whatever the situation, your child’s actions are almost always an attempt to meet a perceived need, such as getting your attention; or information (What happens if I do X?); or creative engagement (I really need some fabric for my collage).  

Moreover, this shame-inducing phrase tells kids that they are flawed and focuses their attention on what’s wrong with them as a person, rather than on what they can do differently in the future to help create a more positive outcome. Again, this is a recipe for impaired well-being. 

3. “You’d better ____ or else!”

This phrase, and others like it, uses fear to motivate change. It relies on aggression and intimidation. Keep in mind: Someday your children will be a lot larger and more independent, so if this is your go-to strategy it will one day cease to be effective. But what’s most problematic about this strategy is that it teaches kids, via behavior modeling, to get what they want through aggression and intimidation. Moreover, over time this phrase is likely to erode the trust and respect in your relationship with your children.

What each of these three problematic phrases has in common is this: They focus attention on the child as a whole, instead of on his or her behavior

In almost every situation, the problem at hand is what the child said and/or did—this is what needs to be addressed. Using shame, guilt, or fear will eventually backfire because these strategies don’t focus on the real problem (behavior) and imply instead that your child is the problem. 

We can teach children that behavior is a choice, and emphasize that they can learn to make better choices. Making a bad choice does not mean they are a bad person; just that they made a mistake and need more practice and coaching to do better next time.

So, what can we say in those heated moments in order to help children learn to choose their behavior? In short, focus on their behavior explicitly. Here are 3 phrases to try instead:

  1. “I don’t like that behavior.”
  2. “I don’t like it when you ____.” 
  3. “When you ____ , I feel ­­­­_____.”

After that, be sure to tell them why a behavior is not okay, and to discuss what they could do differently next time.

© 2015, Erica Reischer, Ph.D.

Get more insights and parenting tips from Dr. Erica.

Image/Getty/used with permission

About the Author

Erica Reischer, Ph.D.

Erica Reischer, Ph.D., is a psychologist, parent coach, and author. She teaches at University of California Berkeley, UCSF, and other institutions.

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