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"You Can't Say That to Me"

Why this common parenting phrase backfires, and alternatives to try.

Key points

  • Parents naturallly struggle when children verbally lash out at them.
  • A response like "You can't say that to me" backfires because it challenges the child's autonomy and pulls for defiance, not cooperation.
  • Finding ways to de-escalate and regulate energy and emotions is more effective.
fizkes / Shutterstock
Source: fizkes / Shutterstock

You’ve told your high-energy 5-year-old that it’s time for a bath and bedtime, but she's in no mood. She’s dancing around the kitchen, excitedly explaining her next big project to you. You pull out your gentle but firm parenting voice and you give her the choice of picking out her pajamas or picking out her bubble bath, but tonight she is not having it. When you stand firm, she blurts out "You’re a stupid mom – I hate you!"

Being tired and kind of shocked that she said that, you tell her, “You can’t say that to me.” She follows that by dancing down the hall to her room, singing about you being a stupid mom. It's gone from a single comment to an entire performance.

Most kids, most of the time, will follow your instruction to stop saying something with only a few prompts, or in anticipation of a negative outcome if they don’t. However, many kids, for many reasons, and in a variety of situations, will not. This can lead us to say things like “You have to stop saying that," or “You can’t talk to me that way," when we try to control the child’s behavior.

While I hate to think of parenting as winning and losing, you “lose” as soon as you have said that, because it’s not true. You can’t physically stop them because it would be traumatic and it should not be done, ever. You are left having to interact with your child’s autonomous self – and that’s one of the biggest parenting challenges.

A 5-year-old responds this way because their skills for expressing big feelings and what they need are not fully developed yet. They may be able to follow your directions without responding like this some of the time, but other factors — like being tired — can make it harder for them to use these developing skills. We don’t endorse their words or behaviors, but we can help them practice different ways of responding so that they can get better at it.

Africa Studio / Shutterstock
Source: Africa Studio / Shutterstock

What should you do?

First, note that their words are not OK. The goal here is to validate their feelings but also to redirect them from those words to more respectful, effective ways to express themselves: “I see that you don’t want to go to bed, but those words hurt feelings and we try not to use them in this family.," or, "Let’s figure out what you’re feeling and how we can solve this problem without using words like that.”

This interaction doesn’t mean you are going to let them choose to stay up all night. But maybe you notice that she seems super excited and energized. You can help her use words to express that feeling. And you can use that time to teach her about those feelings and offer some ideas for self-soothing and preparing to rest. All of us have nights when we are charged up or excited and struggle to settle for sleep. We might read for a while or have a cup of tea but a 5-year-old needs something different. And she might have ideas, too — something like 10 minutes of quiet play, with or without you, before choosing her pajamas could be a solution. Or maybe she would love to sit and have a cup of tea with you for a few minutes, helping her self-soothe.

Children have autonomy. If we say things that deny that fact just to try to make them bend to our demands, we lose the opportunity to help them develop the internal skills to express themselves differently. The interaction becomes only about the power struggle between “You can’t say that" and “Yes I can,” and you lose that struggle, period. Acknowledging a child’s autonomy, and finding ways to help them communicate more effectively, helps to build lifelong skills rather than getting lost in a short-term battle for control over what they say.

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