Has anyone ever told you something that, to this day, still makes you tear up every time you think about it? Have you ever had a close friendship or relationship end because of some hurtful things you said to one another?
Though we might not always be aware of it, our words hold so much more power than we realize, especially over others. Unfortunately, most of us don’t even realize that we’ve said something wrong until it’s too late and the damage has already been done. That’s why we’re taught from a young age the importance of thinking before we speak, a lesson we ought to remember even as adults and especially as parents.
Studies of child psychology have shown that the way our parents talk to us becomes the way we learn to talk to ourselves, a concept known as “self-talk” (Burnett & McCrindle, 1999). So be careful not to speak too harshly to your child, even when you’ve already lost your temper, because it could have serious repercussions on their self-concept, self-esteem, and emotional attachment to others even as adults.
With that said, here are 8 of the most damaging things a parent can say to their child:
1. “What’s the matter with you?”
If your child’s personality often clashes with yours, it can be difficult to be around them so much, let alone to parent them. But no matter how frustrated we might get, it’s important to always keep our temper in check and stop ourselves from letting our anger get the best of us. Asking your child “what’s the matter with them” just because they don’t share the same interests in you or act the way you think they should is only going to hurt their self-esteem and make them question their own sense of self-worth.
2. “I don’t have time for you right now.”
We all know that taking care of a child is no easy task, even with a co-parent around, and having to balance a full-time job along with it can be overwhelming at times. So it’s important that you keep your priorities in check when making compromises between your work life and your family life. And if you really have to choose the former over the latter sometimes, don’t just simply tell your child you “don’t have time for them” or you “can’t deal with them right now”; explain it to them in a way that won’t hurt their feelings and make it up to them some other time or way. Otherwise, they will start to feel lonely and neglected.
3. “I wish you were more like…”
Just as we should refrain from comparing ourselves to others, parents should never compare their children with their siblings or classmates. Not only does it breed insecurity, rivalry, and jealousy, it also makes them feel like they’re not good enough for you and that the love you have for them needs to be earned. For example, saying “Why can’t you be more like your straight-A student friend?” makes them feel like you care more about their grades than you do about them — which brings us to our next point!
4. “You’re a disappointment to me.”
If you want your children to grow as people and bring you along for the journey, then you need to be able to make them feel safe enough to make their own mistakes and learn from them. Don’t just attack them for falling short sometimes by saying “You’re such a disappointment to me.” But rather, encourage them to try again by reassuring them that it’s okay to fail sometimes and that you’ll always be there for them no matter what.
5. “Why didn’t you…?”
Similar to the last point, asking your child why they didn’t get into this certain college, score higher on the SATs, make the starting team, or win a competition only serves to make them feel worse about themselves, especially when they tried really hard to please you. It can ruin their self-esteem and turn them into neurotic perfectionists, always beating themselves up over every little mistake just because your words made them feel like nothing they do can ever be good enough for you.
6. “Because I said so!”
Studies show that having an authoritarian parenting style — that is, being extremely strict, controlling, and expecting children to follow the rules you set with no discussion or compromise whatsoever — can have many negative effects on a child. Some children develop poor self-esteem and become socially inept, withdrawn, and dependent; while others become more aggressive, defiant, reckless, and deceptive (Jadon & Tripathi, 2017). Either way, simply demanding that your child submit to your will just because you “told them so” and you “are the parent here” will foster a lot of resentment and conflict in your relationship with them.
7. “What are people going to say?”
Did your child come out to you as queer? Or get called in the principal’s office for getting into a fight? Do they have a lot of failing grades? Or have trouble making friends? If you didn’t already know, it must have been difficult for them to tell you because they were afraid of how you’d react. But asking “What are people going to think?” or “What does that say about me as a parent?” makes them feel like all you care about is the opinion of others and that you see them as an embarrassment to the family.
8. “I’m leaving and never coming back!”
Last but certainly not the least, in the heat of the moment, you might be tempted to spew threats of “running away and never coming back” once you start to feel that your child is becoming very ungrateful for all the things you do for them. But it’s better to bite back your tongue and swallow your temper than to say something that will hurt them for years to come. After all, even if we might not realize it at the time, threats like these are done with the intention of hurting your child and scaring them into listening to you or doing as you say. And emotional blackmail like this can make their attachment towards you (and others as they grow up) unstable and insecure (Colonnesi, et al., 2011).
So, do you relate to any of the things mentioned here? Are you a parent trying to learn what to avoid when raising your child? Or a child still trying to heal from the hurtful words of a parent? Even if you’re neither, it’s still important for us to be more considerate of how we treat others and the effect our words could have on them. As the saying goes, “Be careful with your words. Once said, they can only be forgiven, but never forgotten.”
- Burnett, P. C., & McCrindle, A. R. (1999). The Relationship Between Significant Others’ Positive and Negative Statements, Self-Talk, and Self-Esteem. Child Study Journal, 29(1), 39-39.
- Colonnesi, C., Draijer, E. M., Jan JM Stams, G., Van der Bruggen, C. O., Bögels, S. M., & Noom, M. J. (2011). The relation between insecure attachment and child anxiety: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 40(4), 630-645.
- Jadon, P. S., & Tripathi, S. (2017). Effect of authoritarian parenting style on self esteem of the child: A systematic review. International Journal of Advance Research and Innovative Ideas in Education, 3(3), 909-913.