9 phrases reckless parents often say to their children, according to psychologists

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There are no perfect parents. 

But some are definitely better than others, and it all comes down to the actions and behaviors they use in their parenting and the words they say. 

Supportive, encouraging and standing up to children is necessary at times.

But certain phrases and words are unnecessary and actually do a lot of damage, according to child psychologists and researchers. 

Here’s a look at the most harmful phrases parents use that should always be avoided. 

1) “You always mess things up!”

Every child makes mistakes, and sometimes they can be downright exasperating.

It’s understandable that parents lose their cool and sometimes get to their wit’s end!

But the above phrase is the wrong thing to say, and can deeply damage a child’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem, implanting an inner narrative that they are a failure who can never succeed. 

As parenting expert Patrick Ney writes:

“Exposure to negative and critical language can have detrimental effects on a child’s self-esteem, emotional regulation, and cognitive development.” 

2) “What did I do to end up with a child like you?”

This is a really hurtful thing for a child to hear. 

When reaching the end of their rope, it’s understandable for parents to sometimes see their child as a burden or talk about how difficult they are

But verbalizing this is always the wrong move, implanting a deep feeling of being unwanted and not good enough in the child who hears it.  

“The most common toxic behavior of parents is to criticize their child, express self-wishes, complain about the difficulties of raising a child, make unhealthy comparisons, and make hurtful statements,” explains psychological researcher Pamela Li.

3) “I’m so disappointed in you.”

Every child will occasionally disappoint his or her parents or do something truly beyond the pale. 

Discipline is a necessary part of parenting, as is punishment and consequences. 

But using phrases like this goes beyond punishment to the realm of a judgment and emotional assessment that does real damage. 

If a kid doesn’t feel like he or she has potential or fundamental support, they are much more likely to repeat bad behaviors and distance themselves from their parents as they mature. 

As psychologist and author Carl Pickhard says, this ends up making a child feel “like he/she has lost loving standing in parental eyes.”

4) “I don’t want to hear it!”

Kids say the darndest things. That’s true.

But when a parent shuts them down and tells them they don’t want to hear what they say, it can send a really repressive message. 

The child may internalize a feeling that they are unwanted or even begin pretending to agree and be on their parents’ side while actively undermining them. 

This phrase can lead to a big gulf in trust and actual closeness between parent and child. 

“Some of the worst things parents can say to their children send off signals of rejection,” Ney observes.

“When children’s emotions are not acknowledged or taken seriously, it can make them feel uncomfortable and insignificant.”

5) “You could really lose some weight!”

Body image is a touchy subject, and some folks are quite hung up about it. 

But when a parent takes out their own judgments and insecurities on their child over body image it can do enormous damage. 

There is more than enough toxic material in society and media about attractiveness and body type without parents adding it. 

When kids receive an early message of being ugly, fat or “wrong” in their body it can haunt them for life, becoming that whispering evil voice inside their heads for years down the road. 

As psychology writer April Phan points out:

“Belittling a child based on their appearance will likely only increase their physical insecurities and body image concerns. This can lead to serious emotional problems like eating disorders.”

6) “Get out of the way, I’ll do it!”

There are times when kids can be very inefficient or even wreck things, breaking a dish at the sink or trying to put their shoes on and getting frustrated and throwing them against the wall, for example. 

At this point, the parent is faced with a choice:

Help their child and try to do it together, or push the situation to the quickest result. 

The above phrase is the wrong move and can make the child feel unimportant and incompetent in a way that damages their self-esteem. 

Instead, Professor of Early Childhood Education Dr. Katherine Kersey suggests phrasing it more as a team effort and saying something like ‘let’s do it together!’”

7) “Why can’t you be more like the other kids?”

This phrase is a killer. It really hurts a kid to hear that they are strange or not good enough, especially from a parent. 

They may be genuinely different, even neurodivergent or troubled in some way:

But being scolded for this and asked to be more like “the other kids,” is a punch to the face for a youngster. 

They will struggle with this kind of judgment for years if it’s phrased in the work way or with hateful emotions behind it. 

Some judgment and comparison is inevitable of course, but it depends a lot on how it’s phrased. 

As social psychologist Susan Newman, Ph.D. observes:

“To some degree comparisons are unavoidable. Your child isn’t talking or walking yet, but his peers are well on their way. At the playground, you watch as your friend’s child hops on the see-saw and yours cowers and refuses.”

8) “You cost me so much money!”

Kids are expensive: very expensive!

In fact, according to ABC News, “on average parents spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars ($237,482) to raise a child up to age 18. Beyond that, the costs skyrocket with the cost of college. The most expensive state to raise a child is Hawaii.”

But making a child aware of how much of a financial burden they are is absolutely the wrong move. 

It basically tells a child that they are in a conditional relationship in which they are judged based on their “value” and how much parents have invested in them. 

If parenthood is just an investment then why don’t we pick up new babies at JPMorgan and invest in them on the stock market? 

It’s an awful thing to say to a kid, even if it’s true. 

“When a parent says this to their child, the child feels like a burden. It’ll cause them to unconsciously hide their needs, feelings, and problems just to avoid the parent’s anger,” notes Phan.

9) “Don’t worry about money. Just be happy!”

Not all kids are small!

With around half of young adults under 29 now living with their parents in the United States, the issue of grown up kids living at home becomes a bigger and bigger issue. 

It’s wrong to focus on what a burden they are, as I’ve noted, but it’s also very wrong to write a blank check for an adult kid. 

They need to be told to focus on their financial future and get serious about saving, even if it’s not what they want to hear. 

As Newman notes:

“One of the biggest reasons adult children move back home is to get ‘on their feet’ financially. If your adult child does not have any form of employment, then encourage him to find a job.”

Avoiding the ShouldStorm

With all of the above phrases that should be avoided, it’s also important for parents not to be overly hard on themselves. 

Mistakes will be made, and sometimes parents will lose their cool. 

The key is for parents to do their best to model good behavior and healthy words without holding themselves to perfection.

As Dr. Newman explains:

“The ShouldStorm is a term I coined for our high-pressure culture of criticism and anxiety that pushes perfectionistic parenting.”

There won’t be any perfect parents! And that’s OK! Life is a learning process. 

But by avoiding the phrases above, parents can at least ensure they raise their kids with a more supportive and productive environment. 

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