13 toxic phrases parents unknowingly say to their children

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Toxic parents are parents who put their own needs ahead of their children’s, and this is where the problems begin.

Their need to lash out may make them abusive, while their need to deal with their addictions may cause them to be absent and neglectful. Their narcissistic need for admiration may make them controlling and dictatorial.

Then there are parents who aren’t exactly toxic in and of themselves, but they still say things and promote thoughts and beliefs in their children that are toxic.

These are comments, orders, instructions, or even warnings they say to their kids, often without meaning anything malicious. Yet, they don’t think through the repercussions and resonations of these phrases in their children’s lives.

Here are 13 toxic phrases parents unknowingly say to their children, which you may have been told yourself or you might have said to your own kids. Either way, they’re both negative and impactful and leave a long-lasting impression on fragile, developing people.

1) “You’re fat/scrawny/ugly.”

There’s a terrible phrase that we tend to use a lot more than we might think about: “A face only a mother could love.”

But what happens when a mother or father expresses that even they don’t love the way their child looks?

Appearance or body shaming phrases like telling a child they’re too fat, skinny, or ugly can be incredibly toxic as they attack the child’s self-esteem.

They can even lead children to develop eating or body-image disorders like anorexia later in life.

2) “You’re worthless.”

Children need more than just safety and sustenance to develop in a healthy way. They also need to feel valued.

Such criticism, like calling a kid useless or worthless, is incredibly negative and damaging.

How is a child supposed to grow up and feel a sense of self-worth when their parents, the people who are meant to love them unconditionally, tell them they have no worth?

This kind of toxic phrase can affect children for the rest of their lives and lead to constant feelings of depression and failure.

3) “You’re so stupid.”

Another toxic criticism that parents sometimes level at their children is that they’re dumb.

On the one hand, this is objectively true.

Babies are born knowing nothing on an intellectual level and can only do what their instincts drive them to do. But they learn incredibly quickly, soaking up knowledge like sponges.

Children obviously know less than their parents – that’s a given.

But telling them they’re stupid is a very stupid and completely unfair thing to do. It does nothing to encourage them to grow their intelligence but instead leads them to form negative ideas about themselves.

4) “I/We never wanted you.”

This kind of phrase represents such vicious parental rejection that it’s one of the most horrible and toxic things a parent could ever say to a child.

It could be true.

So many pregnancies are unplanned and leave parents unprepared, but this is hardly the child’s fault.

Telling a child they are unwanted leaves them with no security in life since the vital security and trust they should have with their caregivers is lost.

This can lead to a lifetime of feelings of worthlessness and depression.

5) “If you loved me, you’d…”

If we’re talking about the worst toxic phrases parents unknowingly say to their children, then guilt-laden phrases like this have to be on the list.

Of course, parents expect their children to love them back, but using this expectation of love to manipulate their children is a truly toxic thing to do.

It essentially teaches them that love is conditional and that their own feelings aren’t important.

They might feel like they love their parent, but the parent makes it clear that this love has to be on their terms only.

6) “Why can’t you be more like…?”

This phrase represents a very unhealthy comparison that can lead children to low self-esteem.

A lot of parents don’t mean to hurt their kids when they say this.

They’re just frustrated and can’t understand their children’s actions.

But with this phrase, they essentially ask the child to behave like someone else and this tells them that their own self is unimportant or not good enough. They feel inferior and like a disappointment, and they might never get over these feelings at all.

7) “You’re a disappointment.”

If the previous phrase subtly expressed disappointment, this one is anything but subtle.

Telling a child they’re a disappointment is telling them that they aren’t good enough to deserve their parent’s love, affection, and respect.

What a toxic and dreadful thing to tell someone who’s trying to find their way through life at an early age. 

Now, a parent telling a child, “I’m disappointed in you,” is quite different. 

This subtle change in language puts the focus on the parents and their feelings. It can also be used to teach children about their behavior when paired with a phrase like, “You know better.”

This points out that the child made a mistake, but it doesn’t attack their core character.

8) “I gave up on my dreams for you.”

This phrase is incredibly toxic for two reasons.

First, it transfers the enormous weight of adult issues onto the poor child. 

They don’t have the tools to understand what this means, so all they’ll feel is blame and confusion.

Second, this phrase is used to guilt and manipulate a child in a wholly inappropriate way.

They didn’t ask to be born, and they didn’t ask for their parents to make any choices for them. Still, they feel the full brunt of their parent’s resentment.

This makes them feel unloved, unwanted, and less than worthless.

9) “I wish you were never born.”

This is another phrase that expresses parental rejection in a truly awful way.

It transfers all the blame for the parent’s choices onto the child, which is completely unfair. And, of course, it also makes them feel completely worthless. 

Hearing this toxic phrase from a young age can lead to low self-esteem and a feeling of never being good enough for anyone.

10) “I made you, and I could break you.”

Variations of this phrase are different from what we’ve looked at so far.

It’s a threat and a totally disempowering statement to make. What it does is let the child know that they have no autonomy and what they want or care about doesn’t matter.

It’s all about the parent.

This can lead them to feelings of powerlessness and extremely low self-esteem.

11) “Why don’t you do something you could actually succeed at?”

This might be a phrase that parents use without knowing that it’s toxic or demeaning.

Even the most loving parents want their children to succeed in life, and when they see them struggling, they don’t like it one bit.

But telling your children to essentially give up on the challenging thing you’re doing because it’s too hard for you is a major blow.

The parent might actually say this out of care, and a desire to protect their child from the disappointments of failure, but the phrase also reveals their lack of confidence in their own kids.

12) “Why can’t you be more like me?”

This question might as well be phrased as “You’re not as good as me” or “You’re not good enough.”

It could be a sign of a narcissistic parent who feels like they’re the sun in the sky and everyone else is far beneath them, like an ant crawling along the ground.

There are only seven words here, but they add up to one of the most hurtful things a parent could say. They suggest both that the child is a disappointment and that they’re much less (skilled, intelligent, clever, talented – choose your adjective!) than the parent.

Both of these ideas are really harmful to an impressionable mind.

13) “I never liked/loved you.”

This is one of the most hurtful things you can possibly say to a child.

I also happen to know that some parents really mean it because I heard a complete narcissist say this to their trophy child once.

It was brutal.

The child felt horrible and confused because they were also treated with love at other times when it served the parent to do so. But I also think she also knew that it was at least half true.

This kind of phrase is typical of highly manipulative parents and can take a real toll on a child’s self-esteem. It also affects their ability to form healthy attachments with people in their later years because they never really trust that they’re actually loved.

Final thoughts

Some parents are toxic in their behaviors and will treat their children badly to control, manipulate, shame, or even abuse them. 

Other parents truly love their kids but don’t realize how toxic some of the things they say to them can be. 

These 13 toxic phrases parents unknowingly say to their children can cause a lifetime of harm and should be avoided at all costs.

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