Some of the common phrases — positive and negative — you rely on when dealing with your kids can have lasting effects on their development. Watch what you say!
"First, this just isn't true. Second, one of the most damaging things for a child is the un-lived life of a parent. Lastly, this leaves the child with no place to put their hurt and anger. They think, 'If mom and dad are selfless and do everything for me then how can I be angry at them? The problem must be me'," says Brad M. Reedy, Ph.D., cofounder and clinical director of Evoke Therapy Programs and author of The Journey of the Heroic Parent: Your Child's Struggle and the Road Home.
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"When a compliment is immediately followed by a 'but', it places the focus on the negative instead of the positive. All the positive reinforcement, self-esteem boost, and motivation gained from the compliment are lost as soon as 'but' is uttered," explains Adelle Cadieux, a pediatric psychologist at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital.
Every parent wants to believe their child is a genius in the making, and having high academic expectations of them can help them do better — up to a certain point. Put all the emphasis on grades and achievement and it will backfire, making them do worse in school, according to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
"The number one job of a parent is to stay calm no matter what happens. Aside from the fact that we usually say things we later regret when we're angry or frustrated, staying calm also models for our children how we want them to behave. This is especially true for parents of kids who tend to get easily upset," explains Timothy Gunn, a licensed clinical psychologist.
When it comes to getting kids to eat a healthy diet, the science is clear: Focus on the benefits and delicious taste of healthy food, not on negative perceptions of their weight. Commenting at all on weight only worries kids and hurts their self-esteem, according to a study published in study published in Eating and Weight Disorders.
"Children who are overweight or obese can benefit from nutritional changes; but calling a child fat is hurtful and does nothing in providing guidance for how to slim down," says Kimber Shelton, psychologist and owner of KLS Counseling and Consulting Services in Dallas, TX. "Negative body labeling and shaming feed into a culture of disordered eating and unhealthy body images."
Telling kids a food is healthy backfires big time, say researchers from the University of Chicago. Instead of focusing on nutrition, kids assume that anything healthy will taste bad and reject it. Want your kids to polish off their broccoli? Tell them how yummy it tastes and how much fun it is to eat it.
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On a bad day, you may see yourself as an ugly fat slob, but your child sees you as the most beautiful, amazing human who has ever lived — and they want to grow up to be just like you. So when you criticize your body, not only are you denigrating someone they love, you're teaching them to feel the same way about their bodies, say researchers from Notre Dame.
"Saying that you used drugs as a kid validates the use of drugs for your own children. Even if your child doesn't respond by saying, "And you're okay now," that's probably what they're thinking. Your children will model their behavior based upon yours – if you're not educated enough to explain to your kids why taking drugs is dangerous, don't give them tacit license to use because you did," says Dennis Poncher, author and founder of the support group network Because I Love You.
"It's important to allow children to cry and show their emotions and frustrations. They need to know it is okay to feel happy, sad, angry, or whatever. Besides, we would never tell an adult to stop crying, so why should we say it to children?" says Richard Peterson, the vice president of education for Kiddie Academy.
"Even if something isn't a big deal to you, it can be a big deal to your child. Telling them that it isn't invalidates and shames them for their emotions. Not only are they then upset about the original issue, but they're ashamed or embarrassed about how upset they are on top of that. These comments never ever help anyone – children or adults – actually feel better or calm down," explains Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, PhD, director of early childhood training at Ramapo for Children and Founder of Little House Calls.
"If they would, they could! You can never get through to a child when they're throwing a tantrum. Instead, the best thing to do is remain calm yourself, don't take the bait, and be patient while validating their feelings," says Denise Daniels, parenting and child development expert and inventor of Moodsters.
"What may look like a small thing to you — a scrape, a broken crayon, a lost toy — really is a big thing to your child. It's easy to get annoyed and brush it off, but you should take it seriously," Daniels says.
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"Children are not lazy. Often, there's an underlying reason as to why they aren't able to accomplish what's being asked of them. Parents attack a child's self-esteem and self-worth with this statement. And let's face it, none of us have ever been motivated to do better by being called lazy," says Stacy Haynes, a child psychologist.
"This phrase is typical in most households but it doesn't usually get anything done faster, except for making children feel more stressed," says Ariel Kornblum, a child psychologist in New York. "It's better to be specific about what needs to happen next."
"If you have to endlessly repeat yourself ,then you need to rethink your communication strategy. Nagging never works; kids have very selective listening and they'll tune you right out. Instead, try asking open-ended questions to get to the root of what's going on," says Daniels.
"All kids get scared, regardless of age," says Daniels. "Saying this to them invalidates their feelings and dismisses them, making your child feel like they aren't being heard."
"You can't expect kids to act like adults because they're not adults. If a child is doing a behavior that seems babyish, look at the situation," says Daniels. "Often they revert to old behaviors when they're nervous, anxious, or scared. Instead of shaming them, listen to their feelings."
"Children look to adults to validate their feelings and experiences, so when you dismiss them it makes them feel like they don't matter. If you don't understand why you child is doing something, ask them, and then try and remember an experience when you were in a similar situation," Daniels says.
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"This is hurtful because the child learns to deny their needs and their self. Most people lose themselves in childhood and spend the rest of their life trying to find it," Reedy says. "What's really happening here is that the parent's capacity is limited, and they're asking the child to get smaller to fit into their needs."
"These words are often spoken to kids at times when they already feel bad. Trying to make them responsible for your disappointment only adds to their pain," says Lisa Cavallaro, author of No More Drama: How to Make Peace With Your Defiant Kid.
"Children are not responsible for their parents' emotional well-being! Parents are responsible for their children's well-being, not the other way around," Hershberg says. "While it's important for children to understand that their behavior affects other people, it's developmentally inappropriate to ask that they act a certain way out of a sense of responsibility for their parents' feelings."
"Unfortunately, the phrase 'don't do that' does not teach desired behavior. It's always more beneficial to focus on teaching appropriate behavior that serves the same purpose. For instance, instead of saying 'don't hit your brother' try saying 'this is how we use our hands gently' and demonstrate patting or hugging," saysl Kornblum.
"You should always take the time to explain the reasoning behind asking a child to do what you're asking them to do or not to do," says Peterson. "It only takes a minute and they'll be more likely to comply if they know why."
"Time out, taking things away, telling the other parent, and other threats are often default discipline techniques. But when a parent sets a limit, they should always be prepared to follow through, so don't threaten anything you won't actually do, like turn the car around on a vacation," Kornblum says. "In fact, setting a limit and not following through may actually serve to maintain rather than decrease challenging behavior."
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Think laying down the law will turn your kids into perfect citizens? It may have the opposite effect, according to research published in the Journal of Adolescence. The study found that authoritarian parents are more likely to raise disrespectful, delinquent children who do not see them as legitimate authority figures than parents who listen to their children and gain their respect and trust.
"Threatening to throw your child out of the house is a terrible idea on many levels," says Poncher. "Doing so will either frighten your child and disturb them emotionally, or your child will say 'Good!' and welcome the opportunity to leave. Parents are essentially abdicating their responsibility when they say things like that. And in my experience, this statement is often an empty threat that parents are rarely willing to follow through on – so why say something like that to begin with?"
Your parent's parenting style is the guide you were given for how to parent — but that doesn't mean everything they did was right. When it comes to parenting, it's more important to understand the needs of your child then it is to raise them the exact same way you were raised, according to a study published in the Journal of Family Psychology.
"This often comes out when parents are at their wit's end. Parents may think these criticisms are benign, but what the child often misses the 'when' and just hears 'I hate you' instead. The line between when they're 'likeable' and not becomes too blurred," says Crystal Rice, a licensed social worker, child therapist, and consultant at Insieme Consulting.
Shame is a concept that younger children don't yet understand. When you tell them they should be ashamed of themselves, all they hear is that mom or dad is mad at them and they don't know why. Even worse, shaming may lead older children to be more defiant and aggressive, according to a study done by the University of Michigan.
"This would be a good thing if followed by something positive, but too often this is said when the child is exhibiting a behavior one parent finds unfavorable in the other parent," Ms. Rice says. "This not only sends the message that the child is being rejected, but that the other parent is, too, creating a divide where a child is forced to identify with or pick a side to please a particular parent."
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"Bragging about what we know is never helpful to children. They get to learn from their own mistakes just like we did," Cavallaro says.
"Yes, they did! When we're angry, hitting the person we're angry with may be an instinctive reaction and may feel good in the moment," Hershberg says. "As parents, we need to teach children the skills to regulate their reactions and cope with strong emotions in more productive ways, while also acknowledging these feelings are real."
"All people feel what they feel and typically this is not a choice; what is a choice is how we then cope with our feelings. When parents conflate feelings with behaviors (i.e. "don't be angry at your brother" versus "don't hit your brother"), not only is it ineffective (no child will ever say, "OK, I won't be!"), but it suggests that a child's feelings are somehow wrong and under a parent's control. Neither of these things are the case, so kids end up confused and less sure of themselves," Hershberg says.
"Every child has strengths and challenges that are unique to them. Children should not be compared to others, but reminded that their differences are just part of being human," says Kornblum.
"This is potentially very destructive to your family unit, and will often alienate your child from his or her siblings," Poncher says. "Parents need to acknowledge and embrace the idea that every child in their family unit is different, even if you raise them in the same way and in the same environment."
When kids are told that something they've done isn't good enough, what they really hear is 'you're not good enough," according to a study published in the Journal of Family Issues. You may think that by being critical and exacting you're setting high standards for your kids, but researchers say it just makes them feel that pleasing you is impossible.
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Setting up an expectation of perfection, even if you're not totally serious, can damage your child's self-esteem and make them less likely to take risks and try new things for fear of failing, according to a study published in Psychological Science.
"On the surface, this seems like a nice way to compliment our children, but when overused or used exclusively, it teaches kids that they have a natural gift that is separate from hard work. Some kids will then start to avoid situations they are not certain they will succeed at because they worry about being perceived as not so smart after all," Gunn says. "The better alternative message is to encourage kids saying, 'You worked so hard at that and figured it out!' or 'I knew you could do it if you kept trying!'"
"Children whose parents think they're God's gift to the world do tend to outshine their peers — in narcissism," says Brad Bushman, co-author of a study on child development and professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University. "Children believe it when their parents tell them that they are more special than others. That may not be good for them or for society."
"This phrase has become so overused, said even when a child does a mediocre job, that it has lost its meaning and makes a child become dependent on a parent's affirmation. Being present and really observing a child will do much more to build a child's self-esteem than repeating an empty phrase like 'great job' or 'way to go' over and over again," says Sarah Baldwin, an early childhood educator and author of Nurturing Children and Families.
No rules may sound like a kid's dream, but children need some boundaries to learn and grow, say researchers from the University of New Hampshire. Telling your kids "no" can be really hard sometimes, but "permissive" parents tend to produce children who are the least self-reliant, explorative, and self-controlled, they found.
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Parents who try to control how their children play, even if they're just trying to be helpful, undermine their child's self-esteem and learning process. "The aggressive action is not overt, as in a parent hitting or yelling, but small negative maneuvers can say so much to a child," says Steven R. Wilson, a professor of communication who specializes in family issues and author of a study on controlling parents. "It communicates to the child that what they want to do doesn't matter."
"Learning to communicate wants and needs is one of the most critical skills learned by young children. When parents preempt their children's needs, they take away the opportunity for their children to learn and practice asking for help," says Kornblum.
Overprotective parents may mean well in trying to keep their kids safe from all harm, but by constantly second-guessing your child's choices, you're implying that you don't think they're smart or capable enough to try something new, says a study done by the University of Granada. Do it often enough and your child may develop "Peter Pan Syndrome," where they feel afraid of or unable to grow up.
"When we tell our children they can't do something, we're saying we don't believe in them or think they are as good as others. But each child needs to know that their parents love them and have confidence them," Haynes says. "We should look for what our children can do, not what they can't."
"When a parent calls their child a derogatory name, it often occurs in a moment of frustration — but once the name is out there, the child tends to block out everything else that was said and will only remember the name he was called," says Brittany N. Barber Garcia, a pediatric psychologist at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital. "This can not only negatively impact a child's mood, self-esteem, and self-confidence, but it can also undermine your relationship and make the child less likely to do what you want in the first place."
"We often don't think about how important [our] own attitudes are in determining children's academic achievement," says Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology and co-author of a study on children and math. "But we found that if a parent is walking around saying 'Oh, I don't like math' or 'This stuff makes me nervous,' kids pick up on this messaging and it affects their success."
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When it comes to sarcasm or white lies, kids just don't get it — using them in conversation will either confuse them or make them distrust you, according to a study done by the Association for Psychological Science. "Children have developed a specific bias to believe what they're told," says lead author Vikram K. Jaswal. "It's sort of a shortcut to keep them from having to evaluate what people say, and it's useful because most of the time parents and caregivers tell children things that they believe to be true." Don't mess that up for them.
You might think that by putting on a happy face when you're anything but happy is protecting your child. But kids can see right through that mask and it scares them, says a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Hiding your negative emotions and faking positive ones not only makes you feel worse inside but it also hurts your relationship with your child. You don't have to tell them everything that's wrong but acknowledging your own feelings shows them it's okay for them to feel the same way.