In the course of raising children, all parents say things that we’re not super proud of. Kids are remarkably good at getting under our skin, and we don’t always meet the moment with the kind of grace or compassion we’d like. (To wit: I looked straight in my preschooler’s eyes this morning and told him the police would arrest him for not putting his mittens on.)
Luckily, experts say it’s not only OK that parents say the “wrong” stuff sometimes; it’s universal. Parents shouldn’t feel shame or guilt about it, and it’s also important to keep in mind the bigger picture. Do kids feel safe and loved and like they can be themselves? Great. Some verbal misfires won’t change that.
Still, there are some phrases that parents and other adults in children’s lives tend to use habitually that could be more damaging than any of us intend. Here are five to be mindful of, and some tips on what to say instead.
1. “You’re OK!” or “It’s not a big deal.”
When a child falls down the playground, they’re inevitably met with a chorus of: “You’re OK!” Similarly, when a kid is in the midst of a problem that seems relatively benign — say, a friend takes a toy they were playing with, or an older child shares an off-handed comment from school that doesn’t seem all that serious — many of us parents respond with: “It’s not a big deal.”
That instinct is totally understandable, experts say.
“We often say [these phrases] to children in an attempt to help them feel better or calm them when they are feeling distressed or hurt,” explained psychologist Sarah Conway, founder of Mindful Little Minds. “We think that if we don’t make a big deal about it, they won’t either. However, when we say this to children, they feel dismissed and they feel unheard.”
If the child hears the message often enough, there’s a danger that they will feel like they can’t trust us with their difficult moments or emotions, Conway said. They might also start to feel like they can’t trust their own emotions. That’s why the similar phrase “stop crying” is also a problem. (It’s also ineffective. Reminder: Tears and tantrums are developmentally appropriate for younger kids.)
The good news? The alternative to reflexively telling kids they’re OK or that whatever they’re grappling with isn’t a big deal is pretty easy.
“Instead, try ‘Are you OK?’” Conway recommended. “This sends a message to kids that we care about how they feel and that they can share their emotions with us.”
2. “You always ... ” or “You never ... ”
First and foremost, “always” and “never” are rarely true. But also, they can become self-fulfilling, particularly with children who are really figuring themselves out.
“When they hear these messages from us as their parents, they start to believe them. Then we see more of the behaviors that feed into this label they’re assigning to the definition of themselves,” Kimberley Bennett, psychologist and founder of The Psychologist’s Child.
To the extent it’s possible, shift your lens, she urged, and notice when they’re doing the opposite of the behavior that you don’t like.
“For example, if we’re saying, ‘You’re always rough with your little brother,’” Bennett said, “notice the occasions when they’re gentle, loving and kind, and celebrate that with them.” It can also be helpful to let your child overhear you talking about them positively to other adults, she said.
And when they’re engaged in a behavior you don’t like, invite them to try and solve the problem with you, Bennett said. Ask them questions like: “What can we do to stop this from happening?” Or, “What can you do the next time you feel that way?”
3. “It makes me sad/angry/happy when you do XYZ.”
“Many parents believe they are teaching their children about empathy when they use this phrase,” Conway said. “However, this sentence sends a message to kids that they are the cause of our big feelings and that they are responsible for managing them.”
Ultimately, children might start hiding things from the adults in their life for fear of upsetting them. Also remember: perspective-taking — i.e., the ability to see something from another side — isn’t something younger kids (like, toddlers, preschoolers or even younger elementary school-age children) are developmentally capable of.
Of course, none of that is to suggest that you shouldn’t draw — and hold — firm parental boundaries and intervene when your child crosses them.
“Save the lesson on empathy for another time and just stick to the facts. Acknowledge how they feel and then clearly state your boundary by starting the sentence with, ‘I won’t let you ... (hit me, kick your brother, etc.),’” Conway said.
4. “Don’t be rude. Give so-and-so a hug.”
This one often comes up around the holidays when families are getting together, or right before bedtime when a parent urges their kiddo to give a grandparent or cousin a hug, even if their child isn’t into it. (I fully admit that I’ve had psychologists and therapists share this no-no with me for years now as I’ve worked on various parenting stories, and I still, every once in a while, encourage my totally hug-averse 7-year-old to hug his grandparents when he says goodbye.)
But what we teach our children in those moments is that their own boundaries don’t matter, said Ashurina Ream, founder of Psyched Mommy.
“When we force our kids to go hug somebody — or even apologize when they’re not ready — we teach them that they need to perform to please others,” she explained. “We’re also teaching them if their body feels uncomfortable hugging a relative, for example, and they do it anyway, that they need to ignore the signals their body sends them.”
This is a boundary parents really might need to hold firm for their children. Tell them it’s totally OK if they’d prefer to fist bump, blow a kiss or even just wave goodbye or good night. (Ask them: “What feels good to you?” Ream said.) Reassure your child — and the other adult in question — that they can still show respect and love toward others while listening to their own bodies.
5. “That’s not true!”
“I actually caught myself doing this recently,” Ream said. Her son told her that no one ever wants to play with him. “My instinct is to say, ‘That’s not true!’ Or maybe it’s a teen girl who says, ‘I’m so ugly’ and our instinct is to say, ‘That’s not true!’ because it hurts us deeply to hear our kids hurting.’”
But when they tell us something that’s bothering them, and our parental instinct is to immediately respond “that’s not true,” they hear that we don’t believe them, Ream warned. Or that their own instincts or read on a given situation are not to be trusted.
“Even if what they’re saying is silly, it’s their reality at the end of the day. It’s not our job to tell them they’re wrong. It’s really our job to hear them out,” Ream said. Instead, be curious. Ask questions like: What makes you think that?
Remember: Our job as parents is not to fix everything for our kids, as much as we might like to. Nor is it to have a perfect script all the time. (There isn’t one!) Our job is to make sure our children feel comfortable coming to us with all of their emotions — good ones and tough ones — for years to come, and to really listen when they do.