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What Kids Really Mean When They Say Hurtful Things

Wednesday, March 5, 2014
In the heat of an argument, or just out of the blue, kids can say some pretty hurtful things to their parents. But parents can take solace knowing that such outbursts are usually how kids let off steam or communicate difficult emotions – not an attempt to intentionally wound them, say experts with The Menninger Clinic’s Adolescent Treatment Program (ATP).
 
“When your child pushes all your buttons, managing your distress can help you respond appropriately,” says Elizabeth Newlin, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and director of ATP. “Remind yourself of your child’s development stage and emotional maturity level. Seek out your own sources of support as well. Parenting is our most difficult but our most important work.”
 
“Kids need to feel that it is OK to express a wide range of emotions,” agrees Jennifer Crawford, PhD, an ATP psychologist. While parents may not like what their child is saying, “We need to try hard to separate the underlying meaning of their words from the words themselves.”
 
So what are kids REALLY saying? Drs. Newlin and Crawford offer insight on some common hurtful phrases.
 
Leave me alone!
Parents hear their kids say this and may think, “My kid doesn’t want me around.” In actuality, their child may just need some space.
 
Dr. Newlin says this phrase often comes up in the midst of a conflict – like when the child doesn’t want to talk about something, but the parent just won’t let it go. She advises parents to give children the space they crave and to check back with them when they are calmer.
 
“You may need to help them develop palatable words to express their need for space,” Dr. Newlin says. “You can say, ‘When I heard you tell me to leave you alone, I felt bad. Maybe next time, ask me for space, and I can give it to you.’”
 
Parents and children can also agree on a non-verbal way to communicate the need for space, like a do-not-disturb sign on a bedroom door, wearing certain clothing or handing the parent a card that says, “I need my space,” Dr. Crawford adds.
 
I want to be like (Daddy, or Mommy, the opposite parent) when I grow up!
We don’t want to admit this one hurts, but deep down it often does. Shouldn’t your child want to be like you?
“I would be careful about reading any negative intention into that,” Dr. Newlin says. “It is normal to identify with one parent or the other in the development. Try not to personalize that statement.”
 
If you respond defensively, you will close off communication with your child instead of opening a dialogue that could yield new insights. What does your daughter like about her dad? Is she interested in his type of work? What does your son see in his mom? Does he like her sense of humor or career choice? If you interpret your child’s words critically and communication breaks down, you will likely miss out on important information that your child may have to share.
 
I wish I had cool parents like Emily (or Hannah or Ethan or Isaac … )
It’s tough being called the “uncool” parent, especially if you’ve always thought of yourself as the hip one.
“It’s OK to be uncool,” Dr. Crawford says. “But stick to your values and remain curious about what your child is thinking and feeling. For instance, why are Emily’s parents so cool? Does she get to stay out longer? Does your child feel you are too restrictive?”
 
After listening to your child, you may find out how to add some more “coolness” into your family life – laughing more, spending more time together and taking family vacations – without compromising your values.
 
I hate you!
This phrase is the biggie. But it is not as big as parents think.
 
“Lots and lots of kids will say this when they are very angry,” Dr. Newlin says.
 
By nature, children are more impulsive. Their regulatory skills are still developing, and they often talk without thinking. The words may simply slip out. That doesn’t mean they hurt any less.
 
“But if you do talk to kids when they calm down a bit, and if you communicate the impact their words had on you, you’ll find children are often quite remorseful,” Dr. Crawford says.
 
“If you can, try to separate the underlying need or feeling that your child is communicating from the words,” she adds. “Modeling appropriate self-control is one of the most powerful teaching tools that we have to offer our children. By speaking to children calmly and honestly – without anger, harsh criticisms, blame, putdowns or threats – children can learn to better control their own emotions and to communicate in an assertive and compassionate manner.”