Words Hurt: Five Tips to Help Parents Communicate Better

Wednesday, June 18, 2014
The nursery rhyme has it wrong. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can definitely hurt you. Children are especially vulnerable to their parents’ offhand snarky remarks or angry rebukes, not yet having developed an adult’s thick skin or understanding of sarcasm.
newlin-poster“How you interact with children provides a foundation for how they relate to themselves and others as adults,” says Elizabeth Newlin, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and director of the Adolescent Treatment Program at Menninger. “When they repeatedly hear hostile, critical or shaming words, this can have a profound impact on their emerging personalities.”
Parents aren’t perfect, and the wrong words do slip out from time to time, Dr. Newlin says. But if you can, try to avoid using the following words and phrases:

Words that compare

  • You are just like your ____.
  • Why can’t you make good grades like your _____?
“Being critical and negatively comparing children with others doesn’t motivate them to do better,” Dr. Newlin says. “If children have a more negative self-view, then if they fail while someone else succeeds, they may think, ‘I am not as good. Why bother even trying?’ Children with a more positive self-view are more resilient, and try again even after they fail.”

Words that blame

  • You are driving me crazy.
  • You are killing me.
  • You are trying to make me miserable.
While utter frustration drives many parents to use these phrases, try instead to single out the child’s behavior (“I don’t like it when you run and scream in the house”) rather than blaming the child (“You are going to give me a heart attack!”). And whenever possible, strive to balance criticism with warmth.
“A good rule of thumb is to give three accepting statements for every criticism,” Dr. Newlin says.

Words that shame

  • I thought you were better than that ... that isn’t how I raised you.
  • You should be ashamed of yourself.
“There is solid research to support that childhood feelings of shame, or feeling less valued than other members of the family, are linked to psychological and behavioral problems in adulthood and an increased risk of self-injury and suicide,” Dr. Newlin says.

Words that focus on weight or appearance

  • You are fat (chubby, putting on weight)
  • Should you be eating that?
“Modeling a healthy lifestyle is the best way to instill healthy habits in your child,” Dr. Newlin says. “Emphasizing their appearance and scrutinizing what they eat is not helpful, and in some cases can lead to eating disorders. Children benefit from parents who accept them and support their development of a balanced self-appraisal.”

The final word

“All parents make mistakes,” Dr. Newlin says. “When you say something you believe has injured your child, help them find words to express their hurt feelings. Make it safe for them to let you know they are vulnerable, and be willing to humble yourself enough to make the necessary repair.”