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The Worst Things to Say to Your Children

Jules Ker has worked as a behavioral health therapist for 12 years. She treats children, adults, and couples.

What shouldn't you say to your kids?

What shouldn't you say to your kids?

What Can't I Say?

Parenting is hard. There is no instruction manual and every child is different, which makes parenting even harder. Most parents get frustrated with their child(ren)'s behavior at some point. It's easy to get carried away by the anger and say things that are not helpful and that may be hurtful. The following is a list of phrases to avoid saying to your child(ren) due to the damage they can cause.

You are naughty/bad.

This is one of the most common phrases used by parents. As part of my work with children, I have heard parents say this to their children during a therapy session. Children themselves have said to me, "That's naughty," when I describe behaviors such as hitting others and scribbling on school books.

The problem with this phrase is it sends the message there is something wrong with your child, that there is a piece of them that is messed up. In reality, we all make poor choices from time to time, whether we are a child or an adult. These poor choices don't mean we are inherently bad/naughty. It simply means a poor selection was made when it came to the decision-making process. These should be moments to help your child learn from their mistakes rather than negatively impact their self-esteem.

Next time your child does something that you don't like, try saying one of the following:

  • "I am not happy with your behavior."
  • "It is not ok that you (fill in the blank with the specific behavior)."

The idea is to avoid using labels such as "good" and "bad" when commenting on behaviors so that your child doesn't get confused and think those characterizations apply to them as a person. This means it is not okay to substitute "That was bad" in place of "You are naughty/bad". If you have ideas on other neutral phrases to use, feel free to share them in the comments section below.

I wish you were never born.

Yes, it's shocking to think that anyone would ever tell their child "I wish you were never born". Sadly enough, I have had children tell me their parents have actually used the above phrase or something similar. Maybe more surprising is that I've had parents admit they have said this to their child. I've even had adoptive parents tell their adoptive child they would like to send the child back to the country where the child was born.

Telling a child "I wish you were never born" is much worse than telling a child they are naughty. This type of statement sends the message that the child is unwanted/unloved because of a mistake that was made. If a child believes making mistakes leads to people not liking or loving them, then the child may go to great lengths to avoid making mistakes or to cover up those mistakes. They may strive for the unreachable goal of perfection, which places lots of stress on them and can lead to anxiety and depression. On the other end of the spectrum, a child may become a good liar or manipulator so that mistakes are not discovered. Is either of these really something you want to teach your child?

Sit still! Stop that!

Truthfully, who hasn't said this to their child at some point in time? Furthermore, how often do we hear other parents telling their children to "Stop it" or "Sit still"? Unfortunately, these phrases rarely work.

It's easy to fall into the trap of believing that a child isn't following the command to "sit still" or "stop it" because he is stubborn and doesn't want to listen. In reality, many children are developmentally not capable of sitting still and controlling their behavior. Children may exhibit fidgety or restless behaviors until age 10 or older, depending on whether or not they have any underlying conditions such as ADHD. This is because most children, and adults, have a relatively short attention span unless they are engaged in something they really find interesting.

Additionally, most kids aren't going to stop doing something unless there is some type of motivation for them to stop the behavior. This might mean they need another behavior to engage in instead. For example, if you would like your 6-year-old to sit still and be quiet in church you might need to consider bringing some coloring books or small toys with you to entertain the child. Of course, there is the option of using consequences or rewards to get a child to stop engaging in certain behavior. The downside to this tactic is that if the child is only temporarily changing her behavior rather than learned ways to change the behavior long term.

Why did you do that?

I realize it's a natural tendency for most of us to want to know the reasons why someone did or didn't do something. The problem is that children often don't know why they did what they did. They might have scribbled on the wall because it seemed like a fun thing to do at the time. Or perhaps they were mad because they couldn't have ice cream for dessert. Either way, chances are the child is not going to have the skills to be able to identify and/or explain the reason. Children need to be taught how to identify and appropriately express their emotions.

One way to teach those skills is to identify the emotion for them and then check for accuracy. Doing this might sound something like "You seemed angry when I said you couldn't have any ice cream. Is that why you scribbled on the wall?" Your child then gets to confirm or deny the accuracy of your statement.

Another option is to give your child some choices to pick from regarding why they did something. Here's how this would sound: "Did you scribble on them all because you were mad at me or because you had a bad day at school"? You can offer more choices if the child doesn't pick from the ones given. Only offer reasons that you know are applicable to your child. For example, don't ask if they did something because they had a bad day at school if you don't actually know they had a bad day at school. When I work with children, I tend to offer options based on typical responses I get from my other clients - someone called them a name, they were left out, they got told no, etc.

This tactic is particularly helpful for those children that have a harder time expressing themselves, regardless of their age, as it gives them the words to explain the situation. Then you can encourage your child to generate solutions for healthy ways to express their emotions the next time. You can say "It's ok to feel mad, sad, etc. It's not ok to throw things, hit yourself, ( fill in other behavior as necessary) when you are feeling that way. What do you think you could do instead next time"? Again, if the child has a hard time coming up with some ideas provide several choices for him to pick from. You can then continue to reinforce the appropriate verbal communication of feelings as well as the use of healthy coping skills. If your child really seems to be struggling with his emotions and these suggestions have not helped, consider seeking aid from a therapist who is trained to deal with these types of issues.


Ok, part of parenting means telling a child "no" from time to time. The reason this made the list is that frequently parents tell their children "no" and offer little other explanation along with it. Here are a few guidelines for how to properly tell a child "no".

1. Be specific about what behavior the no is connected to. If your child is attempting to eat dog food, tell her "Don't eat the dog food" instead of saying no. Here is another example: your son wants ice cream and wants to go to his friend's house. "No" could pertain to one or both of those requests. Being specific lets him know which request is being granted or denied. This tactic works well for both younger and older children.

2. Give a reason why "no" was said. Offering an explanation for why the child can't or shouldn't do something provides two benefits: the child may more easily accept the "No" and they have an understanding of why the behavior shouldn't be repeated (as in the case of eating dog food, which the child might find disgusting and could make him sick).

3. Offer a compromise. Give the child something else to play with instead of the cherished family vase she is interested in. Tell your child they can't have ice cream tonight but perhaps could have it on the weekend.

In situations where safety is involved such as your child going to run out into the street or is about to stick her finger in the electrical socket, it's ok to hold off on following the above guidelines until you can ensure your child is safe. Once safety is restored, explain to your child the hazards of what he was about to do.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Imran khan from Mumbai on February 25, 2020:

The article throws much light. I am glad to have read it. Thank you.