Child Therapy,  Parenting,  Self Esteem

8 Damaging Phrases Parents Say


There is no saying I dislike more than “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

In what world is that true?! 

In fact, research shows words DO matter. There is a direct relationship between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and life-long negative consequences on physical and mental health. Of the ten original studied ACEs, TWO had to do with words and were considered verbal and emotional abuse. Furthermore, the negative physical effects of emotional abuse were actually slightly larger than those from physical abuse. The two questions measuring emotional abuse are below: 

Before you were 18, did a parent or another adult in the household often or very often swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you, or act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?

Before you were 18, did you often or very often feel that no one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special, or your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other or support each other?

CDC-Kaiser Ace Study, 1998

Children often look towards their parents to find truth and safety in the world. You have great power over your children’s self-esteem and mental health – and your words are no exception. Let’s take a look at some of the most damaging things parents say to children, and what can be said instead. 

1. Name Calling in General 

Calling a child fat, stupid, mean or any other negative insult will stick with them FOREVER. Even once. Those words will be internalized as truth and are very hard to reverse in adulthood. The only advice for this, would be to refrain from doing it.

Oftentimes, this statement is a projection of one parent’s negative feelings towards another, and the child is just the vehicle for those feelings. However, the statement implies to the child that they remind you of someone you dislike, and therefore you dislike them. This statement makes the child feel shame for simply being who they are, which is half of one of their parents. It also just makes the child more aware of any animosity between their parents. Further, it takes away the responsibility from the child – it’s not your fault you act that way, you inherited it. 

2. You’re Acting Just Like Your Mother/Father

Before saying such, pause and ask yourself if it is the child’s behavior you don’t like, or their other parent’s. If it is truly the child’s, focus on the behavior, rather than where you think they got the behavior. 

3. I love You But.. 

Adding a “but” after I love you implies to a child that your love is conditional. Because you are their world, they will then travel through life believing that love is conditional. Instead of “but” try “and.”“I love you but you need to get your grades up” (implies I only love you when your grades are good”

 “I love you AND you need to get your grades up” (no matter what your grades are, I will always love you”

4. Why Can’t You Be More Like ___?

Like many of these other phrases, this one also implies, “you are not enough.” Sadly, comparisons are often made between siblings, which then has a damaging effect on the sibling relationship. Is there a part of your child you don’t like or a behavior? If it’s a part of who they are, there is no benefit in pointing it out. If it’s a behavior, focus on that. No comparisons necessary.

5. Where Did I Go Wrong? I guess I’m Just a Horrible Parent. 

photo of man touching his head
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

This insecurity in your parenting should not be placed on your child. A child’s mistake does not equate a bad parent, nor does it equate to a bad child. This statement is often said when a parent does not feel adequate and therefore is relying on their child to assure them “no no mom/dad you were amazing, I’m the bad one.” Your child probably already feels bad for their misconduct, adding that they are now a burden to you only furthers the wound. It also takes the responsibility off of the child – if I did a better job parenting you wouldn’t have done that. 

If you feel you did play a role in the misconduct, reflect privately on what you can do differently in the future. You may even ask your child, “How can I better support you in the future so that you do not choose to X again?”

6. You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself 

Parents often use this term to shame a child into changing their behavior. However, guilt is what alerts us to change a behavior; Shame is simply internalized as “I’m not good enough” or “I can’t do anything right.” It is most likely that your child is already experiencing guilt. Adding shame can, in fact, backfire. If a child feels like they can do nothing right, then they will often fulfill that schema. 

Avoid shaming your child. Again, focus on the behavior, not them as a person. 

7. I Can’t Deal with That Right Now

stressed woman covering her face with her hands
Photo by Anna Shvets on

This phrased is often used by parents who are overwhelmed, scared and confused about how to help a child who just brought them a problem: whether it be a poor grade, a mental health issue or drugs. Again, kids look to you for safety. So, if you can’t deal with it, who can? The child is coming to you for help, because they have decided it is outside of their current capabilities to help themselves. Such a phrase leaves them feeling like the problem is one that can’t be dealt with or handled. It will also deter them from coming to you in the future. Instead, try: “I’m not 100% sure how to help you with that, but I know someone who can/but there are people and I will make sure together we figure it out.”

8. You’re the Smart One (Labeling)

Refrain from labeling your child as anything. It can create a lot of anxiety for a child to live up to that label. Things get harder for kids as they age, and if they no longer ARE the athletic/smart/nice/well behaved child, then they feel lost, anxious and depressed. Compliments are great! But try to make them based on a behavior, rather than all encompassing. 

photo of mother working at home
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on

“You’re the athletic one” 

“You’re really working hard at soccer this year”

Some of these statements are ingrained in us from our childhood, and can be almost automatic. Work to notice when you want to say them to a child, and try to see if you can communicate it in a more effective way. If you have already said some of these things, or do so in the future, you’re human. Simply apologize to your kiddo and try better next time. 

Article written by Brittany LaFleur, LCPC

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