Family Counselor: How Parents Can Avoid the Destructive Messages We May Be Sending Our Children Without Realizing It

The other day I was in a grocery store when I noticed a small child giving his mother a run for her money. As I watched the two of them, I could tell the mother was getting very tired; and in a moment of desperation, she directed a few unkind remarks toward her small son. As she did so, I wanted to say, “Please don’t. You may not mean what you just said, but your little boy will believe you! If he believes you, and such exchanges between you and him continue, I may find him in my office years later as a teenager or a grown man, wondering why he is such a failure and why he is never good enough.”  I think sometimes we forget how very powerful words are. For example:

  • • a stirring orator raises a crowd to their feet in momentous accolades
  • • a funeral eulogy pulls at the heartstrings allowing for tears to fall freely as the one who was loved is remembered and missed
  • • a conference address quiets the heart and emboldens the spirt as truths are taught and understood
  • • the quiet whispering of the Holy Spirt heals a broken heart as repentance is sought and the power of forgiveness is understood
  • • counsel from a loving father or mother helps a child feel safe and loved for who they are not what they do.

Or the opposite: Words spoken in anger, neglect, judgment, chastisement, comparison, or criticism create feelings of inadequacy, doubt, shame, and hurt. 

 Simple words such as, “Why aren’t you like your brother or sister?” “I expected more out of you,” “It is a good thing she is pretty,” “You are just not as smart as the rest of them,” “What were you thinking?” “Do you know how this looks?” “Why can’t you just get it right?” “Who do you think you are?” “You just don’t get it,” “ I am ashamed of you,” “I don’t want to hear your excuses,” “Don’t bother; you can’t do it anyway,” “You eat too much,” “I am so tired of you,” or “You just aren’t like the other kids” can crush spirits, drown self-esteem, and leave children and youth feeling unloved, unwanted, and worthless. Words can hurt the tender young heart so deep and so quick. 

Children by nature want to please their parents. They want parents to be proud of them. When a parent makes the mistake of using unkind words toward a child, the child—who usually wants to be like their parent and sees them as a role model—instead of seeing their parent as having made a mistake will internalize the interaction and believe there is something wrong with them and that they are bad or broken.

We as adults need to be ever mindful to protect these tender feelings by striving to speak with words and tones that offer guidance, trust, love, safety, hope, courage, spirituality, and that promote strong character development while allowing our children to understand we support them in failure and success. 

As a therapist, I have spent many years listening to adults and teenagers share with me the painful truths they believed about their child-self, teenage-self, and adult-self because of words spoken when they were children. It is so important to remember that children look up to their parents, children want to please their parents, and children believe their parents.

Promoting Unhealthy Body Image

For example, children often learn about their own body image from their parents and then their friends. When children hear their parents commenting on their own personal weight or about their child’s weight, the child may start doubting how they look, which can create body image issues during the teenage and adult years. A few weeks ago, an 8-year-old in my office noted she needed to go on a diet. When I asked her why, she responded, “Because my mom is. My mom thinks she is fat, but I think she looks like me.”

Parents need to be careful not to talk about personal weight issues around their kids. Avoid referencing physical attributes that may make kids feel self-conscious about how they look. It is so important to remember that kids are listening all the time. When and if such conversations regarding weight are needed, take time to do so in a private location with comments geared toward healthy family activities versus a child’s image or weight loss.

Commenting on Intelligence

Children at a very young age start to identify themselves as either smart or dumb, and often they decide this based on how parents and teachers respond to their academic performance. Parents, hoping to inspire their kids, may say things like “You can do better than this,” “Did you study?” “Why didn’t you pass?” "How did the other kids do?” “Your sister passed this no problem.” These are simple statements that may be intended to motivate a kid, but instead of being motivated, the child hears: “You are not smart.”

To help inspire and motivate children, parents can offer such statements as, “How did you feel about the test?” “What did you like about the test? What did you not like?” “Tests can be hard sometimes; is there anything you need from me to help you prepare for your test or to complete your homework?” etc. When we offer to help but not to do it for kids, we can gain their confidence and help them feel empowered to try. We can also help kids understand that some subjects will come easier for them than others and that is normal. Parents might also share a time when a certain subject was hard for them and how they managed it. Grades are important; however, it is the process of learning which is of greater value.

Allowing Children to Succeed and Fail

In this modern world, the terms helicopter and anticipatory parenting are the buzz words. Such parenting in limited use can help a child feel loved and supported.  When these parenting patterns become the norm, children can eternalize the perspective that they are not capable enough, so mom and dad have to rescue them. A better approach is to offer support and then allow them to succeed or fail. This helps them understand failure is a part of learning and succeeding. When kids are not allowed to process through their own failures, many kids grow up believing they do not have the skill sets to succeed.

Powerful Words from a Parent

As adults, it is our responsibility to protect these most tender developing spirits. If in a moment of frustration or anger we say something we shouldn’t, the powerful words “I am so sorry” and “Please forgive me” should be spoken swiftly along with an embrace and other healing words. 

Our beloved Savior taught us on more than one occasion to bridle our tongues.  May we constantly seek to find the good in the moment and let that be our focus as we love, guide, lift, praise, correct, and direct children. Just remember: there is a big difference between saying “What were you thinking?” to a child who just drove with his lights off across the golf course and hit a rock compared with “Can you please tell me why you were driving across the golf course with the lights off?” Lead with love, and correction will be received as it is intended: to build character and to offer insight.

Lead image from Getty Images

Christy Kane PhD, CMHC

Dr. Christy Kane, PhD, CMHC, is a licensed mental health counselor who practices in Utah County and in Salt Lake. Dr. Kane works with adults and teenagers. Connect with her through her website, TotumLink.com, and her facebook page, facebook.com/TotumLink/About her work, Dr. Kane says,"It is an amazing experience to help others overcome difficult moments in their lives."

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