If you have kids, babysit kids, or simply spend a lot of time around your friends' kids, then you already know they are little sponges. Children have a way of soaking up what we say, mulling it over, repeating it — and sometimes even holding onto comments and criticisms for the rest of their lives. So, for all of those reasons and more, there are definitely a few things you shouldn't say around a child, if you can help it.
Of course, we all make mistakes and occasionally say things we don't mean, especially during the heat of an argument, or when a child is being particularly difficult. To make amends, often all it takes is an apology and a quick explanation as to why you were upset, or why you said something you didn't mean.
"For all kids, they have a fundamental trust in you and that you are looking out for them," clinical psychologist Dr. Josh Klapow, host of The Web Radio Show, tells Bustle. "What you say is filtered through that belief, so what you say and the words you use carry a lot of weight."
There are, however, harsh words and phrases we should try to avoid at all costs, as well as fairly common comments we should banish from our repertoire. Take, for example, seemingly benign statements such as "go give Grandma a kiss." It may seem sweet to encourage a kid to show affection towards an adult, but doing so can actually have damaging ramifications. And that's why it's important to pick and choose what we say, and avoid some of the phrases below, as they can truly have an impact on kids.
1"Go Kiss Grandma"
So many kids are forced to hug or kiss a friend or relative, even when they don't want to. And while some don't mind at all, it can teach others that they don't have control over their bodies, that they're at the mercy of adults, and that they don't have a choice in when they show affection. And that's not OK.
Instead, "teach kids they have choices as to who gets to touch them," therapist Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW, tells Bustle. "They should never be forced to hug or kiss anyone. Instead ask 'would you like to kiss grandma goodbye?' If the answer is no, leave it at that."
2"You Are Bad"
If a kid is doing something wrong, it's important to let them know. But there's a big difference between addressing bad behavior, and saying the kid is bad.
As relationship therapist Elisabeth Goldberg, LMFT tells Bustle, when you make a point of saying they are "bad," the child "internalizes this message as, 'You are not good and there is nothing you can do to change it. You will never be good enough.'" And that's a message that can stick with them as they grow up. Instead, you can be specific as to what behavior needs to be changed or stopped.
3"You'll Never Be Any Different"
Using language like "always" or "never" can teach a child that they're a hopeless case. And that's why it's important to avoid this type of permanent language — even when you're really frustrated or upset.
"For example, [adults] love to rattle off quips like you'll never, you won't, you can't, you always," Daniel Patterson, author of The Assertive Parent and founder of the Patterson Perspective, tells Bustle. "[But] statements like these place children in a box of negativity or permanence — suggesting that they are always a certain way, and incapable or unexpected to improve."
Patterson says using the word "never" also gives the child permission to "never" change, which is not a mindset they need to have as they're growing up.
When a kid is upset, adults often automatically try to calm them down, and tell them not to be upset. And yet, while it's of course important to comfort them, keep in mind that it's so easy cross the line into teaching a child that emotions aren't OK.
If they want to cry, be sure to tell them it's OK to cry. "It is important to allow kids to show their emotions, especially at an early age," Hershenson says. "They need to understand that sadness and anger are not only OK, but are healthy emotions."
5"Watch What You Eat"
"Many people are able to trace their chronic body dissatisfaction back to a young age or a parent's disordered eating habits," registered nutritionist Kathleen Meehan, MS, RD, LDN tells Bustle. Even a simple comment from a parent or grandparent, such as "watch what you eat" or "you don't need any more of that," can stick around for a lifetime. It's up to us adults to talk about food in a way that emphasizes the importance of nutrition.
6"It Won't Hurt"
Another knee-jerk comment adults tend to make is assuring kids something won't hurt, such as a shot at the doctor. But remember, it's perfectly OK to be real with them — it is going to hurt, and that's OK.
"The truth is getting a checkup isn't fun and sometimes needles or procedures hurt," Hershenson says. "Instead of telling your child it won't hurt, be honest in telling them they might feel pain but it will go away."
7"You Make Me So Angry"
As with adult relationships, we all know to use "I statements" instead of "you statements," as a way of having a conversation that remains neutral. But did you know the same is true when it comes to talking to kids?
Rather than saying, "Ugh, you make me so angry," Hershenson says you can try to "explain what your child did that upset you without placing blame. Use 'I' statements' such as 'I get upset when you throw your food on the floor. Do not do that.'" And you might find that you'll have more civil — and more effective — conversations.
8"All Women Do This"
Generalizing statements — such as "all women do this," or "all children do that" — can be incredibly damaging — it sets up that, if the child doesn't conform to the generalization, they are 'different'. So be careful when categorizing groups of people.
"A blanket statement is almost never what you mean it to be, but to the child it sounds very different," Caleb Backe, a health and wellness expert at Maple Holistics, tells Bustle. "It is always best to be more careful — albeit not completely censored — around children. There is more than one way to speak and phrase things."
9"I Look Horrible"
You would never tell a kid they look horrible, so it's important not to say it about yourself in their presence, either — as it can have almost the same effect.
"It isn’t just what you say to them... it is what you say about yourself in front of them," family therapist Caroline Madden, PhD, LMFT, tells Bustle. "First thing to look at is how you model self-care and positive self-talk. Kids (especially girls) pick up on the way their mothers feel about themselves."
So it's important to begin setting a good example early on, when it comes to taking time for yourself and projecting healthy self-esteem.
10"You're So Crazy"
Let's say you're around a child who's loud, or sassy, or excitable. You might be tempted to point it out or even comment on it as a positive by saying "you're so crazy!" — but this comment not only stigmatizes mental illness, it can stick with children as they grow up.
As therapist Heidi McBain, MA, LMFT, LPC, RPT tells Bustle, it's a negative way to interact with a kid. "They don’t need to hear your negativity," she says. "Try to build your child up so they leave a conversations with you feeling positive and happy, not overcome with worry about adult issues."
As with the needles and shots at the doctor, you might be tempted to shield kids from your emotional pain. And that's a worthwhile endeavor, to some degree. But there are benefits to being honest with them — especially when they can tell something is wrong.
"Children might not show it, but they are much more insightful and impressionable than most people think," Irina Baechle, LCSW, relationship therapist and dating coach, tells Bustle. "In reality, such phrases minimize the emotional experience and as a result, indicate to a child that 'feeling OK' is good while 'feeling angry or frustrated or sad' is not good."
12"You're Acting Dumb"
It's easy to slip up when you're upset and say something like "you're acting so stupid!" And when that happens, a quick apology can do wonders for smoothing over tense moments, and fixing mistakes. But do be aware that means comments and name-calling can leave a mark.
"Do not humiliate you child by name-calling," Klapow says. "You can tell them they have done something wrong, they have acted bad, mean, callus, malicious, but name-calling strikes at their core in a bad way." If you say they're dumb, they might just remember it forever.
13"Your Dad Is So Lazy"
Since kids learn about relationships from what they witness as they grow up, it's important to be a good role model for them, as often as possible. And that includes managing conflicts with friends and partners in a healthy way.
Doing so also spares them from internalizing things about themselves, that aren't necessarily true. As Madden says, "Keep in mind when fighting with your [partner] to not name-call or belittle [...] It is very upsetting to have someone call your parent names. Also, they are half their parent. If you call your [partner] lazy, your child might say 'I’m lazy like my dad.'" Which is, again, a lesson they can hold in their minds for years to come.
While it's obviously not possible to be on your game 100 percent of the time, we all have a responsibility to the kids in our lives to be good role models, spare them from drama, and teach them valuable lessons as often as possible, so they can have a better shot at growing up to be well-rounded, healthy adults.