Children believe what their parents tell them.
“You disgust me!”
“You’re pathetic. You can’t do anything right!”
“You can’t be my kid.”
“Hey stupid! Don’t you know how to listen.”
“I’m sick of looking at your face!”
“I wish you were never born!”
Words are as hard as a fist. Next time, stop and listen to what you’re saying. You might not believe your ears.
We have all done it. We have all had it done to us. We have been hurt by unnecessary words and we have hurt others in the same manner. When we were children, there were times when our parents uttered hurtful, condescending words in a moment of anger. Many of those we may remember more clearly than others. Some of them left scars. You may even remember thinking; “I will never, ever talk to my children that way.” However, this negative speech was role modeled for us so well that we not only repeated it, but we may even do it better. We have become the “put-down” kings and queens of parenting.
Now you may say, “hey, wait a minute, they deserve it. They forgot their homework for the umpteenth time, failed to do their chores, were late getting home from work, and so on. They earned my wrath. If they don’t want to be talked to in this manner, then they should change their behavior.” I am sure that our parents had similar thoughts. Yet, this tactic rarely resulted in improved behavior. Instead, it led to resentment and bitterness. Why? Because the hurtful words were not needed. They were not about improving behavior (if they were there are better ways to accomplish this). They were more about reacting out of anger and a desire to win or “put our kids in their place.” Sure our children disobey and make mistakes. However, this does not give us the right to be hurtful. Remember, we are supposed to be the adults not just bigger teenagers with power. So, what are some better ways that we can talk with our children? Let’s look at four all too common phrases that are used with teenagers and see if there aren’t some better words to put in their place.
“Why can’t you be like _____ ? We usually make this statement when we want a particular behavior to change. Yet, we make a statement such as “why can’t you be more like your brother Steven, his room is always clean?” Do we really want him to be more like Steven (who also has faults) or do we want him to clean his room better? Perhaps we can replace this phrase with words that indicate the behavior we would like to have corrected. When our child understands that we are more interested in a change of behavior rather than a change in identity, he will be more likely to work on it.
“How could you be so stupid?” Did this statement from your parents ever create in you positive feelings and an increase in common sense? Hardly. It created anger and defensiveness. Instead, it is important to give positive reinforcement. Take the time to explain and show your child how to complete the task. Sometimes explanation is all that is needed. When confronted with a lack of knowledge, I have heard parent’s say, “well, if you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you.” Of course, this statement makes no sense and maybe shows us to be the less than intelligent one.
“I sometimes wish I’d never had kids.” This is usually said out of anger and frustration. In a calmer state, we would not mean this and would not say it. When we say this, we are expressing our frustration. However, our children hear in this statement, “you’re worthless and I don’t want you.” This is not what we really want to communicate. Instead, let’s say what we mean, “I am very angry at you right now.”
“Do it – or else.” Empty threats undercut a parent’s authority. The child is encouraged to test you further and continue with the same behavior. A better plan is to choose a specific consequence that you will impose if the behavior continues. For example, “if you break curfew again, you will not be allowed to go out the following weekend.” Children need reasonable limits. Be consistent in setting and following through with them.
If you have said hurtful things to your child, you can still repair the damage. Do not be afraid to go back to your child and say, “I said something cruel and hurtful to you when I was angry. I didn’t mean it, I was wrong, and I am sorry.” Many parents mistakenly believe that this weakens their position as an authority. Reality is that is does just the opposite. A willingness to humbly admit your mistakes reveals you as more authentic to your children. You will win their respect. You will also role model for them how to create and maintain genuine relationships.