Is it wrong to say ‘Because I said so’ to a child? Or ‘stop crying’?

A parent’s words have weight and can stay with a child, so child experts offer up some phrases that parents should avoid.

A parent’s words have weight and can stay with a child, so child psychologists offer up some phrases that parents should avoid.

It’s happened to every parent. In a moment of stress, or in an attempt to soothe our children, we say something we regret, either immediately or hours later.

A parent’s words have weight and can stay with a child longer than you might think. Here, child psychologists and a licensed clinical social worker offer up some phrases that parents should avoid: 

‘You make me so mad’

In psychology, this phrase — an attempt to make someone else responsible for your feelings — is known as “blame shifting.” Rather than owning your feelings and modeling that for your children, you’re putting the locus of control on the child and making them responsible for you. Not only is that unfair, it’s too much for a child to handle.

It’s OK, of course, to share less than warm feelings with your children. But there’s a way to do that. You want to calmly say something like “I don’t like it when you (fill in the blank here),” suggests licensed clinical social worker Amy Morin or “When you x, I feel y.”

Try to be as specific and nuanced and fine-grained as possible with your feelings as possible (rather than using the broad “I feel bad,” for example, say, “I feel frustrated”) as you are modeling your child something called emotional granularity, which, research shows, is beneficial to mental health. 

This language also makes it clear that your feelings are not about the child, but about a specific, changeable behavior. (In contrast, a statement like “You make me mad” can make a child feel shame because the “you” suggests they are the problem). 

And if you do slip up and say something like “You make me so mad,” make sure to acknowledge the mistake by admitting it and apologizing to your child, Morin wrote for CNBC.

‘Calm down’ or ‘stop crying’

Both of these phrases lack empathy and teach children to deny or repress their feelings, which is bad for long-term emotional development and well-being. Telling someone who is upset to “calm down” or “stop crying” is also likely to backfire, leading to an outburst, according to Martha Deiros Collado, a clinical psychologist and the author of the forthcoming book “How to be the Grown Up.”

“You cannot bottle up emotion that needs to be released,” Deiros Collado told Huffpost. “Before the calm, the emotion needs to come out, and what it is trying to communicate needs to get heard.” 

And teaching a child to bottle things up can make trouble in the long term. “This can cause children to suppress feelings of sadness, which can lead to them withholding other emotions and contribute to anxiety or mood problems down the road,” Kristin Loiselle Rich, a pediatric psychologist at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and a pediatrics professor at the University of Cincinnati, told HuffPost. 

‘Everything will be OK’

Not only is this phrase dismissive of a child’s feelings, it’s often untrue. Sometimes, in life, things aren’t OK. And it’s important to prepare children for that reality. 

Telling children “that everything will always turn out well won’t prepare them for the future,” Morin wrote for CNBC. “Rather than telling them that there’s always a happy ending, teach them that they’re strong enough to handle life’s inevitable curveballs.”

So when something goes wrong — like when your child tries out for the travel soccer team and doesn’t make it, as happened in my home recently — rather than wiping it away with a blithe “everything will be OK,” you can dig in to the problem and try to figure out how to ready your child for the next opportunity.

In our family, we determined that my daughter needs to go harder after the ball; she often shies away from it during games, letting other girls score the goals. To do that, we need to spend more time on the field practicing together. She’s already decided to try out again next spring — but she’s also aware that she will need to prepare to do so. 

‘Because I said so’

This is also dismissive of a child’s feelings and the phrase lacks empathy. It also imparts a feeling of being totally out of control to children. It’s important to validate a child’s feelings and offer an age-appropriate explanation of why we are making the decisions we are making, according to Cindy T. Graham, a clinical psychologist. If your child continues to press after you’ve explained, however, set a boundary and tell them the topic is closed, Graham told HuffPost. 

‘Use your words’

This one is surprising as it is such a common parenting phrase. In fact, many of us believe that telling our children to use their words helps their emotional intelligence. It turns out that’s wrong. 

Children are sometimes reduced to whining and nonverbal behaviors because they can’t access the right words for their feelings, Deiros Collado explained. And it’s our job to help them with that; we can do so by modeling the target behavior.

For example, if a child is whining and we suspect it’s because they’re tired, we can, in an even tone, label the feeling and offer some help by saying something like, “It sounds like you’re tired. Maybe you want to take a nap?”

‘You’re so lazy’

“Lazy” is the sort of word that can stick with a person for life.

When you call a child lazy, you also run the risk of a child internalizing the label. To draw upon an analogy from education, think about what’s known as the Pygmalion effect: positive expectations lead to better performance. (Research has shown this is a potent idea in both the classroom and workplace). Conversely, negative expectations lead to worse performance. So calling a child “lazy” isn’t the motivation you might think it is.

Also, oftentimes, if kids are dawdling or procrastinating, it’s not out of laziness but, rather, because they lack the know-how to get something done, Ann-Louise Lockhart, a pediatric psychologist and parent coach, told HuffPost. 

“It’s important to find out what’s getting in the way of them completing the task and practice it over and over again,” Lockhart said. “That’s how strong skills and healthy habits are built.”