9 ‘Harmless’ Phrases That Hurt Kids More Than You Think

a mom using hurtful words on accident iStock

Some of these might surprise you

No matter how hard you try, there will come a point in your parenting journey when you say some hurtful words that seem fairly harmless but in fact, aren’t. You might not notice it at first. It might be something you grew up hearing in your own household. But sometimes, you’ll catch yourself and wonder if that was the right thing to say. Like when you find your child dumping their kinetic sand in the toilet and immediately respond with, “What is wrong with you?!” only to instantly see their faces turn, reminding you they’re just being kids.

Is it the worst thing to say “What is wrong with you?” to your child? Not exactly, but depending on your tone, you might end up causing them to feel shame as if they’re a problem that needs to be fixed (which they clearly are not). So what are some other “harmless” phrases we should be looking out for day to day? Read on to find out—you’ll probably be surprised by a few.

1. Anything that insinuates that expressing emotion is bad

No one likes to hear their child cry, but shedding tears is perfectly healthy. Unfortunately, we have several phrases that shame our kids out of feeling their feelings. “We are essentially teaching kids to ignore and push away feelings of sadness and anger which are important emotions that signal our bodies to pay attention to triggers/important information,” says Dr. Anjali Ferguson, clinical psychologist and children’s book author.

  • Stop crying and be a big boy/girl: Dr. Sanam Hafeez, neuropsychologist and director of Comprehend the Mind, says this phrase is harmful because it teaches children to suppress their feelings to fit into a specific gender stereotype or societal expectation of what it means to be “big.”
  • Boys don’t cry: Dr. Hafeez says this hurtful phrase reinforces toxic masculinity and can lead boys to suppress their emotions and feelings. “It’s crucial to teach boys that expressing their emotions is okay and that vulnerability is a strength, not a weakness.”
  • Stop being so sensitive: Vanssa Kahlon, Family Interventionist and Founder of Kahlon Family Services says this phrase can invalidate children’s feelings. “It sends the message that expressing emotions is something to be ashamed of or avoided, which can be harmful to a child’s emotional development.

2. ​​Eat everything on your plate.

Dr. Hafeez says that while it’s essential to encourage children to eat healthy and try new foods, this phrase can be harmful as it can lead to overeating and a negative relationship with food. “Instead, encourage children to listen to their bodies and eat until they are satisfied rather than forcing them to clean their plates,” she adds.

3. Be careful! You’re going to hurt yourself.

“While it’s natural to want to protect children from harm, this phrase can be harmful as it can lead to unnecessary fear and anxiety. Children need opportunities to explore and take risks to learn and develop their physical and cognitive abilities,” says Dr. Hafeez. Instead of constantly warning kids to be careful, she recommends simply supervising and guiding them as they learn and grow.

4. Don’t talk to strangers.

It’s good to teach kids about safety, but Dr. Hafeez says this phrase can instill an unnecessary fear of people they don’t know. “Teaching children how to recognize unsafe situations, ask for help when needed, and communicate effectively with others is better,” she says.

5. That’s life.

Mendi Baron, LCSW and CEO of Moriah Behavioral Health says adults tend to use this phrase as a catch all for when something bad happens. This implication can cause a child to internalize that all life is made up of bad things, causing unnecessary fear and worry. “We never say ‘That’s life’ to good things that happen. Explaining that certain things in life are going to happen is ok, but we tend to only generalize the negative things,” says Baron.

Related: 8 Ways to Say ‘No’ to Your Kid (Without Actually Saying It)

a mom using hurtful words without realizing it

6. I don’t know.

Baron says it’s important to acknowledge when you truly don’t know the answer to a question, but phrasing it this way doesn’t allow room for growth. More than that, this backfires on parents as he says it’s why our kids and teens end up defaulting to “I don’t know” when they want to avoid answering questions. “It’s better to say that’s a good question, followed by, ‘I will find out the answer or look for an answer,’” says Baron.

7. You’re so smart!

It’s so easy to utter this seemingly harmless phrase whenever your child gets a good grade or figures out a complex problem, but it’s good to think twice before using it. According to Kahlon, “This phrase may seem like a compliment, but it can actually be harmful to a child’s self-esteem in the long run. By constantly telling a child that they’re smart, they may start to feel pressure to live up to that label and become afraid of making mistakes or taking risks.”

8. Making a promise and not following through.

We’ve all been there. You really did mean to finish that game of Monopoly with your kid tomorrow, but then work ran late, and dinner needed to be made, and suddenly it’s 9 pm and everyone’s got to get to bed. While this is okay once in a while, you don’t want to make this a habit. “Children thrive on routine and predictability, so inconsistency can be harmful to their sense of stability and security. It’s important to follow through with promises and set clear expectations to help children feel safe and secure,” says Kahlon.

9. Anything relating to being “good” or “bad.”

Kahlon and Dr. Ferguson both offered examples that emphasize children’s behavior as good or bad, both of which can be harmful.

  • You’re being bad/naughty: “This type of labeling can be harmful to a child’s self-esteem and may lead them to internalize negative beliefs about themselves. Instead of labeling the behavior, try addressing it specifically and focusing on positive reinforcement for desired behavior, ” says Kahlon.
  • Were you good today?: “This phrase gives the message that parental attention and/or affection is only provided when behaving well,” says Dr. Ferguson. She adds that this hurtful phrase also ignores the fact that it’s normal for moods to fluctuate and that even kids can have “tough days.” Instead, she recommends asking your child what they found challenging today, or what were their wins or successes. “For young children, you can even ask them what made them happy today and what made them sad,” she says.
  • Make sure you behave: Dr. Ferguson says that many times, we use these hurtful words with good intentions, hoping to promote positive behavior. “This statement can often be ineffective because it is not specific enough for what we want out of a child’s behaviors.” She offers the example of imagining getting a new assignment from your supervisor who simply says “do a good job” without offering any guidance on how to achieve that goal. “Instead, try giving 2-3 specific behaviors for children to focus on. For example, when walking into a new environment, remind your child to 1. Use walking feet, 2. Keep your hands in your pockets, 3. Use an inside voice,” she says. This way, you’re setting up your child for success.

Related: 8 Things NOT to Say to Your Daughter


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