A parent’s words hold a lot of weight with their children – “You’re an idiot” coming from a child in the playground might be easily brushed aside, whereas the same words from a parent can have a devastating effect on a child.

I think we’d all agree that those kinds of words should never be used with our children. However, there are some less obvious things that we say, that on the surface might appear harmless, but can have a damaging long-term effect.

I wondered whether I need to change how I talk to our kids, so I went in search of articles from respected psychologists. Wow, there are some really long lists out there – 50 things not to say, 40 things you shouldn’t… – but there was a consistent theme. They all agree that parents should avoid words that downplay, ignore or deny the emotions expressed by a child.

My initial response was, ‘no, I’d never do that!’, but see if at least one or two of these have slipped into your vocabulary.

1. You’re Okay – this one is generally heard when a child has just explained that they’re hurt, upset etc. The intention is usually well-meaning in an attempt to put the traumatic event into perspective in terms of the bigger picture. However, the child has just shared how they’re feeling and we’re effectively telling them that they don’t understand their own feelings.

If we continually dismiss their feelings, we shouldn’t be surprised if our child eventually stops sharing.

Psychologists tell us that empathy is the better response when our children share how they’re feeling because  empathy fuels connection. Often we’re too quick to jump in and ‘fix’ a situation when what our child really needs is to know that they’ve been heard. (Here’s a brilliant explanation of what empathy looks like in practice:

2. Don’t cry – I recall my grandmother telling me (as a seven-year-old boy) when I’d just been told my mother passed away, ‘now come on, we don’t cry’. I’m sure she meant well at the time, but I would have thought that my tears were a perfectly appropriate emotional response given the news I’d just received.

Experts tell us that some of the health benefits of crying are:

  • Detox – emotional tears contain stress hormones and toxins, so crying helps to flush these out of our system
  • Dulls the pain – crying for long periods of time releases endorphins – a feel-good chemical that helps ease both physical and emotional pain
  • Self-soothing – crying activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) which helps your body rest and mentally process what’s happening

3. Finish your food – I’m definitely guilty of this one. Every year in Australia, 4 million tonnes of food ends up in a landfill, so clearly we don’t want to be adding to that statistic. When our child says midway through a meal, ‘I can’t eat any more’, most parents know if they’re just putting it on because they don’t want to eat their broccoli/brussels sprouts etc.

If we force them to finish when they’re genuinely full, we demonstrate that we’re not listening and we run the risk of creating unhealthy attitudes towards food.

In our house when serving up a meal, we ask, ‘how hungry are you on a scale of 1-5?’ This shows our children that we’re listening to them and gives them a degree of control over how much food is on their plate.