“There is nothing wrong with you…”
How many times have these possibly well intentioned phrases come out of our mouth when interacting with an upset child?
These phrases, while intended to de-escalate an emotional child, can actually feel very dismissive and contradictory to what the child is actually experiencing at the emotional level. In this two-part series, we’ll take a look at the language we use with children that can actually be harmful and dismissive, and then explore alternative language to use in your interactions instead.
5 Harmful Phrases for Children – and What to Say Instead
The thing about using the phrase, “you’re okay,” is that your child is, in fact, NOT okay.
Whatever he or she is upset about most likely does not seem like a big deal to a regulated adult, but it is a very big deal to a young child learning to navigate situations for the first time. For example, telling a child that is terrified of the dark, “you’re okay” can make it feel like you are being dismissive of a very real fear to them. Instead, ask your child, “Would a flashlight make you feel better?”
Instead of “you’re okay…” try, “It’s okay to feel (scared, nervous, angry, sad, etc.). What can I do to help you feel better?”
“Big boys/girls don’t cry!”
If we do not want our children to grow up viewing tears as a sign of weakness, we must stop attempting to shut down tears every time we see them in children. By allowing your child to express his or her emotions freely, he will also learn appropriate ways to regulate, which is an important skill to use throughout life.
Instead of “Big boys/girls don’t cry!” try, “You seem really disappointed about (insert what child is upset about here). Would you like a hug, or would you like some space?”
“It’s no big deal”
Telling your child that their concerns or needs are “not a big deal” is dismissive, and may cause them to bottle up their feelings in the future.
Instead, try your best to empathize with your child, even as you are setting a boundary or saying no to whatever it is they are wanting. Saying something like “I know you are disappointed, but we are just not able to go to the park today” is far more respectful and less dismissive than “It’s no big deal” to a child who feels like being denied is a really big deal.
Instead of “It’s no big deal” try “I know you are (disappointed, sad, upset, etc.) but we cannot do (activity, event, etc.) because (reason why).”
“Why did you (insert choice here)?”
Allow time to cool off before asking a child, “Why did you (insert choice here)?” Thinking about why he or she acted in a certain way is a pretty complex skill, even for adults. Trying to force your child to answer why questions in a heated moment will likely result in your child shutting down and not communicating or becoming even more emotional.
Instead of “Why did you (insert choice here)?”, try offering your child some quiet time before discussing the issue together.
“You’re so beautiful/smart/judgment words”
When we place judgment on a child, even the positive kind, it makes children insecure about what they must do to continue to earn that praise. Positive, but specific, feedback is always best. “I really appreciate the way you helped clean up after lunch” is better than “Good job” which may leave a child confused over what they were being praised for and what action you would like to see again.
Here are a few more examples of ways to be specific with praises: “Your hair is so shiny today…you must have taken extra time brushing it”, “I love all the bright colors you used in your picture”, and “Thanks for picking up your toys…you are so helpful today!”
Instead of “You’re so beautiful/smart/judgment words” or “Good job”, try to be specific with praises and positive feedback.
Many of these phrases in isolation seem very well intentioned, meant to calm an escalated child or gently force a move into a different direction. However, allowing your child to experience and process unpleasant emotions is actually critical in helping them learn the skills needed to regulate emotions long term.
So often, as a mom, I realize that I would like to shut down tears quickly because they make me uncomfortable in some way (embarrassed out in public, helpless and I do not want my children to be sad or uncomfortable, guilty over some limit I have or need to set). However, dismissing and discouraging these glimpses of emotion does not help my children learn to regulate in healthy ways.
For more advice on parenting and building family relationships, check out our other resources for parents below:
- Kids Mental Health Resource Page
- Dealing with Stressful Moments: 5 De-Escalation Techniques for Avoiding the Meltdown
- Time to Talk…Practical Ways to Facilitate Conversations with Your Children
- Let’s Talk about our Feelings: Building Emotional Intelligence in our Children
You can also visit our FB group dedicated to parents and those who work with youth. There is a wealth of resources there on tending to the mental health of our children. You can request to join here – looking forward to seeing you there!
About the Author: Brandy Browne
Brandy Browne is an early childhood educator in the United States, as well as a family coach and blogger for UnStuck (www.unstucks.com), her family coaching service aimed at helping families develop positive habits and breaking the cycle of generational trauma and poverty.
Her education is in early and elementary education, and she also has a masters degree in parenting and child/adolescent development. Brandy is a wife to her high school sweetheart of fifteen years, and together they share three children, aged ten, seven, and five. In her free time, she enjoys reading, gardening, writing, and distance running.