It’s no secret that kids are incredibly impressionable.
A parent’s words of wisdom can send powerful messages to their child.
Sometimes, parents can be harsh or angry, and say things in a way that hurts their children when they experience overwhelming emotions.
In some cases, it is unintentional.
But there are times when toxic parents are to blame.
Here are the worst things a parent can say to a child and why they are harmful not only to the child but also to the connection between parent and the child.
Signaling the child is unworthy
The following are some worst things parents say to their children conveying to them that they are unwanted, unloved, unvalued, or even abandoned. The child can have immense painful emotions and lose self-esteem as a result of this.
Furthermore, the child may feel that they have done something wrong to deserve such treatment or that they are not good enough. This can lead to a host of psychological problems in adulthood1.
- I wish you were never born.
- I wish you were the one who died instead of your brother.
- You were an accident. I never wanted you.
- You are nothing to me.
- Stop bothering me. I don’t want to know anything about you.
- Do the world a favor. Kill yourself.
- You won’t amount to anything.
- You’ll never be good enough.
Shaming and belittling the child
Parents shaming and belittling their children may seem like a harmless way to discipline, but in fact, it can have lasting effects on child development.
When children are made to feel small and insignificant, they internalize that feeling as a part of their identity. They begin to believe that they are not important and do not matter in the world, which can lead to depression or social anxiety later in life.
Putting children down teaches children that no one should treat others with respect or kindness. It prevents the child from becoming an empathic person and establishing good relationships with people.
Making a child ashamed of themselves is also associated with more adolescent delinquency and the occurrence of depression2.
- You’re so stupid.
- What are you depressed about? Just deal with it.
- You are nothing without me.
- I don’t understand why you are nothing like me.
- “No one likes a crybaby”
- I’m ashamed to call you my child.
- Stop doing those useless things.
- You are dead to me.
- You’re a failure.
- You’re such a disappointment.
- You’re a disgrace to the family.
- What’s your problem?
- Tough it out.
Some parents compare their children with siblings or peers on purpose, and some do it subconsciously. Either way, these damaging messages can have a negative impact on the child’s self-esteem.
They become less confident in themselves and their abilities, which can make it difficult for them to succeed at school or later at work.
Low self-esteem is also strongly associated with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression3.
- Why can’t you be more like your sister?
- Look at your friend. Why are you so much worse?
- Everyone else can do it. Why can’t you?
Prejudiced statements by parents can have a lasting effect on the way their children view themselves and the world.
Children are constantly learning and absorbing information from their surroundings. Negative comments about certain groups of people from someone they love and trust can profoundly affect their views of those groups of people, whether they’re aware of it or not.
Having grown up with negative stereotypes about who a certain group is, how they act, how they look, or what they believe may lead them to adopt those stereotypes themselves.
When they meet people who don’t adhere to their preconceived notions about what members of their own group should be like, they become closed-minded or suppress their own feelings4.
In addition, adolescents with parents who are unaccepting of them because they belong to a certain group suffer from more mental and physical health problems5.
- Boys don’t cry.
- Boys/girls don’t play with that kind of toy.
- Men are the breadwinners of the family. Women’s jobs are to find husbands and have children.
- If you <make a choice I don’t approve of>, you will not be my child anymore.
Authoritarian parents tend to use threatening statements to discipline their children. Threatening kids can make them feel as if they can’t express their own opinions or feelings, which can lead them to believe they don’t matter.
Children with coercive parents are more likely to develop conduct problems. Parental coercion is also a significant risk factor for mental illness in the future6.
- You’re living in my house. You follow my rules.
- Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.
- Because I said so.
- 1.Kernis MH, Brown AC, Brody GH. Fragile Self‐Esteem in Children and Its Associations With Perceived Patterns of Parent‐Child Communication. Journal of Personality. Published online April 2000:225-252. doi:10.1111/1467-6494.00096
- 2.Stuewig J, McCloskey LA. The Relation of Child Maltreatment to Shame and Guilt Among Adolescents: Psychological Routes to Depression and Delinquency. Child Maltreat. Published online November 2005:324-336. doi:10.1177/1077559505279308
- 3.Sowislo JF, Orth U. Does low self-esteem predict depression and anxiety? A meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Psychological Bulletin. Published online January 2013:213-240. doi:10.1037/a0028931
- 4.Sinclair S, Dunn E, Lowery B. The relationship between parental racial attitudes and children’s implicit prejudice. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Published online May 2005:283-289. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2004.06.003
- 5.Ryan C, Russell ST, Huebner D, Diaz R, Sanchez J. Family Acceptance in Adolescence and the Health of LGBT Young Adults. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing. Published online November 2010:205-213. doi:10.1111/j.1744-6171.2010.00246.x
- 6.Bor W, Sanders MR. Correlates of Self-Reported Coercive Parenting of Preschool-Aged Children at High Risk for the Development of Conduct Problems. Aust N Z J Psychiatry. Published online September 2004:738-745. doi:10.1080/j.1440-1614.2004.01452.x