In gathering material for my book, How Rude! The Teen Guide to Good Manners, Proper Behavior, and Not Grossing People Out, I asked teenagers to list rude things parents say to teens. Here, out of thousands of responses, are some of the most frequently cited hurtful comments:
- “What’s wrong with you?”
- “You don’t try hard enough.”
- “How can you be so dumb?”
- “Don’t you ever think?”
- “You’ll never amount to anything.”
- “Get out of my sight.”
- “How can I ever trust you again?”
- “Don’t you care about anyone other than yourself?”
- “I can’t wait for you to leave home.”
- “I wish I’d never had you.”
- “Why can’t you be more like your sister?”
- “What do you know? You’re just a child.”
“I don’t love you.”
Why do parents say such hurtful things to their kids?
Because parenting is the hardest job on earth. No parent can be perfect 100% of the time and sometimes the stresses of child-rearing and life in general cause moments of thoughtlessness and anger when we say things we regret or don’t mean. Imagine a parent under financial stress who learns that her child has just lost his cell phone, or broken his third pair of glasses in six months? It’s natural to lash out with “How can you be so careless?” or “Are you trying to drive me crazy?!?”
While children bring a bounty of joy, love, and wonder into one’s life, the 24/7 job of raising them can be frustrating, demanding, and full of heartache, leaving parents feeling ignored, attacked, disrespected, and taken-for-granted.
Parents can be plagued with their own worries, pressures, and problems. There may be colleagues, bosses, relatives, or neighbors that parents would love to give a piece of their mind to—but can’t. So the children become targets for those unexpressed feelings.
Parents with tweens and teens may be re-examining their own lives, dreams, relationships, values, and choices at a time when their kids are engaged in a similar process. Opposites attract and likes repel, and in the metallurgy of family dynamics, the feelings and vulnerabilities caused by such parallel introspection and acting out can create conflict. Parents can be jealous of their children’s youth and options. The extent to which parents regret certain choices may be the extent to which they seek to control their kids’ choices. Put this all together and it’s easy to see how 14 + 40 = Bad News.
Why do these phrases hurt kids?
Children look to their parents for love, support, and approval. The thing kids fear most, apart from abandonment, is disappointing their parents. So these phrases, often spoken in fits of anger or frustration, hit kids where they are most vulnerable. I’m not saying that parents shouldn’t communicate disappointment, or use that emotion as a tool for motivating their children to change their behavior. But these phrases convey parental disappointment in a way that censures the entire child. Calling a child dumb, lazy, worthless, unwanted, untrustworthy, or unlovable leaves little room for improvement. But lots of room for feelings of hurt, shame, rejection, and hopelessness.
How can parents minimize saying hurtful things?
Be deliberative. In the midst of a conflict or provocation, count to 10. Or better yet, 1,000. If possible, remove yourself from the situation to give yourself time to think. You can say to your child, “We’ll talk about this later.” Or, “I need to give this some thought.” Or, “I’m very upset and want to calm down before we discuss this.”
Be aware of your own issues. Often, hurtful remarks are a projection of feelings coming from a different, unrelated trigger. The more we realize this, the more we can avoid using children as targets for displaced anger, jealousy, or resentment we wish we could express, but can’t, towards others.
Be kind to yourself.
Parents who are hurting or held hostage to negative feelings and forces are more likely to lash out at their kids. This is why it’s important to do something good for yourself every day: go for a walk, talk with a friend, read a book, meditate, enjoy a meal you didn’t have to prepare. Taking care of yourself is a necessary prerequisite to taking care of others. As the flight attendant says, “Put on your own oxygen mask before you help your child.”
Focus on the behavior, not the being.
The most hurtful phrases condemn the entire child. The most helpful lead to discussion and negotiation, and offer the child a route for making amends or addressing the consequences of her actions in positive ways. Look at the difference between these parental responses to a child who is cruel to a sibling:
“What a mean, nasty person you are.” With no solution or hopeful path contained in the parent’s comment, where does a child go from here? Probably to a place of guilt, confusion, and/or anger.
But suppose the parent had said, “You’re usually kind and generous, so we need to talk about why you said such mean things to your sister.” This phrase is pregnant with possibility for understanding the sibling relationship, discovering unknown provocations, learning something you didn’t know about one or both children, redressing grievances, making apologies, restoring calm, and helping everyone to feel better.
With understanding, humor, and self-awareness, 14 + 40 doesn’t have to be bad news. It can be a wonderful time in the life of a family.
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Dr. Alex Packer is an educator and psychologist specializing in adolescence, parenting, substance abuse prevention, and minding your p’s and q’s. He is the author of 10 books for parents, teens, and teachers, including the award-winning How Rude! The Teen Guide to Good Manners, Proper Behavior, and Not Grossing People Out. His passion for nurturing healthy kids, healthy families, and healthy schools takes him around the world as a speaker, workshop leader, and consultant.