Parenting is hard as hell. Truly. Sometimes I sit there while my 5-year-old daughter is losing her mind during a meltdown and think to myself, Wow, if I told 20-year-old me that at 32, I’d be trying to figure out how to calm down a child upset that I made her eggs the same way I always make them, I wouldn’t believe it.
Getting through tough moments like these with our children can be a struggle. Many of us get lost in the distance between all kids act like this at some point and if we don’t correct these behaviors, our children will grow up to be the villains we see in Marvel movies. It’s important to dispel extreme ways of thinking, because raising children is not an equation and every child is different. Children also have big emotions and sometimes lack the understanding to cope with these big feelings.
Many parents today are learning the importance of mental health and healing and are trying to shift away from the punishment-centered parenting of the past. When we know better, we do better, and many of us are trying to break the cycle of negative experiences we went through as children.
Yes we’re parents, but we’re also human, and sometimes we get it wrong. We yell, we get frustrated, and sometimes we say things to our children that we may not even realize can be detrimental. Like I said before, parenting is not an equation, there’s no manual (I’ve looked), and there are always ways we can improve and learn things that make us better. These four phrases are ones we’ve probably all used at some point, so I spoke to a child psychologist about why we should stop using them and what we can say instead.
1. “Calm down”
Dr. Bennett said, “The thing is, at times when we think we need to tell our children to calm down, chances are they cannot, rather than they will not. Children have remarkably immature brains compared to adults; during the early years in particular, they are highly emotionally reactive due to an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex.” The prefrontal cortex is the decision-making part of the brain, and one of its functions is to solve problems and control impulses. Children actually need the support of a regulated adult in order to calm down, said Dr. Bennett. “It is through the experience of being calmed, co-regulated, and soothed time and time again that a child begins to develop the ability to do these things independently.”
2. “Big kids don’t (x, y, z)” or “We don’t (x, y, z) in this family”
When we say phrases like “big kids don’t cry” or “we don’t whine in this family,” it alienates our child. We are communicating that their behaviors separate them from the communities they belong to. This can lead to our children suppressing their emotions or having feelings of “otherness” in how they express themselves. In instances where my daughter is whining or crying as a reaction to not getting her way, I like to redirect her while also acknowledging her feelings.
Instead, try saying something like, “I know you’re upset because you want another cookie and can’t have one right now. Would you like to color or play with me in the basement?” I’ve noticed that children get fixated on one thing they want and when they don’t get it, they don’t have the ability to think of anything else. By giving them options, it turns their attention from the negative emotions to excitement about what they can do next, allowing them to move on.
3. “Because I said so”
Sometimes adults need to take the lead in making decisions. It’ actually really important that parents are comfortable with holding clear boundaries. Some things aren’t open for discussion, and that’s absolutely fine. Dr. Bennett said that avoiding over-explaining is not problematic in itself, but what can be more helpful than “because I said so” is to say something like, “I understand that you’re disappointed with my decision, but it’s a firm no.”
As parents, we can always explain the reasons behind our decisions when everyone is calmer and more receptive to listening to our rationale. “On other occasions, invite your child’s thoughts into the discussion,” said Dr. Bennett. “That might sound like, ‘This is what I’m thinking, but I would love to hear your thoughts.'”
4. “Practice makes perfect”
An alternative phrase Dr. Bennett suggested is “practice makes progress.” “We don’t actually want children to strive for perfection,” she said. “We want children to understand that making mistakes is part of the learning process. The concept of a ‘growth mindset’ was conceived by Carol Dweck and is based on the belief that with time and effort, we can see progress and development in a range of areas. It is believed that this mindset encourages growth and success because it nurtures the belief that an individual can always improve or learn something new.”
As parents, our words hold tremendous weight. The way we speak to our children becomes the little voice in their head as they grow older, so it’s important that we be intentional with which phrases we instill into them. But remember, we’re also human and we don’t always get it right, so give yourself grace and know that tomorrow always holds another opportunity to do better.