Katie ChaceI am on the corner of 72nd and First Avenue, standing next to a father and a little boy about six or seven. He is wearing a baseball uniform, and carrying a bat, and weeping uncontrollably. The father’s voice is loud and abrasive: “How many times do I have to tell you to keep your eye on the ball? Don’t you ever listen?” The boy is snuffling, trying to contain himself. The light changes and then I hear the father’s final salvo: “And stop being such a crybaby.”

I decide that grabbing that father by the shoulders and stopping him in his tracks is probably not a smart move and would only make matters worse, but you have to believe that I wanted to.

What I witnessed is verbal aggression. This experience involved a father but unattuned mothers do it all the time and unloving mothers do it 24/7. Our culture is way too tolerant when it comes to words, especially when a parent uses them. “Oh, he’s just trying to help his son toughen up a bit, “we say collectively, “The world is a hard place.” Or “You do have to keep your eye on the ball, after all. Is there a nice way of delivering criticism?” Actually, there is.

Language that shames, marginalizes, or dismisses a child’s thoughts and feelings is abusive. Science is very clear on how those abusive messages are internalized—they become self-criticism, the habit of mind that ascribes missteps or failures to fixed character traits in yourself, rather than circumstances—and how they change the developing brain.

Way too often, verbal aggression is rationalized or justified as discipline or a necessary corrective but that is a lie, pure and simple. Following are five phrases that actually inflict emotional damage, hinder normal development, and make a child more vulnerable to impaired mental health, along with the reasons why.

1.Why can’t you be more like…

Children are exquisitely sensitive to differential treatment and the work done by Judy Dunn and Robert Plomin on siblings shows that witnessing differential treatment of a brother or sister makes more of a lasting impression on a child than the love he or she receives directly from a parent. Keep in mind, too, that humans are hardwired to react more strongly to negative events and that our memories of painful moments are stored in a different part of the brain and are more accessible than positive ones.

While a mother or father may feel that it’s helpful to set up a possible role model for a child with this sentence, it’s actually not. Pointing out the ways in which a child is less than another child—it could be a sibling, a cousin, a neighbor’s kid, anyone—is hurtful and demeaning, not inspirational.

2.You always…

This is phrase is aggressive when it’s used with another adult but invokes fear and often hopelessness when aimed at a child by a figure of authority. It’s destructive because it makes whatever criticism is being leveled highly personal and delivers a general indictment of a child’s personality and character. I’m not saying that kids don’t need to be reprimanded from time to time but keep it specific to whatever’s at hand. If something gets lost or damaged—as inevitably will happen—it’s one thing to tell a child to try to be more careful and another to launch into a litany of his or her failings as in “You’re always so clumsy and you never pay attention to anything because you’re always off in a dream world. How about trying to be a member of this family for once, instead of a slob?”

3. You’re too sensitive

Having grown up hearing this 24/7, I am especially sensitive—yes, the phrasing is deliberate—to mothers and fathers using these words to marginalize, dismiss, or deny a child’s emotional or intellectual reaction to being hurt. This phrase is a key component of blame-shifting in dysfunctional relationships, whether they are between a parent and child or two adults. Of course, the former is much more damaging because the child is very likely to take you at your word and believe that it must be her fault that she’s feeling hurt or that she’s wrong to interpret your words and actions as she does. The damage this criticism causes is enormous and sometimes life-long because it makes the daughter or son distrust her or his perceptions. It’s a close cousin of gaslighting.

4.It’s no big deal

Whatever the “it” is—a missed opportunity, something that makes the child sad or disappointed or anything else—this is not reassurance but a way of marginalizing what she is feeling. It’s one thing to reassure a child that she will feel better about what’s happened in a few days when it’s not as immediate and she’s had time to process her hurt but it’s quite another to undercut her reaction by dismissing what happened or telling her that “it really wasn’t important.” The point is that it was important to her. There’s a fine line here that parents—who are, after all, the folks in charge—need to pay attention to.

5. You’re a ….

Shaming a child is not okay so calling her or him a name—crybaby, wuss, coward, weakling, snotnose, weirdo, pig, brat—must and should always be off-limits and is highly abusive, plain and simple. So are words that mock a child’s appearance such as calling her fat or ugly. You’re the adult and how angry and frustrated you were in the moment doesn’t change how your child was affected. Own up to your own loss of control and apologize. That’s the bottom line.

No one likes to talk about how much power a parent has over a child or the small world a daughter or son inhabits. But where there is power, there is always the possibility of the abuse of that power. Forget the old “sticks and stones” thing because words matter and, yes, they inflict as much or perhaps even more damage than physical blows. Don’t justify or rationalize; just cut these phrases out of your working vocabulary for the sake of your child and, additionally, your own.

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Photo by Katie Chase. Copyright Free. Unsplash.com

Dunn, Judy and Robert Plomin. Separate Lives: Why Children Are So Different. New York: Basic Books, 1990.