It's easy to spot incendiary words like "You're stupid." Shame on the parent who would say that to a child. But we often say more subtle, yet still destructive things to our kids, without meaning to do damage.
Have you ever said to your child "You never..." and then proceeded to tell them something they failed to do? Things like "You never make up your bed like I ask" or "You never eat all your vegetables"?
While you may be exasperated by your child's behavior, when you say things like that you record a condemning script in your child's mind. "You never..." is an attack, plain and simple, and the damage lingers.
Sometimes our words pronounce judgment on our children. They start repeating your pronouncements to themselves; "I'm no good at doing my chores" or "I'll never be able to..." These negative scripts grow deep roots.
Here are some other word-bombs we often lob toward our kids: "Don't you know better than to..."; "Will you ever learn to..."; "Weren't you listening?"; "Why did you do that?"
These sound like legitimate questions, but often we ask with a tone of exasperation and blame mixed together. When you are on the receiving end of such questions, they sound like this "What's wrong with you that would cause you to do that?"
Has your spouse ever said to you "Are you going out in that shirt/dress?" Sounds innocent enough, right? But we know what the real message is: "I don't want to be seen with you wearing that thing." A question that seeks to manipulate is irritating.
The truth is, we often use our words to manipulate others, hiding our motives. Manipulation seldom works to influence others positively. Most often, these meddling missiles chip away at the confidence and self-esteem of those we want to help.
How can we do better?
Four suggestions: 1) Use "I" messages. "I think that is not a flattering shirt on you" is easier to take than "Are you wearing that again?"
2) Give clear directions, like this: "Please make up your bed the way I showed you." or "I'd like you to eat your vegetables." Our kids know exactly what we want from them, without the accusing overtone.
3) Commend your children for the things they are striving to do, praising them for effort when you can legitimately do so.
4) When you need to confront, do so directly but humbly and without anger.
With these changes you'll achieve better results and keep your relationship strong.