Top 10 Worst Things You Can Say to a Child

We live in a world that likes lists. Somehow, when we look at lists we can relate to items and rank which are more or less important. We often use lists to judge how well or how poorly we are doing at something.

But the words on this list are like poison to your child

Diane Wagenhals
Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Master Trainer, Curricula Writer, Researcher, Mother and Grandmother

Many years ago, when I first started exploring the subject of parenting, I came across a powerful book by Muriel James called Breaking Free. In it she provided a list of the worst possible things parents can communicate to their children. Over the years in presenting this list, I have had parents tearfully share they received some or all of these growing up and now realize the powerful impact receiving and absorbing one or more of these messages has had on their lives.

Some parents realized they were transmitting these messages to their own children.

Sometimes they did this directly through words, and sometimes indirectly through their attitudes, body language and other behaviors. This was primarily because these were the messages they received growing up.

Muriel James shared that this list of negative injunctions was developed by psychotherapists Mary and Robert Goulding. These negative, toxic injunctions are perhaps the most damaging messages a child can ever receive.  Some children may occasionally receive one or two of these while others may receive many of them on a regular basis.

Depending on the specific circumstances in which the messages are communicated, how and by whom these messages are communicated, the specific temperament of a child and other considerations, the messages can be more or less shame-producing or fear-inducing.

That’s especially true when the translation includes a sense of abandonment for the child and is therefore possibly traumatizing.

As children internalize one or more of these message categories into their belief systems, results can be some degree of shame, some sense of being unworthy, loathsome, deserving to be ignored, neglected, abandoned, slighted, criticized and/or abused.

Toxic (Poisonous) Injunctions:

  • Don’t be:

“I wish you had never been born!”  Parents are wishing the child had never existed.  Highly poisonous message!

  • Don’t be you:

“I wish you had been… a boy/girl, an athlete, graceful, someone who loves books, etc.”  Also highly poisonous because parents are negating something essential and unchangeable about this child.

  • Don’t be close:

“Leave me alone!  I don’t have time for you!”  Parents keep their distance either physically or emotionally and want the child to keep theirs, too.  This is the threat or action of abandonment. In divorce, the injunction may be to stop being close to the other parent, putting the child in an impossible, ethically unfair bind. (Note:  This is not the same as the statement by a parent, “Leave me alone while I take a shower.”)

  • Don’t belong:

“You don’t fit in this family.” Parents imply that the child does not blend well with the rest of the family. Children may fantasize that they were adopted.

  • Don’t grow up:

“You’ll always need me.”  Parents want and need the child to remain dependent on them, under the parents’ control.

  • Don’t be a child:

“You need to take care of me.”  Parents want the child to switch roles and care for them. Parents with this philosophy want children to develop early or be overachievers to make the parents look good and also keep the child from acting and feeling like a child. Parents abdicate their own responsibilities, forcing those responsibilities onto the child.

  • Don’t be well:

“You’ll always need me to care for you.”  Like the “Don’t grow up” injunction, this message keeps the child dependent on the parent and allows the parent to receive the sympathy of others for having this sickly, needy child.

  • Don’t be sane:

“You can’t even think straight.” Some parents do not want their children to believe they can think straight sometimes because they are afraid that they may see just how crazy, unfair, unreasonable or unhealthy the parents are. This injunction also keeps children feeling powerless.

  • Don’t succeed:

“Just because you did part of this well, don’t think you’ll ever get it all right.”  Another injunction to prevent a child from growing, this time by not allowing them to feel fully successful. This injunction can also serve to keep the parents more successful than the child.

  • Don’t be important:

“Don’t be so arrogant.  You know you’re no better than anyone else.”  Parents who do not want their children to realize their own uniqueness or special talents give this injunction.

  • Don’t….

The litany of negative injunctions about certain behaviors: “Don’t talk to strangers or you may get kidnapped,” “Don’t eat anything that has dropped on the floor or you’ll get very sick.”  Too many “Don’t” injunctions may make a child excessively fearful and suspicious of their environment. This may make it hard for them to be assertive, think for themselves, risk failure, make decisions, or take charge of their life.

These are powerful messages that might be hard to read.

They are even harder to process, especially if one or more of them feels familiar.

Knowledge is power.

There is power in recognizing these statements, knowing the potential impact each can have, and being more alert to avoiding them when interacting with your children. Consider if there are some you absorbed as a child that you may need to resurface. That process gives you power.

By having knowledge, you have the power to change the lives of your children now and in their future.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Did one or more of these toxic injunctions feel familiar to you? What are some of the memories they evoked? How did they affect you growing up and how are they still affecting you today?
  2. Are there messages you recognize that you might be transmitting to your children? In what ways have you done that?
  3. Now that you are aware of that, how would you like to change those messages?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Institute, Lakeside

Image source: