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Study Reveals the Negative Words Parents Use and How They Affect Kids

Psychologists point to seven negative words that, when used routinely, can undermine a child’s thinking, learning and openness to others. See what you can do to improve your communication.
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By Wyndi Kappes, Associate Editor
Published April 19, 2024
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Image: Dasha Petrenko | Shutterstock

You know the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? Well, it turns out that the negative words parents use with their children can wield a significant impact on their development.

A new study by the online language learning platform Preply delved into the most commonly reported negative words used by parents when communicating with their children. Among 1,400 surveyed parents, the top culprits included:

  1. Naughty
  2. Spoiled
  3. Lazy
  4. Selfish
  5. Bad
  6. Liar
  7. Stupid

While these words may seem innocuous in the heat of frustration or during a challenging moment, their effects on a child’s psyche can be profound. Approximately one in four parents admit to inadvertently making their child feel selfish or bad, while nearly one in five has unintentionally labeled their child as a liar.

Though the relief of momentarily expressing frustration might seem tempting, the repercussions on the child can be lasting. Darcia Narvaez, a psychology professor emerita at the University of Notre Dame, warns in the study that habitual scolding can lead a child to develop a heightened stress response, ultimately undermining thinking, learning and openness to others.

Changing the words you use not just on a daily basis but in the heat of the moment can be difficult, but language expert Sylvia Johnson emphasizes its importance. “The language we employ daily shapes our self-perception, our perception of others, and our outlook on the world. Negative language, when directed at others, can strain relationships, diminish self-worth, and breed a pessimistic worldview,” she said. Johnson urges parents to conscientiously monitor their language, particularly when interacting with impressionable young minds.

While no parent is perfect, the study does show that 20 percent of parents express regret over their choice of language with their children and are working to do better. So what can you do? Johnson emphasizes the transformative power of gentle correction and words of encouragement in nurturing a child’s self-assurance, fostering healthy self-esteem, igniting curiosity and building resilience.

Empathy, Johnson emphasizes, should be at the core of parental language. Understanding and respecting the child’s feelings, expressing our own feelings constructively and explaining the reasons behind our rules and expectations is key to healthy communication, she notes.

Want to improve your communication skills? Check out these phrases psychotherapists say parents should stop using and tips for promoting positive mental health.

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