Love and mutual respect are great, but what the parent-child relationship really hinges on is trust. It is important to maintain these things when it comes to parents and children. Parents often say things that might make it hard for children to completely follow through on their parents’ instructions. Here’s what not to say if you want your child to trust you.
The ultimatum without follow-through
Kids know exactly how far they can push their parents and are extremely aware when a parent has lost control and begins making impossible ultimatums. Threatening to ground a child for life is kid-code for “never going to happen” and a sure sign that you can’t always be taken at your word. Instead, to communicate a firm boundary, use a consequence you can actually enforce—ideally something that matters to your child that can actually be carried out.
For a teen, this might be taking away a smartphone or changing the password for wireless internet access. Follow through with the consequence so it’s not an empty threat. Children need to trust that their parent means what they say. You also need to trust the brands you buy. These are the most trusted brands in America.
A threat of physical punishment
Rather than making threats of any kind in the first place—even if you have no intention of following through on them, it’s better to talk to children as people, and both listen to and consider their side of the story. Mutual respect between parent and child goes a long way toward maintaining trust. “It’s important that parents are aware that it’s not only what they say but how they say things to their children or teens that can make or break trust,” says Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D., and author of 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child.
“Aggressive tone and body language can leave children and teens feeling less willing to confide in their parents.”
Invoking another authority figure
When parents sense that their position of authority in their child’s life is not being respected, it can often lead to their using other authority figures to strengthen their own faltering position. Telling your child that you’re going to share personal information with their teacher is one way to break the sense of trust that your child has in you as a safe person. Home needs to be a safe and private place for a child; it’s considered entirely separate from school.
Instead of making false threats of sharing personal things that should stay between the four walls of a home, such as reluctance to help clean up or refusal to complete homework, try giving your child a choice between two things that you support. For example, if your child is balking at homework, you might offer him the choice between working on it before or after dinner. Giving a child a bit of power over their own time can yield positive benefits in compliance.
Using “all or nothing” language
Using language that globalizes behavior can backfire. It reinforces an “us versus them” attitude between parents and children that isolates kids from the very people they need the most, their parents. Children need to see that their parents are aware of their strengths as well as their weaknesses, and are willing to look at specific incidents individually instead of dredging up a long history of wrongdoing.
Strive to focus your attention on the present situation. If the behavior continues to be an issue, using “we” statements is more beneficial than “you.” For example, if a child repeatedly leaves his or her toys throughout the living room, a parent might exclaim, “Wow, we seem to be having trouble remembering to pick up after ourselves. Let’s try to pick these up together, and hope that next time we remember to clean up when we’re finished playing.” Children who feel that their parents are on their team are motivated to strive to impress them in the future.
Making them feel shame or embarrassment
After an incident of poor behavior, some parents will demand that the child confess the deed to someone else afterward, to shame the child into repentance or discourage future undesirable behavior. Not only is this a certain way to embarrass, shame, and hurt your child, it’s also a way to make sure they no longer trust you as someone safe to handle their emotions. As a parent, you have the distinct privilege (though it might not always feel this way) of having a front-row seat to your child’s emotional and social growth.
This includes witnessing the many mistakes that are a natural part of growth, and that will provide the learning opportunities needed to become a functioning adult. Children want to please parents inherently and will work very hard to do so if parents notice the positive strides they’re making. So when you ask a child to reveal the details of a private emotional or behavioral experience they’d just as soon move on from, it easily erodes the trust they had in you to serve as a protector of their most personal moments. When kids make mistakes, help them realize for themselves that they didn’t make a smart choice. Offer them the grace and forgiveness they so desperately yearn for, and move on. Keep the incident confidential, and if you share it with someone who must know (such as the other parent), do so in private, away from your child.
Sharing an inappropriate secret
One of the best things about childhood is a sense of innocence and the belief that all makes sense in the world. Children feel most secure when parents are self-assured, capable, and strong adults who handle adult issues among themselves and leave children to their innocent beliefs about life. When parents share adult-themed issues with children, it can create a sense of confusion, fear, and depression for them.
“There can be a huge temptation for you to lean on your child for support if you conflict with the other parent, but please resist this temptation,” says Kathy Eugster, MA, registered clinical counselor and certified play therapist. “Even if your child seems to be coping well and seems to be happy and well adjusted, leaning on your child for support is very damaging to him or her and can lead to long-term problems.” The message children need to see and hear,” she adds, “is that you are in control of things and know what you’re doing. Remember that they are children and you are an adult dealing with an adult problem.”
Fibbing about a medical procedure
Parents instinctively try to minimize their children’s pain, whether by reassuring them that they’ll survive after a minor fall, or telling them that a shot won’t be painful. While recovering from minor cuts and scrapes is guaranteed, feeling no pain from shots or invasive medical procedures is not. When a parent promises a young child that an imminent shot is painless, and then it’s not—trust between parent and child is weakened.
Though parents want to spare their children the anticipation of pain, loss of trust is far more damaging in the long run. Instead, you might say, “This will hurt a little, but it will be quick and then you’ll be all done. It’s all right to cry, I’ll be right here holding your hand. I’m so proud of you for letting the doctor keep you healthy!”
Talking about them as though they’re not in the room
It’s demeaning. Children want to feel important and included, even in a room full of adults. When parents take their children seriously enough to include them in a conversation and speak to them instead of about them, it sends a clear message of respect.
While it might be tempting to make nuanced jokes at your child’s expense to other adults, it does not go unnoticed by your child. Saying things like “she hasn’t quite figured out that I can ignore her whining all day” only builds resentment and breaks trust. Though they might not understand the details of the interaction, they certainly comprehend the undercurrents of sarcasm or frustration. Make every effort to include your child in respectful conversations with other adults, and avoid talking “over their heads” about them to others. This simple act of respect toward your child will go a long way toward proving that you are trustworthy.
Making an unrealistic promise
Unrealistic promises can be just as damaging as negative threats. A parent might feel good at the moment that he or she can motivate a child to meet a goal, but any feelings of pride will be diminished if they’re not able to make good on their promise. Unless you have every intention of keeping your word, no matter how expensive, outlandish, or over the top, don’t make it in the first place.
Try to encourage your child with simple rewards that aren’t of a material nature, such as time spent together, the personal satisfaction you get from reaching a goal, and words of praise and affirmation. Some parents motivate kids by posting their triumphs on a “Wall of Fame.”
Invoking your own childhood in an unrealistic, idyllic way
If you want your child to feel safe sharing important and personal information with you, you have to make it completely safe to do so. That means not judging or explaining how you would never have made these (read: dumb) choices. It doesn’t mean that actions don’t have consequences—only that your child can come to you with issues, or when they’re in a pickle.
“It’s very important for parents to show their child appreciation for confiding or sharing things that are difficult,” Dr. Bernstein says. “Too many parents let their own anxiety lead to judgment instead of thanking their child or teen for taking the risk to share difficult feelings.”