“The most important thing to remember is that we don’t always know how our words are going to be received, particularly by a child,” says Moroney, who’s a mother to 10-year-old twin girls. Because children are still learning who they are and how they fit into the world, they may be particularly vulnerable to language that could be interpreted as invalidating their thoughts or feelings. “Dismissive words can really hurt,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many of my clients remember the exact words that were used years ago to demean, belittle, or invalidate them.”
“I can’t tell you how many of my clients remember the exact words that were used years ago to demean, belittle, or invalidate them.” —Shannon Moroney, RSW, trauma therapist
Internalizing words as such can cause a negative self-belief to form, says Moroney, “whether it’s that you’re not important, you don’t matter, you shouldn’t show your emotions, or you’re a burden or ‘too much’ to bear.” A person may then start to self-sabotage in accordance with whatever that negative belief may be. “For example, if you fundamentally believe, ‘My feelings don’t matter,’ then how successful are you really going to be in school? And how healthy are your relationships going to be as an adult?” says Moroney.
This progression from words to beliefs and from beliefs to behaviors is why it’s so important to consider what to say and what not to say to kids. “What people often come to therapy for, as adults, is to dismantle the untrue self-belief [they picked up as a child] that’s now wreaking real havoc in their life,” says Moroney. To safeguard her twins against a similar fate, she swaps a few common yet inadvertently harmful parenting phrases for language that better respects her kids' emotional personhood and growth.
3 things a trauma therapist will never say to her kids, and what she says instead
1. “You’re being so dramatic.”
Calling out “drama” implies that a child is overreacting, over-responding, or just plain doing too much. Naturally, this could encourage them to shrink themselves down in response. “The word ‘dramatic’ is one of the most minimizing things that we can say to a child,” says Moroney. “Their feelings are their feelings, and in their small world, things that might seem insignificant to a grown-up may actually be very significant.”
Beyond dismissing their present reality, telling a kid that they’re being "dramatic" can have a further-reaching effect on their psyche. “When we invalidate somebody's feelings, they learn to keep silent about them,” says Moroney. “It's like training somebody for voicelessness.”
This isn't necessarily the intent of parents when they call their kids dramatic; they might be hoping to help a child better regulate their emotions. But asking a child to suppress their feelings is not the same thing as helping them to experience and functionally process them, Moroney says. “What we want to do as parents is let kids know that their feelings are okay to feel, but also that they’re not powerless in the face of them.”
That requires helping a child understand why something doesn’t have to be a big deal—whether it’s something that someone else did (like call them a mean name) or something that they can’t do (like have a second ice cream or stay out past curfew). Instead of writing off their big upset, angry, or sad reaction as “drama,” you can say, “Wow, I see you’re feeling a lot,” or “I can hear that you’re feeling a lot. Can we talk that through?” or “Can I help you figure out why this situation is feeling so big?” says Moroney.
This way, you’re encouraging them to put things into a broader perspective, while also listening and validating their feelings in the moment. “It’s about helping kids and teenagers untangle all the big feelings underlying 'drama',” says Moroney. “From there, you can talk about what’s happening, where these feelings are really coming from, and what they can actually do about them so that they don’t feel so overwhelming.”
2. “Stop crying.”
Just like a big verbal reaction, crying is a natural emotional response to pain or hurt. While it could similarly read as “dramatic” to a parent or outsider, it should be allowed to happen, so as not to mistakenly ingrain the idea in a child that they need to constrain or hold back their emotions.
Instead of telling her kids not to cry, in fact, Moroney openly encourages it. “Ever since my kids have been of conversational age, whenever they’ve cried, I’ve told them to cry as hard as they can, so they could get it out faster and deeper,” she says. At the same time, she recommends telling a kid that you understand why the situation is hitting them so hard.
This applies even if they’re crying because they’ve gotten in trouble for misbehaving, she adds. “In this case, you’ll want to say something like, ‘Yep, it’s really frustrating to get in trouble,’” she says, “and if you’re home, you can suggest they cry in their room or in an area where they can be alone, and then return to you when they’re done and ready to talk it out.”
Giving a child this freedom to cry also makes it more likely that they’ll open up to you if there’s something deeper at the root of their sadness or upset. Moroney gives this example: A child comes home from school, and while she’s doing her homework, her pencil breaks twice, and she starts really sobbing. If you were to tell her to stop crying because “it’s just a pencil,” then she’s more likely to internalize whatever real feelings may lie at the root of the tears—which could be, for instance, that at school that day, someone said something mean to her.
“Even as adults, we often overreact to something small because we believe we have to under-react to something big.” —Moroney
That’s why it’s helpful to pause and consider whether there might be something else going on beneath the surface when a child is crying incessantly, rather than simply shush them. “Even as adults, we often overreact to something small because we believe we have to under-react to something big,” says Moroney.
3. Anything about the shape or size of their bodies
Our society’s unrealistic body standards are pervasive and deeply entrenched in everyday life—making it easy for a child to internalize any comments made about their size as indicators of worthlessness, says Moroney. A parent calling a child fat, for instance, could make the child assume that losing weight or being thin would make them worthy (or worthier), she says, which can traumatize a person into adulthood.
To take it a step further, Moroney suggests avoiding any morally charged comments about a kid’s body—even ones you might deem positive, like, “Wow, you look so thin.” It’s very possible that a child’s thinness, for example, is not by choice, but is, in fact, a response to being called fat in the past or is evidence of disordered eating prompted by feeling a loss of control in other parts of their life, says Moroney. “To compliment them on it would be to reinforce a negative pattern.”
The same goes for making comments about your own body in front of your kids. “If I’ve gained weight, and I start saying, ‘I need to go on a diet,’ or ‘I need to lose weight,’ I know my kids will pick up on that,” says Moroney. “What you’re essentially saying is, ‘I need to change who I am to be good enough,’ and that’s what a child will hear about themselves.”
Instead, while speaking to or around her kids, Moroney refers to her body as the house of the brain, heart, and soul. “I talk with my kids about treating this house with respect because it carries us through life,” she says.
When it comes to food, itself, she takes the same level of care to avoid any language around deprivation. For instance, rather than refer to food as just fuel—which could be misconstrued as something to be burned off by exercise—she’ll highlight its different purposes. “Food is certainly fuel, but we also have food for celebration. We have food for ceremony, for ritual, for comfort, for taste, for pleasure,” she says. Educating a child about these nuances and facets of food helps build their resilience against the traumatizing forces of diet culture.
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