Have you ever opened your mouth and heard your parents come out? Being intentional about what you say to and around your children can help mold who they become and how they deal with the world as they grow up.
Here is a list of things you should try to say to your kids regularly. It doesn’t matter how old they are; adding these words and phrases to your relationship will improve communication, increase self-esteem, and will help make your children more resilient as they grow up.
I’m sure you read this and thought, “Well, duh,” but think back to a time when your parents told you did a good job. How did you feel? Can you think of a time when you worked really hard on something and they failed to notice?
Paying your kids a genuine compliment when they’ve clearly put forth an effort helps reinforce their value, self-worth, and effort.
Studies show that praise which recognizes effort or improvement, like “I like how you figured out that problem all by yourself” or “Great job not giving up when that was hard,” have been shown to increase kids’ confidence at difficult tasks and improve resilience.
Could I Get Your Advice?
At the heart of this question is, “I value you and your opinion, and I want to hear what you have to say.”
Kids at every age can benefit from hearing adults ask for their ideas and opinions. This can be done in small ways like, “Which shirt do you like better?” or big ways like “I’m working on a project for work and I’d love your opinion.” By asking your child to speak into your life, you are teaching them that is okay for them to share and be open.
“Being specific with compliments, questions, and commands helps keep things predictable and consistent,” said Justin Hacking, Clinical Supervisor at Idaho Youth Ranch and a Parent-Child Interaction Therapist. “It is important to be predictable and consistent when communicating to children; it lessens anxiety and establishes achievable expectations. Children’s frontal cortex is still in the early development process (usually it’s not finished developing until mid-20’s) and really, things inside (the brain) are not always predictable and consistent day to day, so creating an atmosphere that is clear, predictable, and consistent helps the behavioral development process. The enhancement is compounded when you support a child’s opinion.”
In other words, when you consistently reinforce that your child or teen is important, and that you value their ideas, thoughts, and feelings, you will help them develop healthy behaviors and self-esteem.
It is important to remember Hacking’s note, that the brain is still developing all the way until the mid-20s!
No matter how old your child gets, he/she will still need your love and approval.
It’s Okay Not to Be Okay
There will be times in life when your child is not okay. They may lose a loved one, go through a breakup, or experience a once-in-a-century pandemic (looking at you #COVID-19) and they will struggle to deal with those challenges.
It is important that parents not expect their kids to put on a strong face all the time and simply let them be sad, grief-stricken, or angry. Telling your kids that it is okay not to be okay, or okay to be [insert overwhelming emotion here], gives them the chance to process that emotion naturally while letting them know you are there for them.
All too often, parents try to fix the problem because we don’t want our children to hurt. When it comes to loss, there is often nothing more you can do than simply hold them tight and let them ride the wave until the storm passes.
There will be times when we fall short as parents. There are times when patience runs low and stress runs high, and you say the wrong thing or take out your frustration on your kids. We’ve all been there, and that does not make you a bad parent.
It is important, however, to use those moments as a platform to teach your kids some really important lessons by apologizing to them.
Lovena Magalsky, Licensed Therapist at Idaho Youth Ranch, told us that “it’s really important for parents to apologize to their kids when they need to. Apologizing not only takes away the sting of your mistake, it also models some important habits to your children. You are teaching them how to apologize when they mess up in their lives, that it is okay to mess up as long as you take responsibility for it, and that we are all human.”
Apologizing to your child will also help them feel more comfortable coming to you when they need help or when they have made a mistake.
It can be very easy for kids to get in over their heads and be afraid to come to an adult because they are afraid of getting in trouble. When you apologize, you model taking responsibility. That allows your kids to see that you are human and helps build trust with them, so they will feel comfortable coming to you when they feel overwhelmed or scared.
You Make Me Proud
No list like this would be complete without the obligatory “you make me proud” statement. At Idaho Youth Ranch, this is one thing we see a lot of parents struggle with: they assume their kids know that they are proud.
The fact is, kids really need to hear their adults say that they are proud. Even if your gangly, self-conscious teenager blows it off and says, “Jeez, it’s no big deal,” they still need to hear you say it.
The trick to this one is really acknowledging the effort, not the outcome. When you focus your praise on how hard your child or teen worked to accomplish a thing, you are making it about the work. For example, if you only tell them you’re proud when they win the big game, then the message you send is that every time their team loses the game, they have let you down.
Instead, focus on what they did. “I am so proud of how hard you practiced leading up to the game.” This way, win or lose, they will know you are proud, and it is okay if they don’t win. This way, they’re more likely to repeat the hard work.
I Like You
It’s a funny thing about human beings that we are very capable of loving someone and not necessarily liking them. For kids, they can tend to take their parents’ love for granted and not put as high a value on what it means to their self-esteem. There is the idea of, “Well, you have to love me.”
Telling your kids that you like them for them every once in a while does wonders for their self-esteem. The trick here is that the comment should be unique to each child and spotlight an aspect of their personality or character that is specific to them.
Maybe your child just told a joke that genuinely made you laugh. Pause to say, “You know what? I like you. You always make everyone around you laugh and you always make sure everyone is included. I think that’s really cool.”
Your kids need to hear that kind of message from you from time to time. Their response will give you a good idea about where their self-esteem is and help you gauge how they are doing.
I Knew You Could Do It!
This one is tricky. Studies show that when parents artificially praise their kids by using well-intended words of encouragement, it has a negative impact on self-esteem.
“When my mom tells me she believes in me, it actually creates more pressure and anxiety. It’s like she believes in me so much that if I fail, I’ll let her down and myself down.” -Ellie, 12
So how do you encourage your kids without having a reverse effect?
Your kids need to hear that you believe in them in the moments they have achieved a goal. Celebrating their hard work and accomplishment lets them know you believe in them. If you only ever tell your teen that you believe in them when they are trying to do something they are worried about, then they will believe you are just pressuring them. They start wondering, “How am I going to do this?”
When you are trying to encourage them to do something hard, harken back to the last thing they did:
“Hey, do you remember when you were really worried about that big test, and you studied all weekend and knocked it out of the park? I know that if you work hard, you are going to do well.”
You will help them believe in themselves by reminding them of a time they accomplished something they didn’t think they could do. Also, letting them know you are prouder of the effort than you are of the outcome itself will actually help them do better because you will take away the fear of disappointing you.
This one is for the big siblings out there: when your child does something, tell them thank you.
Not only is this polite, it will tell your kids that you value their contributions. Did that smelly teenage son finally clean his room? Say, “Hey, I noticed you cleaned your room. Thanks, you did a good job.”
This is especially a big deal with older siblings who help with younger siblings. When they do something to help the younger kids, make sure to thank them for going above and beyond.
PRO-TIP: Please don’t do the “you live here for free, so you owe me chores” thing. While chores are a great thing and really important for teaching accountability and responsibility, it is wrong for parents to hold the feeding and caring of their children over their heads. When your kids do chores, say thank you. When you take away the generosity of their chore by telling them that they owed it to you, all you will do is engender resentment. Just say, “Thank you!”
I Appreciate You
Appreciating someone is different from thanking them. It is important to let your child or teen know that you appreciate them for their unique gifts and characteristics. Your child needs to hear that you appreciate the things they do and the role they play in the family:
- “I really appreciate how you are always putting others first.”
- “I really appreciate what a good big brother/sister you are.”
- “I really appreciate how polite you are.”
Everyone, adults included, need to feel wanted and appreciated for what they do. Kids are no different. Telling your kids that you appreciate them for who they are will increase resilience and give them the skills they need to build their own promising futures.
I Love You
You can never tell your child that you love them too much. When the world becomes difficult or overwhelming - when they are questioning their value and self-worth - let your voice be the sound track in their heads reminding them that they have value.
Be Specific: Tell them what you love about them. Remind them what makes them special and unique. Let them know you see the good in them that is entirely their own and tell them . Every. Single. Day.
PRO-TIP: Tell them you love them on SnapChat. They will roll their eyes with embarrassment, but smile at how corney you are. You might even get a begrudging, "I love you, too."