Nothing a Parent Says is Ever Neutral“I noticed my teenage daughter stuffing her face with potato chips and I just remarked that she’s put on a few pounds lately and should lay off the junk food.”

“I just asked my 26-year-old son when he plans to get a “real” job (he’s trying to produce his own film). He never answered my question but went into a tirade about how unsupportive I am.”

“After my daughter introduced me to her new boyfriend and asked me what I thought of him, I just quietly replied, ‘I think you could do better.’ Batten down the hatches! The furor that followed lasted for months! Aren’t I allowed to say what I think?”

Yes, you are allowed to say what you think. But know that nothing a parent says is ever neutral. Though you may think you’re making a helpful observation — or simply expressing your opinion — in your child’s eyes (even with adult children), your critique is likely to be interpreted as an indictment of his or her being.

You have a choice. Every time you communicate something to your child, your choice of words, tone of voice and body language can nurture or damage the relationship.

Kara resented what I said. “Are you suggesting that I can’t be free to tell my kids what I really think? Especially when I see something’s not right? You’ve got to be kidding.”

No, I’m not kidding. Though I don’t mean to take it to the extreme (suggesting that you monitor your every word), I am telling you that how you communicate matters. A lot! And that a parent’s comment about a sensitive area will never be experienced casually. (Don’t you remember negative remarks your parents said to you decades ago?)

Usually, when parents are compelled to “just” say what’s on their mind, it’s because they’re highly frustrated. They have been thinking: “Why are you always eating junk food? When will you be able to support yourself financially? Why can’t you make a better match?” They’ve said this (or thought this) many times. And their kids are aware of it even when their parents think they’re not.

The essence of communication is not what you say. It’s what the other person hears. And when a parent critiques, it’s likely that the child is hearing, “I’m disappointed in you.” Or, “You’re not good enough.” Or, “Shape up already, will you?”

So next time you’re tempted to express your frustration with a zinger, pause and think. Then, respond with the smart part of your brain. Do this by:

  • Asking questions rather than making judgments. (But don’t turn your questions into an inquisition.)
  • Searching for solutions rather than playing up the problems.
  • Empathizing with how difficult life’s transitions can be.
  • Focusing on how to control your own frustration.

And remember that nothing a parent says to a child is ever neutral.



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    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 14 Feb 2013
    Published on All rights reserved.

APA Reference
Sapadin, L. (2013). Nothing a Parent Says is Ever Neutral. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 2, 2015, from


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