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10 Things Not to Say to Your Toddler
Updated on
August 10, 2023

10 Things Not to Say to Your Toddler

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10 Things Not to Say to Your Toddler.
10 Things Not to Say to Your Toddler

What we say to our children has a lasting effect on who they become and how they’ll view the world around them. Our words become their inner voice and narrative, which is why it’s so important to be mindful of our words.

As your toddler grows and develops, it can be tough to keep your cool when faced with challenging behavior. Let’s be real, raising little humans is no easy feat. There will be times when we blurt out something negative either directly to (or within earshot of) our little ones. There’s no such thing as the perfect parent—we’re human and we’re bound to make mistakes. And we’re all trying our best.

To help you navigate these tricky convos, here are 10 things to avoid saying to your toddler.

1. You made me feel [insert emotion here].

When our toddlers are having a hard time, it can be easy to say “You’re making me so mad!” But as adults, our feelings and emotions are our own responsibility. Other people can’t actually make us feel anything. When we tell our toddlers their behavior or big feelings are making us feel a certain way, it sends the message that they’re responsible for other people’s actions and feelings. Toddlers may start to internalize that they need to consider everyone else’s happiness and well-being before their own, which can set them up for unhealthy relationships with those around them in adulthood.

Say this instead: Take responsibility for your own feelings and emotions and use “I” statements when talking to your toddler. “I felt frustrated when I had to keep asking you to stop jumping on the couch.”

2. Anything body related (about theirs and yours)

We shouldn’t compliment or criticize how anyone’s body looks, especially children. It’s also important to not criticize our own bodies in front of our toddlers either. These things can contribute to insecurities and an unhealthy body image that’ll stick with them into adulthood.

Say this instead: Focus on your toddler’s other characteristics and traits, like how determined, adventurous or creative they are.

3. What’s wrong with you?

When we say things like this or make statements about how our toddlers “are” (you’re so dramatic, you’re so rough), it’s combining the behavior with the person and assigning a negative value to both. Toddlers take everything they hear literally. And they’re learning about who they are through their parents and caregivers and by what’s reflected back to them. When we repeatedly say things like this toddlers may begin to internalize our words and think there’s something inherently wrong with them (even if we don’t mean it in that way).

Say this instead: Keep the conversations about tricky behavior focused on the behavior and separate from who your toddler is as a person. You can say something like “It’s not nice to hit your sister, let’s use gentle hands.” Another example is, “It looks like you’re having a tough time using gentle hands, let’s go find another toy to play with.”

4. You’re okay

No parent wants to see their child upset. And for many of us, our default script when our toddlers get hurt is to reassure them that they’re fine. Although we say this with the best intentions while comforting them, it can send a confusing message. Whether they’re upset because they took a tumble or because they can’t do something they really want, they clearly don’t feel okay in that moment. And that’s okay! Telling toddlers otherwise can lead to them not being able to trust their feelings and experiences. It’s okay for your toddler to be upset, angry, nervous or sad. Validating your toddler’s feelings will help them develop emotional intelligence (being able to identify what they’re feeling and why) and learn how to cope with uncomfortable, big feelings.

Say this instead: Acknowledge that falling down hurts or not getting to do something you really want to do is frustrating. You can say something like “I know you really love jumping on the couch but I can’t let you do that. Maybe we can go play outside and burn some energy.”

5. Stop crying

Big toddler feelings can be super uncomfortable for parents to witness, especially when they’re directed at us. We all want our kids to be happy, and a crying, tantrum-throwing toddler can also trigger things deep down within us from our own childhood. Just like it’s okay for them to be upset if they don’t get their way, it’s okay (and healthy) for them to cry! We want to encourage the development of emotional intelligence, healthy emotional expression and coping skills.

Say this instead: The best thing we can do for our toddlers when they’re upset is stay close and both acknowledge and validate their feelings. You can say something like, “I know you’re really upset you can’t [insert random toddler desire here] and that’s okay.”

6. Calm down

Just like a toddler won’t magically stop crying when requested, telling them to calm down also doesn’t work—in fact, it often has the opposite effect. Throwing a tantrum or experiencing big emotions can feel really overwhelming and out of control for little ones. If they could calm down on their own, they would. Think about a time you were really worked up about something. Imagine having someone tell you to calm down, and how dismissive that would feel. You might even end up feeling worse. This is another instance when you’ll need to tap into your own calm to help co-regulate your toddler.

Say this instead: Most tantrums just need time to pass. Empathize with your toddler, let them know that you see they’re upset and reassure them you’re here to help.

7. You didn’t eat enough, take a few more bites.

If it were up to toddlers, they’d be perfectly content living off of a food pyramid consisting of snacks, fruit and chicken nuggets. Toddler eating is a tricky subject and many parents worry about whether their toddler is getting enough nutritious food in their diets necessary for healthy growth and development. It can be tempting to tell them to take just one more bite but many experts advise against forcing or bribing toddlers to eat. Doing so can actually lead to more picky eating tendencies and also sends a message that they can’t trust their bodies to tell them when they’re full. It’s also not a good idea to bribe toddlers to eat with the promise of a dessert. Rewarding children with sweets can send the message that they need to earn it and that it’s better than other food. We want our toddlers to learn intuitive eating habits and that food is food—some food is just more nutritious for our bodies than others.

Say this instead: When your toddler lets you know they’re done eating (but it seems like they didn’t eat much) you can say, “I hear you saying you’re all done, is your tummy full?” And when talking about dinner versus dessert, you can speak to how fruit and vegetables give our bodies the energy they need to be healthy and strong.

8. Use your words

If you’ve ever had a whiny toddler at your feet, you’ve likely uttered this phrase. While we say this with the intention of encouraging our child’s language development, they often don’t have the words to express what they really need. And even if your toddler is verbal, it’s hard for them to articulate what they want or how they feel when unregulated (this is even true for us adults!). Toddlers need our help to figure it out.

Say this instead: First observe what’s going on when your toddler is whining and then try to name what they’re likely feeling. An example of this is, “It sounds like you’re upset, are you feeling hungry or tired? Let’s go take a nap.” Or “It seems like you’re really frustrated, let’s do it together.”

9. Be careful

You’re at the park with your toddler and suddenly notice them scaling the climbing structure on the playground. For many of us, our first instinct is to tell them to be careful. Toddlers often don’t really understand what we mean when we tell them to be careful. It can also cause anxiety because they’re not sure what they need to be careful of. And toddlers need the freedom to explore, move their bodies and test their limits—it’s how they develop spatial awareness and both fine- and gross motor skills. But it can also be super nerve-wracking to watch them climb and play—we all just want our kids to be safe.

Say this instead: Stay close by while they’re playing and offer specific tips and encouragement while they navigate the play structure. You can say something like, “That play structure is really tall, make sure you hold on with both hands as you climb.” Or “Those rocks are really slippery, walk slowly so you don’t slip and fall down.”

10. Good job

Okay, this truly isn’t the worst thing you can say to your toddler. But it’s a lot more effective and good for their self-esteem to acknowledge your toddler’s efforts instead of just giving general, blanket statements of praise. When you tell your toddler “good job” they’re often not sure what that means—are they the “good job”? When you want to give your toddler a compliment or positive reinforcement, specific praise is more meaningful.

Say this instead: If they’re playing with blocks you can say something like, “Wow, that’s such a tall tower, you must have worked really hard to build that!”

Tell me what to do instead

Another really helpful thing to keep in mind when redirecting your toddler’s behavior is to focus on what they should be doing instead of what they shouldn’t. Our first reaction is usually “Don’t do X” or “Stop doing Z”, which can unintentionally encourage your toddler to focus on the behavior you’re trying to stop or prevent. It’s also really helpful to point out and acknowledge positive behavior more than you do the negative (which can take some effort to reframe!).

A few examples of this include:

  • If they’re running inside you can say, “We use walking feet inside.”
  • If they’re jumping on the furniture you can say, “The couch is for sitting on.”
  • If they’re doing a lot of yelling you can say, “Let’s use an inside voice.”
  • If they’re touching everything in the store you can say, “Look with your eyes only.”
  • To redirect them from hitting you can say, “Hands are for playing.”

There’s no such thing as the perfect parent. So what should you do when you say the wrong thing? Repair! Acknowledging when we mess up and apologizing to our toddlers is so important. Modeling this with your toddler goes a long way in instilling these interpersonal skills and values in them as well.

Briana Engelbrecht

Assistant Editor

Briana Engelbrecht is Babylist’s Assistant Editor, where she brings her passion for early childhood development and the perinatal period, plus experience as a mom of two to Babylist articles and guides. She’s also a certified lactation counselor. A former preschool teacher, she loves children’s picture books, cats, plants and making things.

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