Parents should be mindful of saying certain phrases to their children over the Christmas period, a therapist has warned – and top of her ‘naughty’ list is telling your kids to kiss or hug a certain family member. Sorry, Great Aunt Ethel.
“When a child or young person is forced to hug, kiss or show affection, it takes away their agency and choice.
“Ultimately, it gives them the message they are not in control of their own body, which can be dangerous for a child or young person to hear.”
Yassin, who is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic, which supports people (including teens) with addiction, trauma and eating disorders, said the phrases parents say to, and around, their children “can stack up to create an anxious young person”.
Another saying she finds problematic is: “I deserve another helping of…” because when someone talks about food in the sense of deserving it, “it links to the idea that we must earn the right to eat or earn the right to have pleasure”.
Assigning a moral value to food can trigger negative thoughts and behaviour patterns in young people, she argues.
Likewise, saying you feel ‘bad’ or ‘guilty’ for eating something is another one you should steer clear of – not just at Christmas, but in general.
“This combines what you eat with who you are as a person and implies there is shame in having eaten something,” she explains.
“Using phrases like this at the Christmas dinner table promotes harmful eating mindsets and can cause young people, and others around you, to have unnecessary concerns about food.”
If your child is misbehaving it can be tempting to tell them they won’t get any presents – or Santa will put them on the naughty list – if they don’t buck up.
But this can be “anxiety-inducing for children”, says the therapist, especially for those with existing mental health challenges.
It can also impact self-worth. “Rewarding ‘good’ behaviour with presents and ‘bad’ behaviour with punishment can teach children and teenagers that they are less worthy when they are bad,” she explains.
“Consciously and unconsciously, young people believe they are good when they do good, or bad when they do bad things. To the young person this may feel like their truth unless the parent or caregiver is continually reminding them they are unconditionally loved.”
In the same vein, telling a child they got the present they wanted, so they have to be good, is not a great tactic, she suggests.
“This phrase implies the gift being given to the child comes with terms and conditions,” says Yassin. “The question parents could ask themselves here is: is it really a gift if it’s not unconditional?”
Making statements about money can also be problematic. Of course, we’re going through a cost of living crisis right now, and there’s no sweeping that under the rug.
But using a phrase like: “If we buy you that present, we can’t afford to pay the bills,” to try and make a child understand you’re in a tricky financial situation can confuse them and even make them feel guilty.
“The truth is, children – especially young children – don’t understand finances and neither should we expect them to,” says the therapist.
“Positioning gift giving in this way can cause young people to feel anxious and guilty. It can also be very confusing for a child if they’re told they can’t have something they’ve asked for because there’s no money to pay for it and then it appears under the tree on Christmas day.”
Of course, this is not to say you should feel bad if you do any of these. We’re all human after all and sometimes things slip through the net.
Yassin just hopes it’ll make a few more parents think twice this festive season.
“This is not about beating yourself up for what you’ve said to your child in the past, this is about recognising that some phrases do more harm than good and adjusting what you say will help to prevent your child from developing negative feelings including anxiety, guilt and shame.”