Why Kids Are so Good at Hurting Their Parents’ Feelings, According to Science

If it was up to most parents, their babies could join the Friars Club.

Kids are nasty little buggers. They call their dads fat and their moms witches and, frankly, it hurts (especially if you’re fat, or an actual witch). After weathering insult and injury from their children, some parents react too quickly, others do not react at all. But those parents who seize these hurtful episodes as opportunities to foster emotional intelligence and social skills are the most likely to raise children who become gradually less terrible, over time.

“When a child hurts their parent’s feelings it is important to stop, pause, and address these hurt feelings,” family therapist Katie Ziskind told Fatherly. “This process teaches your child empathy and compassion. Parents who brush it off actually do a disservice to their child.”

Hurt feelings cause emotional pain as well as physical pain, research shows, and there’s evidence that family members are especially good at landing the blows that are most felt. Parents should take comfort in the fact that, when it comes to very young children, the verbal abuse makes some developmental sense. Most kids start talking by age two, but do not develop the ability to accurately read other people’s emotions, or “theory of mind”, until around age four. That leaves a good two years for them to insult with impunity, and learn by testing boundaries.

“Just because a child says something mean is not an indication that the parent is doing anything wrong,” psychologist Chris Cortman told Fatherly. “When parents parent, they may expect children to say mean things because the child is not getting what they want.”

In some instances, what kids say cut deeply because, well, they’re right.  When that happens, seriously consider the feedback. “A healthy parent tries the words on for accuracy, and if the criticism fits, is brave enough to own that and change whatever is necessary to change,” Cortman says. 

And do not overreact—compose yourself, and then start teaching emotional intelligence. Psychologist Carl Pickhardt suggests parents on the receiving end of an insult pause, take a deep breath, and begin using I-message or I-statements. Often associated with couples counseling, I-statements simply involve using words that are not emotionally charged or accusatory.

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“When you did what you did, I felt this way in response. What this teaches is not causing, but consequences,” Pickhardt explains.  “How each of us chooses to act can have emotional consequences for the other. In a healthy relationship, we can each let the other know about our emotional responses to what each other does or doesn’t do or say.”