Imagine walking into a negotiation meeting with an important client. You open up the conversation by asking point-blank: “what’s wrong with you?!” The emotionally charged question inevitably sours the trust and respect you’ve worked so hard to build.

While this is the last thing we would want to say at work, why is it often the first thing we say at home?

It was a cold Wednesday morning, and I’m at the front door yelling at my kids to put on their jackets. We were late for school, again. Ignoring the exasperation in my voice, my 6-year-old decided that it was a fine time to perform an act that involved chanting “butt cheeks” and getting undressed. Without missing a beat, his younger twin siblings followed suit.

I wrestled to break up the mini flash mob. As I stormed toward my oldest, I heard myself screaming “what’s wrong with you?!” Annoyance and disgust fueled my death stare. I heard myself blurting out a string of “why can’t you” statements. I felt inadequate and inferior, for the person delivering the message, and for the person on the receiving end.

I was ashamed of shaming my children. The sad part: this was not the first time that I had let the phrase slip out of my mouth.

Being a parent can be a thankless job filled with minute-by-minute unpredictability. While we try our hardest to model our best selves, it can be incredibly disappointing when we don’t observe the same from our children in return. In emotionally draining times as such, we can’t help but ask 1) “what is wrong with you?” and 2) “what is wrong with me as a parent?”

As a former school administrator, these were the two most frequently asked questions I hear from parents. The variations of “what’s wrong with ___.” During admissions season and parent-teacher conferences, parents wanted to know what’s wrong with their child, themselves, and their partners. During the school year, the “what’s wrong with” questions broadened to include the teacher, the curriculum, that other kid, that other kid’s parents, the lunch, the playground, and the list went on.

Photo by Bekah Russom on Unsplash

Asking a child “what is wrong with you?” signals that our mind has been made up — there is something wrong — and we are trying to uncover that deficit. Over time, the question conditions the child to believe that there is something inherently wrong with him. 

As teens navigate through today’s mounting sources of pressures and anxiety, a crack in self-identity is a slippery slope to a lifetime struggle of “I’m not good enough.”

When we ask our children “what’s wrong with you,” we are trying to help them change a behavior, attitude, or decision. But how productive is it to lead with a loaded question? Here are five things that you can do to get your point across:

#1. Focus on the behavior, not the person.

Talking to your child kindly as an equal member of the household does not mean that you tolerate nor concede the behavior in question. Ask the child about his or her actions and walk through the cause and effects. Break down your child’s barriers by helping him or her seeing the personal benefits (aka WIIFM — “what’s in it for me”) of the correct behavior, instead of dwelling on how he or she has made things inconvenient for you.

#2. Be specific.

State your concern in clear and precise terms. Do not globalize nor generalize your criticisms. In your process explaining what good behavior, attitude, or choice looks like, make sure that you are not comparing your child to a sibling (ex: “why can’t you be more like your sister”).

#3. Emphasize the opportunity to learn from the mistake.

The last thing you’d want to do is to promote a fixed mindset in your child in believing that he or she is just not good enough. Acknowledge and embrace the imperfections in you and your child. Explain to your child that we all make mistakes and the purpose is so that we can learn from them to grow stronger. Ask “what can you do differently next time” to help your child to take ownership of his actions.

#4. Preserve your child’s dignity.

Don’t treat your child as the verbal punch bag of your frustrations. Shame is an attack on the person, which could have long-lasting effects of isolation and disempowerment. Model compassion. It’s never too late to back down and reset. Don’t try to save face. Be real and show your child that you’ve goofed up will help to disarm your child’s defiance and hostility toward you.

#5. Curb your expectations.

Think realistically about the time and effort for your child to learn. In my work with parents, I see many making the mistakes of imposing their self-expectations or projecting their adult capabilities onto their children (and other people’s children, for that matter). Neuroscience research shows that the prefrontal cortex, which aids in children’s ability to control impulses and make good choices, do not fully develop till early- to mid-twenties.

Remember, we were all there once.

Originally published at