Girl Running Away

5 Things You Should Never Say to a Kid

As I was growing up, I heard a lot of the same words over and over again in regards to my behavior. The redundant questions and statements from parents and teachers brought a lot of unnecessary confusion and pain into my life.

I have Sensory Processing Disorder which creates a lot of unique challenges for me. You can learn more about SPD by reading my article, One Reason I’m So Weird. I’m sure my disability was the main reason the following words were repeated like a broken record to me. However, they did more damage than good. Words have a lot of power so we need to be wise about how we use them.

Here are five things I believe you should never say, with some alternatives to say instead. I hope these will turn a struggle with a difficult child into an opportunity to help them instead.

1. What’s wrong with you?
Hearing this question always made me shrink inside. It diminished my self-confidence in massive amounts. Just because I’m different, doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Sure, my brain doesn’t process the world around me the same way yours does. My perception is very unique. However, these words led me to believe I was a mistake, or broken.

Say this instead: “You have a special gift. You were made for a purpose.”

2. I’ll never understand you.
This may be a true statement; people can never understand how I feel or perceive the world without being inside my body and mind. However, these words lack compassion. The thing I wanted more than anything as a kid was to be understood, or validated; for people to believe my battle was real and not just write me off.

Say this instead: “I’m sorry for what you’re going through.”

3. Why can’t you act normal?
Believe me, I wish nothing more than my body and mind would stop betraying me all the time. I want to enjoy peace and joy in everyday life as much as the next person. Now don’t get me wrong, learning to behave in social situations was an important life skill I needed to develop. However, pointing out the fact I was not like everybody else only made me feel like an outcast. It shattered what little hope I had at times.

Say this instead: “What can I do to help you?”

4. Why can’t you be more like your brother(or sister)?
My mother only said this to me one time, but it lingered with me for a lifetime. I know, now, she didn’t intentionally mean to hurt me by saying this. She was simply frustrated in the moment because I challenged her at every turn, whereas my brother was an easy child to care for. However, the words of comparison made me believe my parents loved him more; like there was no value in being me. This resulted in intense feelings of rejection. In fact, I ran away at six years old because I honestly thought my parents would be happier if I was gone. That’s a whole other story.

Say this instead: “I love how different and unique you are.”

5. You’ll never amount to anything.
Growing up I was often forced into very overwhelming sensory environments for school or church and then punished for the way my body responded to them. I struggled with frequent sensory meltdowns, but everyone just assumed I was an ornery brat. Homework and chores were impossible to complete when my heart and mind were racing at full throttle. But during my moments of panic and stress, caregivers would say things out of frustration that devalued me. What I needed most to be productive was a safe zone. I can be highly productive and do amazing work, as long as I’m in the right environment.

Say this instead: “How can I create a safe place for you to relax, focus, and do your work?”

Words are like seeds that will either help a child bloom and grow into  healthy beautiful fruit, or they’ll fester and turn into painful thorns that can choke out our true identity and purpose. Choose your words carefully.  Even a few simple words of encouragement and understanding can have enormous impact in someone’s life…especially if they don’t hear words of affirmation very often.

Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits. – Proverbs 18:21

Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body. –Proverbs 16:24


For more insights about how I perceive the world with a sensory disorder, and how I overcome a world of chaos and misunderstanding, please watch my TED Talk:


Sensory Blog Hop



  1. It hurts even to read or write these words, right?
    And yet as people and parents they lurk in the realm of possibility. I DO get frustrated with my kids. I have once said #1, to my perfect just-as-he-is son. Oh, do i still feel terrible about that. And, once – which you show is enough – I said #4 to my daughter. ACK. The others don’t resonate so much but I can see how they would hurt. I will redouble my efforts to avoid MY pitfalls and to make up for the imperfections I too share…Sigh.
    Love the replacement phrases…

    1. We’ve all said things without realizing how someone else may perceive or internalize our words. I’m certainly guilty of this too. My goal is to help others understand the perspective of a disability like SPD. See, our world is already full of chaos, confusion and pain. People’s response to our pain can oftentimes amplify the problems. Over the years God has taught me that I’m not a messed up mistake (like I thought). As a child, I just needed more people to actually tell me they believed in me and understood my critical need for peaceful moments. I know how much my parents loved me now. We have a fantastic relationship today. But when you’re the kid that’s always struggling so much, it’s easy to develop a very negative self-image. This, for me, ultimately led me down a path of drug addiction and other challenges (which I wrote about in my book. (Link to info about my book is on my STORE page if you’re interested in that.) Thanks for your feedback.

      1. Thank YOU for the post and reply. I think I left out a key piece for the casual reader which is that I too am on the spectrum – so i have to be very careful not to meltdown (which in my case is largely internal but still awful, awful!). thanks again for all the great info and suggestions and hope and faith…

  2. Excellent article!

    Yes, yes, guilty in so many ways of saying some inappropriate things out of ignorance and frustration. I’m so grateful for God to have restored my relationship with my incredible daughter and forgiving me for my contribution to all the confusion and chaos that was part of Jennifer’s daily life. I couldn’t be more proud of her. As Jennifer has often said (and I agree) “I wouldn’t change a thing” because it afforded opportunity for our Mighty God to demonstrate His great love toward us and His power to make something beautiful from the brokenness.

    1. You are the best Mom ever!!! I said a LOT more hurtful things to you back then, that’s for sure. I’m so grateful you never gave up on me even though I put all those gray hairs on your head.

  3. “I was often forced into very overwhelming sensory environments for school or church and then punished for the way my body responded to them.” This makes me cringe with fear. I can so relate to this as I have watched my son with autism go through it. He currently refuses to go to church at all. I just hope and pray that he does feel compassion, grace and mercy from me, our family, and the wonderful volunteers at our church who tried beyond tried to make it work for him. It was just to much of an overwhelming sensory experience.

    1. I have a nephew with severe autism too. I know these challenges all too well. But you know what? God has a plan, despite these challenges. In fact, these very challenges can oftentimes become the very thing that gives our life purpose. You son will thrive in the right environment. The tricky part is just finding out what that is, and what things really hurt him. But you’re on the right track. Keep praying. It’s the best source of wisdom and peace when it comes to parenting. Just ask my mom. 🙂

      1. So very true 🙂 God does guide us in which way to go. For now, he’s been on sabbatical, lol. But we miss him so much at church. One time he asked to go and stayed for about 10 minutes before the service started. My other kids (I have 4 total, 2 with autism) were just elated that he was there!!! They are usually frustrated with him, but I think they realized how much he has to offer, and how much they have been missing him at church.

  4. Couldn’t agree more. As a parent of one that is oh so wonderfully challenging, there are times that I have said #1. I hate it but I have to admit it. But as soon as the words fly out of my mouth, I try to correct and say it the proper way…”what is wrong? What is bothering you? Is there something I can do that will help you so you aren’t climbing on my entertainment center and trying to rip the tv from the wall?” And I also try to make sure to let him know (especially on those challenging days) that I love him exactly the way he is and there isn’t a single thing I would change!

  5. This is Awesome! Jennifer I wish I had read this and met you when my children were just babies! Great job!

    1. ha! Thanks. Well, it’s never too late to get it right. Just ask my mom. We have a fantastic relationship now but that came through both of us being able to apologize which allowed us to work through our numerous misunderstandings.

  6. Jennifer, EXCELLENT post! My son has SPD and is also on the autism spectrum. He’s young & high-functioning enough that I don’t think he’s felt terribly “different” yet…but I do know it’s coming, & I and a wonderful therapist are trying to prepare him as gently as possible for that.

    I know that God has a plan for both of us as we navigate this path together. Thank you so much for sharing your story. 🙂

    1. Thanks Debra! I’m so excited to hear that you and a therapist are really coming together to help your son. I firmly believe God doesn’t make mistakes. He can use his beautiful mind in powerful and unique ways. Sure, there are every day challenges we have to learn to overcome but once we figure out how to manage what hurts and overwhelms, there are incredible things that can come from it. I hope we stay connected because I’d love to hear more from you on your journey raising your son. I know my mom had her hands full with me but we have an amazing relationship now and I’ve learned to even be grateful for my “gift”. 🙂

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