Family Therapist Reveals the 5 Key Phrases Not to Say to Your Kids This Christmas – and #3 is a Pitfall Every Parent Can Relate to

As seen in Good to Know on November 5, 2023, by Daniella Gray

With every advent calendar door that’s prised open, your kids are bound to be getting more and more excited as the big day edges closer.

Christmas can be a lot for kids – between the Christmas family traditions and late nights affecting their bedtime routine, the lack of structure might cause more meltdowns and tantrums this time of year.   

One technique you may have learned from your parents, or heard from others, is the common threat that if your children don’t behave, they’ll be put on the naughty list and won’t receive any presents from Father Christmas as a result. 

According to family psychotherapist and founder of The Wave Clinic Fiona Yassin, this is a big no-no, and using the threat of Santa to encourage good behaviour could backfire. 

Here, she lists the dubious phrases that are used by parents and caregivers around Christmas time – and what to say instead.

1. “If we buy you that present, we can’t afford to pay the bills”

Millions of families will have had to cut costs at some point this year, but that doesn’t mean your kids will make the connection between your financial situation and the presents they might receive, says Fiona. 

“This Christmas, families will feel extra-stretched with the cost of living crisis but the truth is, children (especially young children), don’t understand finances and neither should we expect them to. 

“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.”

2. “I deserve another helping of…”

Trying out all the best mince pies and enjoying every bite of your Christmas dinner is obligatory this time of year, so Fiona recommends you reinforce the message of the happiness and joy that comes with that: “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. Similarly, you may hear people say, ‘I was so bad for eating xyz’. This combines what you eat with who you are as a person and implies there is shame in having eaten something.

“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.”

3. “Santa will put you on the naughty list if you don’t behave”

Let’s face it, if your kids still believe in Father Christmas, you’ll probably agree that he has a lot of power to put a smile on their faces. That said, using the threat that he might not come this year – or put your child on the naughty list if they don’t improve their behaviour – is pretty problematic, warns Fiona. 

“Santa’s naughty and nice list can be anxiety-inducing for children, especially for those with existing mental health challenges.

“Parents can be tempted to ward off bad behaviour with the threat of the naughty list. However, rewarding ‘good’ behaviour with presents and ‘bad’ behaviour with punishment can teach children and teenagers that they are less worthy when they are bad.

“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.”

4. “Your mum/dad didn’t get me a present”

Kids pick up on big changes at home, so if there are tensions between parents in the lead up to Christmas, it may cause some anxiety for the child who is faced with the reality that they haven’t got a gift for one another. 

“A young person may use this as evidence to reaffirm what they already believe is happening in the house,” says Fiona.

5. “Give grandma a kiss”

As a parent, it can be easy to think that you can force your child into doing what will make you happy, but that could lead to resentment down the line.

“When a child is forced to hug, kiss or show affection, it takes away their agency and choice,” Fiona explains.

“Ultimately, it gives them the message that they are not in control of their own body, which can be dangerous for a child or young person to hear.”

At the end of the day, Fiona advises not to worry if you’ve said any of these phrases before, and to think of this as a helpful exercise to give you more strategies in your parenting toolkit to raise kind, decent human beings. 

“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.”