11 Mixed Messages Parents Send (And How to Stop)

Are you guilty of sending these common mixed messages to your kids? Here's what to do instead.

Recently, I was struck by the  number of mixed messages parents send to their kids.

I believe that most of these are unintentional, and would probably go unnoticed unless someone pointed them out (in a blog post, maybe?).

However, some of these are common sources of tension between parents and children, I hear about it from the families I work with, and notice some of them in my own parenting.

Before we look at the mixed messages, Remember:

No parent is perfect.   No child is perfect. No family will have crystal clear communication 100% of the time.   Life happens.   People feel stressed. They misunderstand each other.   It’s normal. Communication is a work in progress.

It takes a brave parent to examine the little parenting quirks that may be lurking in the day-to-day interactions with their children. Most of us would rather stick to the “biggies” – trying not to yell, attempting to feed our kids healthy food and get them to bed at a reasonable hour.

If you’re ready to clear up some of the communication in your house, this is a good place to start.   However, I would encourage you to only pick one or two mixed messages to focus on at first.   It’s not going to be easy. Give yourself permission to fail a few times before you start to make a more consistent change.

Common Mixed Messages

1. Ask me anything…Not right now

2. You can tell me anything…But not that

3. Hands are not for hitting…Except when I spank you

4. It’s not OK to yell…Get in here! (said while yelling)

5. Always tell the truth…Let’s say you’re still 3, so you can get in free

6. I know you two can work it out…That’s it, you’re both grounded

7. You’re always playing that video game…Just a minute, I’m on my phone

8. Whatever you’re feeling is fine…Settle down! Stop being so angry!

9. It’s Ok to make mistakes…You spilled the milk again!!

10. You don’t have to be perfect…A “B” on this test, what happened?!

11. I love you no matter what…Go away, I’m so frustrated with you

OK, Now What?

  • Write It Down: The first step in making any change is identifying what needs to be different.   Maybe you identified with one of the mixed messages above, or maybe you thought of one of your own.   I would encourage you to write down both parts on a piece of paper.
  • Find Your Focus: Which message do you want to emphasize in your home? Write it as specifically as possible.   Why is this message important to you?   What situations, stressors, people or circumstances make it difficult for you to stay true to this focus?
  • List the Imposters: While you’re writing, list the many ways this message becomes a “mixed message.” I’ve listed one phrase above, but more than likely you can create a longer list.   Be honest, this is an important, yet difficult, part of this exercise.
  • Be Mindful: Now that you know the phrases to listen for, it’s important to be aware of what you are saying. This can be tricky.   You are going to fall back into old patterns, especially when you feel stressed or overwhelmed.   Work on catching yourself when possible.
  • Apologize and Move On: When you slip up, don’t dwell on it. Instead, stop yourself, even mid-sentence. Acknowledge the mixed message, apologize if necessary, rephrase or say it differently. With time and practice, this will become second nature.

Other ways to stop the mixed message habit is to get your family involved.   If your children are old enough, have a family meeting to discuss the changes that you would like to make for your family. If your children are younger, enlist help from your spouse or another caregiver.   Give them permission to gently make you aware of times when you send a mixed message.

Nicole Schwarz (couch 3)

Welcome! I'm Nicole Schwarz.

I'm a Parent Coach, Licensed Therapist and Author of It Starts with You. I help stressed, overwhelmed, confused parents find calm, confidence and connection with their kids. No one is expecting perfection here. But, if you’re willing to examine your parenting, find encouragement, or try something new, this is the place for you.

Comments have been turned off to retain the privacy of all families. If you have a question or comment on the topic, you're always welcome to contact me.