Are You (Secretly) Calling Your Child an “Idiot”?

July 2022

By Elaine Taylor-Klaus, PCC, CPCC
Author, Parent Educator, Co-Founder of


“It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”

I say this to my kids all the time. I may sound like a broken record, but my kids definitely understand that tone of voice is a key part of any good communication. Seriously, if you want to improve your communication with your kids, you’ll want to pay attention to your tone. Communication happens in tone, expression, gesture – there’s a lot more to it than simple words. Now, don’t get me wrong – the words we choose are important. When talking with your kids, saying things like, “Yes, and…” instead of “But” can disarm defense mode. Using the term “could” instead of “should” offers them authentic choice and control. Presenting tasks and responsibilities such as “What do you have for homework?” instead of “What do we have to get done tonight?” can empower them with a sense of ownership and independence. Language matters – a lot. And then there’s tone of voice. Tone communicates volumes.

The Power of Tone of Voice

Often, we send messages we don’t mean to be sending – and we do this most with the ones we love. For example,

  • “Why didn’t you?” can send the message, “You’re an idiot.”
  • “What were you thinking?” sends the message, “You can’t do anything right.”
  • “For the tenth time…” sends the message, “you have no respect for me.”

And so on.

In the outside world, we tend to be more cautious. We are polite when we speak to those in authority (“Yes, ma’am”) and we are often even considerate when we speak to strangers (“Don’t worry, you can go ahead of me in line”). But to our loved ones? Well, we can be downright mean – without meaning to be!

A Tone Game to Play with Kids

Years ago I held a workshop for a group of third grade girls. They got to take turns standing in front of the room, stating a simple request, “Would you take your backpack off the table, please?” It could have been anything, really. Put your coat on the hook, put your shoes in the hall. Whatever. But before each girl took a turn, I called out an emotion for her to express in the request. I called out words like: kind, angry, impatient, sweet, annoyed, hungry, supportive, loving, hateful, sarcastic, etc. As you can imagine, it was really funny, and the girls loved the game. But it was also eye opening. Especially to the parents in the room who could hear themselves in their daughter’s voices – and they didn’t always like what they heard.

Are You Calling Your Child an Idiot?

More often than we realize, our tone and subtext sabotages our communication with our kids and our spouses. We think we’re masking our frustration or disappointment or fear, but we’re not. We’re implying a message of while our words tell another story. Think about it.

  • Are you implying, “You’ll never amount to anything,” when you ask your child “What were you thinking?”
  • Are you suggesting, “I don’t believe in you,” when you ask your child, “Are you sure?”
  • Are you expressing, “You’re such a disappointment,” when you ask, “How did you do on that test?” (that you didn’t study for).

Now, we’re all human. Sometimes, we’ll look at our sloppy teen, hiding behind a hoodie and earphones, drumming at the table, and think “you ungrateful freeloader” while you ask him to “pass the butter, please.” The challenge is to hide that thought from your voice until you can redirect your thoughts – to something more constructive for everyone.

Use 3 Steps to Check your Tone

Changing your tone requires recognition before action. Here’s a 3 step process to help you check and change your tone:

  • Step 1. Think about the biggest worry or fear you have for your child – maybe it’s that he’s rude and disrespectful, that he’s never going to make it in life, or that she’s a slacker with no motivation. That fear is likely to manifest itself in the tone you are unwittingly expressing in your voice.
  • Step 2. Then, ask yourself, your spouse or BFF (if you’re really brave), what emotion tends to sneak out in your tone? Narrow it down to the 1-3 tones that are most likely to slip in.
  • Step 3. Begin to recognize your tendency in the moment, and start shifting your thoughts and feelings so that your tone has a different expression. You may fear “she’s a slacker,” but there is something else that’s also true that would be a more helpful thought, like “she’s so creative,” or “I wonder what would work to help motivate her?” This shift is how you’ll improve communication – not only with your ADHD kid, this tip will help with any communication!

Examples of Hidden Tone

I’ve found that when I’m not careful, my tone tends to suggest “you slacker.” “Have you fed the dogs (you slacker)?” or “Have you unpacked your lunchbox (you slacker)?” For others, it may be a different worry or fear that hides in tone. A client who worries that her 12-year-old son is not going to make it as an adult in the world, relays a message through tone that sounds like a character in Gulliver’s Travels. The one who said things like, “You’re doomed; you’ll never make it out alive.” Only it comes out as, “What do you have for homework tonight (you’re doomed)?” “You did great on that test (but you’re still doomed)!”

One of my daughters has a tendency to imply “you idiot” in her tone, though she doesn’t really mean it. Not always, anyway. My spouse’s tone implies, “Seriously, I have to tell you this again?” I think you get the picture. Whatever makes you most frustrated or concerned for your child is likely to come out in your tone without your intention. And it’s up to you to recognize that and begin to shift your thoughts about it, so that you can improve your communication, especially when it matters to your child.

To be honest, I work really hard at trying to shift my thoughts and my tone, but sometimes it comes out regardless. I’m human, after all. But I’m a lot better than I used to be and progress is what we’re striving for here, not perfection. So if any of this sounds familiar in your household, or resonates with you, focus on tone to improve communication with your kids. And I also encourage you to read Diane’s article, “How to Apologize When You’ve Hurt Your Child’s Feelings.”

This article was originally published on


For more information on how to parent complex kids and how to provide a better, more supportive environment for your child to thrive, please continue to read the following articles:

Worst Parenting Advice for Complex Kids

A Parent’s Best Question:  Is it Naughty or Neurological

The Marathon View In Parenting:  In it For the Long Haul



Elaine Taylor-Klaus, PCC, CPCC
Author, Parent Educator, Co-Founder of

With a lifelong passion for politics and community, Elaine Taylor-Klaus has always been a vocal and dynamic advocate for change. When she was presented with the life challenge of raising complex kids, she did not stand still. She sought support and help. And when she did not find it, she created it. While there are support systems in place for children, parents are often left to fend for themselves as they figure out how to navigate life with complex kids — those with ADHD, anxiety, autism, learning challenges, and so much more. Elaine blended her coaching experience with her parenting need and co-created ImpactADHD® — now — a groundbreaking resource for parents like her – and you. Since 2009, she has shared her expertise with national and international audiences at live and virtual conferences and events, and has been widely published in many publications including Attention and ADDitude magazines, and Kids In The House. Elaine offers trainings, presentations, keynotes, coaching, and support for parents and professionals around the globe. A Wesleyan University graduate (Connecticut) and CORO Fellow (New York), her passion for community, coaching, parenting, and politics has led to a lifetime of civic engagement and innovative programming.


Photo credit:  fizkes