Parents are aware that negative and abusive comments have ill effects on children, but can compliments and praise backfire as well?

Pats on the back, though well-intentioned, aren't always effective image boosters, psychologists say, and often the cause is the sort of language that's used. A case in point: Your 7-year-old entertains her younger brother just long enough for you to get dinner going and you gush, "You're the best sister in the world!"What's the problem? Praise that begins with "you are" essentially labels a child - which can make her feel anxious about measuring up, says H. Holley Humphrey, a communication specialist in Encinitas, Calif., who conducts parenting workshops and teaches adults and kids how to express their feelings.

The big sister may think she has to fit the best-in-the-world description all the time - a weighty burden - or she may inwardly refute it completely: "I'm not a good sister. Yesterday when he broke my doll, I wished he didn't even live here."

Humphrey suggests four steps for offering constructive compliments. First, describe what you see ("I notice that your brother's having so much fun with you."). Next, tell how you feel ("And I really appreciate your help"). Then explain how she made a contribution ("I needed the break so I could finish making dinner"). Finally, invite your child to respond ("How did you guess this was just what I needed?"). This approach allows her to acknowledge her own achievement. And if she pitches in again, it will probably be because of a genuine desire to help.

Adele Faber, the coauthor of "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen" and "Listen So Kids Will Talk," advises parents to consider how their child reacts to their praise. If it prompts a positive response on the child's part, then it worked.

But if she doesn't seem to believe the adulation, it may have been excessive or judgmental. Instead of saying, "Look what a great artist you've become!" for example, offer compliments in specific terms: "I see you've drawn a big grassy meadow, and a little stream running through it. . . . This makes me feel like I'm in the country." Descriptive praise requires that parents give complete attention to a youngster's efforts; the payoff is that she knows you genuinely appreciated her accomplishment.

Effective results may tempt you to pile on the praise, but don't use flattery to manipulate kids' behavior, says psychologist Thomas Gordon, the founder of Parent Effectiveness Training, a program taught in 37 countries. Parents shouldn't have "a hidden agenda," advises Gordon. "Whenever you praise children, make sure it's honest."