“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may never hurt me!” I believe most of us, if not all, are familiar with this saying. Sadly, this saying is inaccurate, especially in regards to the words we use with our children.
The words we use with our children have the ability to empower and motivate our children, but they also have the ability to tear down and deflate our children. That is why it is so critical for us, as parents, to be mindful of how we are addressing our children. When talking about the power of words, I am not just meaning the specific words we use with our children, but what we express through our body language and tone as well. When we interact with our children, using a disparaging, exasperated or exhausted tone sends the message that our children are a burden. When this is done enough, children begin to internalize this “truth” and start to believe that they truly are a burden or are bad. When the amount of negativity we speak to our children supersedes the positivity we speak to our children, they start to believe they are only made up of bad parts because it affects how our children think about themselves, their identity and sense of value and worth. Peggy O’Mara, longstanding publisher and editor of Mothering Magazine, sums this up beautifully: “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.”
This is so critical because we know that children who have low self-esteem or question their value and worth are more prone to depression and anxiety and more likely to engage in destructive behaviors such as violence, addiction, and suicide. When children believe they are bad, rather than understanding that they did something bad, the potential for change is nonexistent. When children understand that a specific behavior they are engaging in is not okay, bad, or unhealthy, they subconsciously know they can change that specific behavior. Their self-talk may look like, “I made a mistake, I made a poor choice, what I did caused pain or discomfort for my family.” When children believe that they are bad, that they are unworthy of love or not valued, it feels impossible to change because it is “who they are.” Their self-talk may look like, “I’m the bad child, I always cause trouble, I’m such a burden, my parents are tired of dealing with me, I’m not good enough, and I’m worthless.”
Not only do our words have the power to change how our children view themselves, but our words also have the power to change how we view our children. When stuck in a pattern of talking negatively to or about our children, our brain starts to believe that that is just how our children are, making it difficult for us to see otherwise. For example, if I believe my child is lazy and never helps out around the house, I am not going to notice the ways he or she is helpful. Instead I’m going to only notice all the ways my child is not helpful, when maybe he or she actually does more around the house than what I realize.
Now, what’s amazing about our brain, is that we can essentially rewire our brains to see the positive and good in our children and breakdown the pathways in our brain that focus on the negative and bad in our children. We want to focus on positive affirmations and speaking positive truths to our children. We want to focus on watching our body language and tone with our children so we are not sending the message that they are exhausting and overwhelming. We can start speaking positive affirmations over our children by stating things like, “You are such a leader, you are so creative, you are so responsible, you can handle this, you are so loved.” Once we begin to do this, we start to create an atmosphere in which our children can thrive and begin to act out their more positive traits. I am not saying if we start making up positive qualities about our kids, “poof” our kids are going to turn into these awesome, well-behaved, obedient children. Realistically our children have good parts and bad parts, and some of their bad parts are always going to come through.
What I am saying is that we need to show our children that we see and appreciate their good parts. This will help our children engage in more positive behaviors and have a more positive self-image. Let’s look at the earlier example about if I believed my child to be lazy. If I force myself to focus on and communicate to my child any time I see him or her being helpful, it is not only going to help my brain re-wire itself to see the positive, it’s going to help my child become more helpful as well. I may start pointing out how he or she put their backpack in their room after school and how that was helpful because I don’t have to pick it up. I may point out how they always bring their plate to the counter after dinner and how much I appreciate that I don’t have to clear the table by myself.
Changing the words we use with our children will help our brains to focus on and appreciate our children’s good parts. Changing the words we use with our children will help them know the good things they are capable of (their good parts), will help them feel appreciated, and change their internal self-talk and how they view themselves. I believe if we all started applying writer and motivational speaker Robin Sharma’s words to how we communicate with our children, we would see immense change in our children’s behaviors and internal value and worth: “Words can inspire and words can destroy. Choose yours well.”