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What Damage Can Your Words Have on Your Kids?

  • Karen Whiting Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
What Damage Can Your Words Have on Your Kids?

Children respond strongly to their mother’s voice according to a study published in the journal National Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Newborn babies can identify their mother’s voices. They have heard the voice for months while inside the womb. According to the research parts of the brain light up in response to the sound of their mother. This includes areas associated with emotions, rewards, and facial recognition. It’s no wonder that the words mothers speak are remembered for a long time.

Whether casual or intentionally, phrases and thoughts expressed to children often bring a long-lasting impact. Comments that might seem off-hand to you could have a more enduring influence than you wanted. Here are 8 things to consider as you learn how to communicate effectively with your child.

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Gain wisdom from your past

Gain wisdom from your past

Reflect on phrases your mom spoke that had an impact on you, whether she wanted it to or not. Forgive the negative ones and cling to the positive ones.

When I faced a big problem and shrunk from a challenge my mom would say, “You may not feel like climbing Pike’s Peak every day.” Her words encouraged me to take it easy and then try again the next day.

On the negative side, my mom often insisted “You know,” when in fact I often did not know and felt I missed learning things. I finally started to respond, “I don’t know, so tell me what I need to learn.” I stopped myself as a parent from assuming my children knew things that maybe they had not actually mastered or retained.

Start habits that help you speak intentionally to bless your children positively and avoid negative impacts.

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Understand your impact

Understand your impact

Your words matter. Consider these commons scenarios or phrases and how they might be interpreted by your child.  

  • Have you ever frustratingly said something to the effect of “You are always so slow. Why can’t you get ready on time?” You are not alone; getting ready can be an exasperated mess for every family. Unfortunately, such a phrase might cause a child to believe they are actually slow and cause them to freeze up when they need to move fast. They may grow up time challenged.
     
  • Labeling a child gives them a self-image that can be negative (chubby) or positive (beautiful).
     
  • “Don’t be a baby.” The phrase might cause a child to hide and suppress their emotions. Young ones are sensitive and easily impressed.
     
  • Crushing their feelings or belittling a problem may be interpreted as you don’t care or take their feelings and beliefs seriously. “You’re fine” or “It’s no big deal.” Those phrases may be meant to comfort them, but they may come across that their problems don’t matter, whether they skinned their knees or broke a toy.
     
  • We might think it’s great to say, “You can be anything you want to be.” However, we all have talents and areas where we are not naturally talented. It’s better to encourage their talents and interests, and then help them match those to activities and later careers. It might even cause gender confusion.
     
  • “What’s wrong with you?” Such words can hamper children from accepting themselves or cause them to question their value. It brings anxiety that may last decades.

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Realize that how you talk about yourself could limit your child

Realize that how you talk about yourself could limit your child

Your child might hear you jokingly say to another adult “I could never do math.” That phrase your child overhears might overwhelm a child and block their ability to learn arithmetic or higher math.

You are their star, the wonder woman they see each day. That you limit your ability may cause your child to believe they will have limits and somethings will be too hard to even try. Other phrases may cause them to doubt themselves.

Comments about yourself can have far reaching problems. To state you are too fat and need to go on a diet when they see their mom as beautiful can make children become more self-critical. Review phrases from your mom to consider how her words impacted you.

We want our words to reflect love and encourage our sons and daughters to be happy with who God made them to be, and to succeed in life. That may mean curbing our own self-talk that might cause children to set boundaries on their abilities.

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Think before speaking

Think before speaking

Consider how your child might interpret your words. Take a deep breath and be calm before speaking.

Ask yourself if you are about to label your child or pronounce a negative comment that might bring about unintended consequences.

Discover your child’s needs before speaking. Ask how they feel and what they need rather than dismissing their emotions or telling them what to do. You’ll help them cope with feeling if they learn to identify them. They will learn to express difficulties in moving forward with a problem and equip them to recognize and solve problems.

Let memories of your mother’s words help you choose to follow the methods that most helped you. Start with making sure you communicate clearly.

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Be specific

Be specific

A child might be slow to react because they don’t know what to do. “Get ready” is a big command. Does it mean to get dressed, put on shoes, pack a backpack, or walk out the door? List steps to be done so a child can respond with actions.

Clean your room is another generalized command for children without a plan. “Put away all your books” guides them in one step to clean the room. A chart that shows different steps to cleaning the room provides guidance and matches a specific remark, “Use your clean room guide and clean up your room.”

Or, enlist your child to name specifics. “Your room is messy. What can you do first to start cleaning up?”

Your child might need to write five sentences about what they did yesterday for a homework assignment and freeze up. Instead of telling the child to just remember and do it, pause and chat about the day. Did they get up? Did they go anywhere? What did they do after they ate or in the afternoon or with you or someone else? Those are memory prompts. You will teach them how to recall information instead of making them feel like they have a poor memory.

No matter how hard we try, negative words or generalizations slip out. Pause to correct negative impressions.

Process your words

Process your words

Chat daily to discuss any words that confused them or hurt your children’s feelings. Ask what they thought you meant. Explain what you really meant and apologize for hurtful words. Consider what to do in the future and encourage your child to ask questions to understand better.

If “Get ready” confuses your child, suggest that your child ask, “What should I do to get ready?” If your child repeats negative behaviors, such as avoiding cleaning his room, discuss what will help. Go over steps to do the task and ask if they want to make chart to guide them.

Reflect on what you said throughout the day and make sure you used positive comments and feedback. When they got ready did you say, “You did a good job of putting on your coat and packing your backpack.”

Change things if you find you repeat the same phrase often, such as “Wash your hands before eating.” Instead, ask, “What should you do before eating?” or explain the importance of washing hands. Or make up a silly song, “While you stand, wash each hand. Then you’ll be neat to sit and eat.” You can start the song as a prompt to hand washing. That’s part of training a child.

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Training with direction and love

Training with direction and love

It’s easy to just state, “You’re doing that wrong.” However, that might signal to the child that he or she is incompetent. They might become passive and always let you take control. If it’s a safety issue, you do need to stop the action and explain that the step they are taking is unsafe.

Otherwise, observe their efforts, and comment that you notice they are working hard. If they seem to be frustrated ask, “Can I show you an easier way to do that?” or “I could give you a few helpful pointers if you’d like.”

Your words guide your child’s future choices and behaviors so weigh what you say carefully. Consider how a child may be very proud of a bed made with the comforter all crooked. That’s the time express thanks that they did it alone and remembered to do it. The next day ask, “Please help me make my bed.” You can chat as you make it and share a few tips that help you keep it smooth or straight. They can apply those ideas to their own bed making or ask for your help and enjoy learning from the team effort.

End those trainings with words of appreciation and praise for effort and anything done well. Positive and honest words are the most encouraging ones.

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Practice affirmations

Practice affirmations

Make a habit of using positive and encouraging phrases that are specific and true. “You worked hard for that “B” states that you know they spent time and effort in the subject. “Thank you for your help with dinner. You’re great at mashing potatoes.”

Set a goal to make a positive statement during each part of the day spent together and also in giving feedback as your child shares about his or her day.

Start the day with a compliment about the choice of clothes or being ready for the day. Add encouragement as you notice your child mastering a task, putting away a toy or book, or gives you a compliment. End the day with a chat about how thing went and how they rose to challenges, coped with emotions, or accomplished something.

Your child will be happy because you noticed them and their actions, you listened, cared, and affirmed their importance in your life. Your positive words will give them confidence for life.

Be the mom who inspires her children and fills their minds and hearts with encouraging words. They are more apt to stay close as adults and you’ll be grateful as you watch them find joy and purpose in life. They will continue to rejoice at the sound of your voice. Hopefully, they will catch on to your use of positive words and bless their children with affirmations of encouragement.


Karen Whiting is a mother of five, including two rocket scientist sons, international speaker, and author of twenty-five books. Check out her book for parents of young girls, Raising a Young Modern Day Princess.

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