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What You Say and What Your Children Hear

  • Dr. Caron B. Goode
  • Published Oct 24, 2002
What You Say and What Your Children Hear

Ever wonder what happens when your young children respond in unexpected ways to the words you say?


It's because the words they hear differ from the emotional messages they receive at the same time. Consequently, they feel mixed up, so their responses are mixed up. These responses stem from how they feel when others talk to them, as in this example:


A family of three generations - a 13-month-old girl, her mother, and her grandmother - waited in the doctor's office. When the little girl went to her mother for a hug, the mom cuddled her and said, "You're such a good girl." When she went to her grandmother's lap, the woman said, "You're a mean little stinker." While saying this, the grandmother tweaked the little girl's nose.


Imagine what the child heard and internalized from these two incidents: "I'm good. I am mean. I stink." She would link all of these words with both warm hugs and painful nose tweaks. As she develops her own "internal parent" using the words she hears, the true message can easily get mixed up. That's why it's important to be honest and kind in all of your communications - both with your children and with others they see you interact with.


Feeling Before Reasoning


"Honest" communication means making your words congruent with your feelings. Realize that children "feel" out situations before they are able to "reason" through them. That's why:

* If you are not completely honest, children feel it.

* If you try to smooth things over, they know it.

* If you speak in hushed tones, they wonder what's wrong.

* If you gossip, they assume you are hiding something.

* If your words don't match your facial expression, children feel the lack of congruence. As a result, they may become unsure of what you say and choose to not listen. Or they may think they understand when they really don't.


Like all young children, I also translated every word said by the adults I cared about into underlying feelings.


If they said, "She eats like a bird," I translated it into, "I peck at my food. Something's wrong."


If they said, "The wind will blow her away," I heard, "I'm too skinny."


If they said, "She has Aunt Edna's nose," I translated it as, "My nose is big and ugly." That's why it critical to remember that young children first feel all interactions before they apply their ability to use language.


Three Steps to Clarity


As a parent, how can you "say it like you mean it" so your children will hear your messages as you intended? These three steps will get you started:


Step 1 - Use clear, consistent, positive communication to help form your child's internal "parenting" voice into a caring one. This practice will guide your children's understanding with kindness and honesty for the rest of their lives.


Step 2 - Use active listening. This essential ingredient of true communication demonstrates interest and respect for children. Whether you listen well or don't listen well, they copy whatever they see, so model being an active listener.


Step 3 - Get clear yourself on your own "inner parent" -- it may be affecting all your communications.


This third step is the most important one because your ability to communicate depends on your awareness of the "inner parent" messages you carry from your own childhood.


To get to that awareness, make time to do the following:

1. Sit down with paper and pen, then take a few moments to clear your mind.

2. Find a calm and quiet space inside of yourself.

3. Write as many responses to each of the questions below as you can. (When you've written all you can and feel your mind is blank again, move on to the next question.)


QUESTION 1: The unkind things my mother said to me were__________

QUESTION 2: The unkind things my father said to me were__________

QUESTION 3: The nicest things they ever said to me were _________

QUESTION 4: The voice of the past that echoes most frequently in my head says _______________________________________________________


4. Reread what you have written. How many of these words and phrases sound like the expressions you use as a parent now?

5. Keep the responses you like and embrace them as your own.

6. Identify the responses you don't like and ask yourself: Am I willing to change them?

7. Determine how you would make those changes.

8. Repeat this exercise to see what has really changed over time and to uncover more phrases from your past.


When you better understand the emotions that trigger the words you speak, you'll better understand your child's unexpected -- and possibly undesirable -- responses.

And remember that communication is based much more on feeling than on reasoning, especially for young children. So help them grow up knowing how to say what they really mean.


Caron Goode, Ed.D., author of Nurture Your Child's Gift draws her insights from her 15 years in private psychotherapy practice and 30 years of experience in the fields of education, personal empowerment, and therapy. She and her husband live in Tucson, Arizona. Visit her at


(c) 2002 by Dr. Caron B. Goode