When we’re young we spend our time trying to figure out the world. Everything is new and exciting, and sometimes scary. As children, we take cues about how we should react to our environment from adults, and our parents are our biggest teachers, whether we realize it or not.
During childhood, the brain’s neuroplasticity is flexible. A child’s brain can learn and adapt very quickly. This is the reason why kids seem to pick up on languages quicker than adults do. As you age, the neuroplasticity of the mind, as well as thought patterns, become more nailed down. That is why the lessons that a child is taught in childhood are so important because they shape the future adult that they will become.
The words that our parents say to us greatly impact how we feel about the world, and ourselves. If you have children or are thinking about having children, there are some words that you may want to rephrase, because they could be negatively impacting your child.
Sometimes children can seem to be an endless stream of tears, crying because they’re mad, sad, afraid, and even happy. It can seem as though a child is crying for no reason at all, and that can be frustrating for parents, which urges them to tell their child to stop crying. In reality, crying, however silly it may seem to us, is the child’s emotion, and telling them to stop can result in a child who stifles their emotions for fear of retribution.
Many children, especially toddlers who don’t have a fully developed vocabulary, will cry because they simply can’t find the words for what they’re feeling. By telling your child not to cry you’re dismissing their emotions as invalid.
“Saying ‘Don’t be’ doesn’t make a child feel better, and it also can send the message that his emotions aren’t valid—that it’s not okay to be sad or scared,” says Debbie Glasser, director of Family Support Services at the Mailman Segal Institute for Early Childhood Studies at Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale.
Instead, acknowledge your child’s emotion and guide them through the situation. An example of this would be: “Yes, the waves can be scary when you’re not used to them, but we can just stand here and let them tickle our feet. I’ll hold your hand the whole time.”
You may be wondering how “good job” can possibly be bad. Well, the phrase itself is actually very positive, but overusing it, as many parents do, can be negative. Using these words as a general encouragement will teach your child to value the praise rather than the satisfaction of an accomplishment, and overusing the phrase will lead your child to zone it out.
“Parental reactions like the above get a child thinking about the process and working toward a goal,” says social psychologist and best selling author Dr. Susan Newman. “‘Great job, what a smart boy, you are wonderful’ and the like become white noise after a while.”
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“Leave Me Alone” or “I’m Busy”
It’s true that kids can be hectic and every parent needs their time alone to recharge. But, if you routinely tell your children that you’re busy they will internalize that message and be less likely to come to you in the future. While this may seem like a much-needed break for you now, it’s a thought that they will likely carry on throughout their life, and they may not come to you as they grow up.
Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D., founder of the Ozark Center for Language Studies, in Huntsville, Arkansas says “They begin to think there’s no point in talking to you because you’re always brushing them off.”
Instead of telling them to go away indefinitely, try saying: “Mom has to finish this one thing, so I need you to paint quietly for a few minutes. When I’m finished we can go outside.”
Labels have been known to shortchange kids and pigeonhole them into certain personality traits. Negative labels, like “You’re so mean to Katie”, “You are such a klutz” or “You’re so lazy” will leave children believing that they actually are those things, and they will begin acting as such without knowing it. Even something as seemingly harmless as “You’re shy” can pigeonhole a child into acting a certain way which can debilitate them in life.
“The slip is telling the child that he is “bad” even though the behavior that he is doing may be more the focus of “bad.” says expert Kelly Saunders. Instead of negatively influencing a child by putting a label on them, address the issue specifically.
The better way to approach the situation would be to address the specific moment and leave the adjectives out of it. “It hurt Katie’s feelings when you called her names, how can we make it better?”
“Wait Until Mommy/Daddy Gets Home!”
When a person is at the end of their patience it’s not uncommon for them to resort to using the big guns to get a child to do what they want. One of the most common responses is for the parents to say “wait until mommy/daddy gets home!” By saying this you’re making two big mistakes.
“What you’re really saying is, “I don’t have any power over you, but the person who does have power over both of us is coming home.” Expert James Lehman says.
You are giving up all of your power by giving it to the parent that isn’t present. Not only that, but you’re putting that parent in the “bad cop” position, which isn’t fair. It is not your partner’s job to deal with an issue because you couldn’t while they were away.
How we talk to our children greatly affects how our children view the world. Often times, parents don’t mean anything negative in the things that they say to their kids, and they certainly don’t mean to set them up for failure in the future. Everyone slips up on occasion, and making one little mistake doesn’t mean that your child will be ruined. Try your best to make the proper word choices when speaking to your child and they will be set up to succeed in the future.
- Paula Spencer. Positive Reinforcement: 9 Things You Shouldn’t Say to Your Child. Retrieved from http://www.parenting.com/article/things-you-shouldnt-say-to-your-child
- Kelly Saunders. (2012, July 30). “Bad Kid” or “Bad” Behavior and How It Shapes a Child’s Self-Esteem. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/bad-kid-or-behavior-and-how-it-shapes-a-childs-self-esteem-0730125
- James Lehman. Do You Make This Parenting Mistake? “Wait Till Your Father Gets Home!” Retrieved from https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/make-parenting-mistake-wait-till-father-gets-home/
- Jennifer Eberhart. 19 Things You Should Never Say to Kids. Retrieved from https://www.care.com/c/stories/5208/19-things-you-should-never-say-to-kids/
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