“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.”
I am a strong believer in the power of words. When used with intention, words can convey our meaning with great precision. When used recklessly, words can cause unseen injuries. So often parents react to their children out of habit, using phrases adopted from their own childhoods, without really thinking critically about how their children might internalize their words. Reflecting on the language you use with your children is a powerful practice because it provides an opportunity to transform your child’s internal experience, minimizing their experience of shame. A shift in the language we use with children is a hallmark of the new parenting paradigm. Transforming your language is definitely a process, but it’s one you can begin today by focusing on three common phrases: “You know better!” “You’re okay,” and “I’ve had it.”
YOU KNOW BETTER
Your child is doing something you’ve asked them repeatedly not to do, and you are tired of repeating yourself. For many of us, this is one of the first phrases that comes tumbling out of our mouths. The problem with is that it doesn’t accurately identify the problem our child is facing. When a child deviates from our clear expectations and we know they understand, there is something deeper going on. They could be tired or overwhelmed and struggling with impulse control, or there might be some other need they have that is going unmet. Sometimes they simply feel a need for our attention or are craving more autonomy. Even if you can’t decipher the unmet need, you can still change the way you are responding to your child in this context. Instead of saying “You know better!” try “It seems like you’re having a hard time sticking to our agreements.” Of course, you can adjust it to better describe what your child is having a hard time with; the key here is that you are acknowledging their struggle. You can then step in and help them through their struggle in an appropriate manner.
Every time I hear someone say this, I cringe. It is one of the most common expressions that parents use with their children, but rarely has the effect that we intend it to have. Our impulse when we say it is to reassure and comfort our children and let them know that they are going to be okay. In that moment, though, they are not okay. Their world has been rocked and they are having a legitimate emotional response, even if what they are responding to seems trivial to us. Telling them that they are okay is simply untrue, and it sends the message that what they are feeling is not valid, acceptable or appropriate. It teaches them to shut down rather than experience their emotions, which is an unhealthy pattern that often takes years and the support of a therapist to transform. When your child is crying, yelling, or expressing their emotions in some other way, try saying “You are really upset right now.” If possible, try to name what has triggered the emotions. If they are so deep in their emotions that they can’t communicate clearly, instead of insisting that they stop crying before they talk to you, you can ease communication by saying, “I can’t understand you when you’re so upset. Do you need a hug to help you through this?” You might also offer to practice a few deep breaths with them. Either way, be sure you let them know that you’re there for them and that you want to hear what they have to say when they are able to communicate more calmly.
I’VE HAD IT!
We’ve all been there. We are trying to stay calm and supportive, but our child does something that just pushes us over the edge. In exasperation, we through our hands up and shout, “That’s it! I’ve had it! I’m over this.” While this is an honest response, it is ineffective because you are meeting your child’s big emotions with your own big emotions, which stirs things up even more and may even ignite fear in your child’s mind. If this sounds familiar, it’s likely that you’ve been waiting too long to excuse yourself from the situation. Instead, pay attention to your frustration levels rising and own them before you hit your boiling point by saying, “I’m really frustrated right now. I need to take some space to calm down before I can talk anymore.” Acknowledging rather than hiding your emotions is important because children are more attuned to what we are feeling than we give them credit for, and when you try to keep your emotions under wraps, you are much more likely to explode. When you respond in this way, you take fear out of the equation while still being honest about your emotions. You are still communicating to your child that you are frustrated with their behavior, but you are modeling healthy management of that frustration.
The old parenting paradigm is full of expressions that shame children and invalidate their emotions and experiences, but overhauling the way you speak to your child can be an overwhelming thought. If you start with these three phrases, you will notice a shift in your relationship with your child, and other phrases will begin to stand out to you as worthy of more consideration. If you really want to dive deeper into understanding how the language we use impacts our children, ParentSpeak, by Jennifer Lehr, is a wonderful resource.*
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