The Power of Language

“Why do you have to be so unkind?”

“You make me so angry!”

“Why do you have to be like this?”

When our children test their boundaries, when they are worked up, overstimulated, unwell or for a multitude of other reasons, their behaviour can be drastically affected. Suddenly your sweet little boy or girl has turned into a ball of defiance and your patience is quickly pushed to its limits.

When this happens, for many parents their first response is to point out the negative aspect of their child’s behaviour. They accuse. They blame. They go on the attack. But rather than making the child stop and think, it has the opposite effect.

The child becomes defensive. They feed off the negative energy and their behaviour becomes even worse. When they hear : “You are such unpleasant company today!” “Why can’t you just be good?” “I can never trust you, why do I bother taking you anywhere?” they feel like they have to live up to your negative expectations. “Mummy thinks I’m a bad child, so I may as well be.”

When they feel attacked, they are no longer working in harmony with you, instead, they are battling against you. Perhaps they feel they can do no right, after all, everything they do makes you say harsh words to them.

But when their behaviour is no longer acceptable, what can you, the parent, do to restore harmony and uncover the sweet child you used to know?

The power of our language should never be underestimated in parenting. When we accuse and use negative language towards our children, we can expect negative results.

However, when we come at the situation with a positive outlook and raise our child up rather than putting him down, we can literally transform his behaviour with a few words.

Often, the first test of behaviour is simply an exploration of boundaries, and not done through rebelling. So when they jump clumsily and knock over a drink, when they get too boisterous and accidentally hurt you, the best way to nip it in the bud, is to assume that they are good-natured and not intentionally doing it to spite or hurt you.

If we shout, “Why did you do that? Why are you always making a mess?” they will hear, “Mummy thinks I did that on purpose. She thinks I’m bad. She doesn’t like me.” The motivation to apologise or feel remorse is greatly undermined by their own feelings of hurt and anger after your reaction.

However, if we say, “Oh, did you accidentally spill that? That’s a shame, quick, lets get a cloth and get this cleared up!” they hear no blame and see that you are still on their side. They have no reason to become defensive or feel accused, they know you still love them and assume the best in them, and they are far more likely to recognise their mistake and help remedy it. Rather than feeling compelled to repeat the behaviour, they will be more careful next time.

Below is an example of negative reactions to situations, and also a more positive reaction. Imagine yourself as your child and think about which of each of these would make you want to be a better person and try harder, and which would make you shut down, rebel and feel angry and hurt.

Our children are people, just like us. When we appeal to their good nature, they will respond with love and kindness. When we make them feel bad about themselves, they will be unable to open up, admit their mistakes and change their behavours.

Negative Positive
Why are you so unkind? I love being around you when you are being kind and gentle.
Why can’t you do anything by yourself? Can you try? I’m right here if you need a bit of help. There is no rush.
You always make such a mess! Oh dear, look what’s happened here. How can we fix this?
I can’t trust you to do anything! I trust you. I know you can do this.
Why do you always have to hit me? I love when you use gentle hands with me. It makes me feel so happy. Can we practice gentle hands now?
Why can’t you just listen to me?! Sweetie, look at me for a minute, I have something I really need to tell you.
How dare you hurt the baby! Babies are very delicate, we need to treat them carefully don’t we?
Stop throwing toys right now! That toy is hard, it would be sad if it broke something or hurt someone, wouldn’t it? Could you find something soft to throw instead?

As you can see, often the best approach is to get the child on side so they feel like an allay. When we say, “we need to treat babies carefully, don’t we?” it assumes they are in agreement. It gives them the chance to think about it without feeling like they personally are under attack for their actions.

I have used this positive method with my own son since he was born, talking about things with a, “We need to,” rather than, “You should,” approach. He absorbs the message and then can be seen passing it on to other children at the park – “We need to be careful with the swings, there are little children walking near us,” he will announce confidently.

When we change our language, we change our world.

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9 thoughts on “The Power of Language”

    1. It’s not always easy and there are always going to be times when you react without thinking it through, but the more you practice and try to stay mindful of your words and their huge impact on your child, the easier it becomes. Have you read my book, “The Tiny Book of Patience?” It may help you reach that goal. Be kind to yourself, I’m sure you are doing wonderfully.

      1. Thanks for your kindness and support I have read your book, or bits of it but think I need to re-visit now that G is becoming a stronger, more independent small person. I hope you and yours are doing well x

  1. I think I need to print that table out and have it posted around the house….l try my best to use positive language, but in the heat of the moment (usually a sibling fight) I generally lose it! I needed to read this today and tomorrow l will try harder x

    1. The key is practice. Perfect parents are a myth and at some point or another it is inevitable that we’ll all make mistakes and react in ways we later regret. But it is that picking yourself up, forgiving yourself and resolving to try better next time which will make all the difference to your child. The more you practice, the more natural the reactions become.

  2. A thousand thank you’s! You have truly helped me with my overbearing parenting, and I’ve been working hard on being more positive. I’am making baby steps with a very sensitive, anxious 6yr old daughter. Thank you again!

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