Plenty of parents have been at their wits’ end when words rolled off their tongue that they later wished had remained unspoken. In fact, at some point you've probably even told yourself, “You’re an idiot,” or “How stupid can you be?” Have you ever thought about how impactful your words really are?
“Our words create our world,” says Dr. Justin Coulson, father of six and best-selling author of 10 Things Every Parent Needs to Know and 9 Ways to a Resilient Child.
“Whatever direction your words lead, your mind and body will follow. We believe what we tell ourselves. Language is powerful. Words don’t just affect us and the way we see ourselves. They affect the way we see our children.”
When Coulson asked a frustrated mother to describe her teenage daughter, the mother said things like, “She’s disrespectful, She’s wasteful. She treats our house like a hotel.” But when Coulson asked about her daughter’s strengths, the mom talked about how caring and generous her daughter was and the fact that she was a great sister. It was almost like she was describing two different people.
“The language we use about one another, and towards each other, impacts how we see one another,” Coulson shares. Coulson suggests that sometimes we say things in a way that is not helpful and may possibly be harmful.
Here are some phrases Coulson encourages parents not to use, along with better ways to express the same sentiment:
Don’t say: “Calm down.” Say: “You are so upset.” Telling someone to calm down actually has the opposite effect. It’s dismissive and it denies emotions. Instead, focus on labeling the emotion. If you can name it, you can tame it.
Don’t say: “You’re so clever.” Ask: “How did you feel when…” Research indicates that praise leads to inferences of low ability. The best thing you can do is turn it back on the person/child. For instance, you could say, “Hey, you seem really happy with that outcome. Tell me what you did to get it.”
Don’t say: “Ugh, you’re just like your mother.” Say: “Wow, this is really challenging for you.” Avoid comparisons. Highlight what you are observing. Maybe you could say, “In these situations, you seem to struggle with…” Then offer to help.
Don’t say: “Because I said so.” Instead, say: “Let me tell you why this matters.” When people have a rationale for the requests we are making they are far more likely to be compliant.
Don’t say: “I was lousy at that.” Perhaps you could offer this: “It’s amazing what we can do when we try.” We can promote a growth mindset (Carol Dweck has research on this) by highlighting what happens when we have a go at it, put some effort into it and work hard at something. Can’t yet doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t ever.
Don’t say: “Don’t be so stupid.” Say nothing. Simply pause and walk away. We don’t motivate others by making them feel lousy about themselves. If they are doing something stupid, ask them to stop. Stupid to us may not seem stupid to them. Be curious, not cranky. There is always a reason for challenging behavior.
“Saying horrible things to others is every bit as damaging as other forms of abuse,” according to Coulson. “It affects cognitive function. Things will come out of our mouths that will hurt. The trick is to say fewer of those things and to build our children up.”