Not all words are created equal. Some enlighten, encourage, or bring peace—while others hurt, tear down, and wound.
Words have the ability to generate emotions and thoughts. The communication that is established between people solidifies or builds, in some way – whether for better or for worse – the environment in which we live.
In regard to the relationship between parents and young children, good communication is also based on the type of language that is used, on word choice, and on not saying certain things to a young child whose mind is still being formed.
Here is some food for thought: we specify four phrases that should never be said to a child and some suggestions to replace them with more constructive words.
1. Leave me alone!
It may seem like a trivial phrase. It's one of those expressions that comes from out of the blue – perhaps in a moment of fatigue, anger, or stress. Who doesn’t ever lose one’s patience? But for a moment just think about what we are communicating when we say a phrase like this and what can happen if, instead of saying it only when we are at our wit’s end, it becomes part of our frequent vocabulary.
Saying phrases like "Leave me alone", "Don't bother me," "I'm busy" too often to a child could convey a dangerous message: “I have no time for you”, “you do not deserve the attention other affaires require from me”… In saying a phrase like this, in addition to a moment of frustration today, it will be all the more difficult for your child to have a dialogue with you tomorrow that builds rapport between you and your child.
Rather than harsh phrases that could cause your child to feel rejected, it is better to explain what you are doing and why you are temporarily absent: "Mommy (or Daddy) has to finish this important thing, if you are quiet and draw for a few more minutes, as soon as I am done I’m all yours."
2. You’re [fill in the blank with unkind adjectives]
"You’re bad," "You’re annoying," "You’re not nice," "Are you dumb?” and other phrases like these don’t encourage the child to behave better. These phrases don’t even contain a suggestion about how to "do better," or an indication of what error they made. Instead it’s simply a judgment, which seems like a concrete fact.
We should bear in mind that labels, especially when negative, deeply affect children and act almost like prophecies which are then fulfilled: the child will identify himself with those descriptions. They may think that they define him as a person and will begin to behave accordingly.
However, even a positive label can become difficult to bear: a child who is constantly told that he is "so smart" may feel he has to live up to high expectations and may live with the fear of disappointing his family members.
A better approach may be to address individual behaviours one by one. "You were wrong to hit your friend," "When you behave like that, your sister cries, and she gets upset by it," "Mommy isn’t happy about what happened, but let's see together how you can make it better," "You were really good at finishing all your homework so quickly!"
2. Don't cry!
A child cries because he can't put into words what he is feeling: it’s his language—however irritating it may be for an adult to hear screaming and whining so often. If we say phrases like "don't be sad," "don't be a baby," "there’s no reason to be scared," we risk belittling the emotion he is feeling, instead of helping him "shape it." Telling him that he shouldn’t cry or there is no reason to be sad is equivalent to saying: "Your emotions aren’t valid." Instead of denying a child's emotions, it is much better to teach him to recognize what he feels. Some examples might be: "You are really afraid of this dog, aren't you? But he's good! He doesn't bite. Look how much he loves to be pet," "Are you sad because she doesn't want to play with you?," "It's normal that you're afraid of the waves, but I'm holding you tight, and nothing bad will happen to you."
It is important to name the emotions your child is feeling: "Are you angry/happy now?” In doing so, he will learn to manage his emotions and not become overwhelmed by them. He will be the one who in the future, thanks to us putting in the work today, will learn to describe what he feels without bursting into tears.
2. Why aren't you more like your sister/brother?
If you have more than one child, it is almost physiological to fall into the temptation of comparing siblings to each other. "Your sister puts on her own shoes.... why can't you?" But it's good to know that each child is unique and has his own pace of growing – his own weaknesses and strengths. We must be patient in letting each child grow at his own pace, developing his own character and personality.
It must be mentioned that constant comparisons don't make them improve their behaviour. On the contrary, being constantly pressured for something you don't feel ready for/capable of doing – or don't like to do – can be a source of frustration and stunt the growth of their self-esteem.
Better, instead, to praise them when they’re successful and use it as an example of what your child is capable of: "Good job! You put on your own socks!" Let’s encourage them to keep going!