Despite good intentions, a parent can hurt or stress a child by using the wrong words. Of course, no parent is perfect, but it’s important to be aware of the impact words can have on a child so you can find better ways to say things.
What a parent says means a lot to a child. Hurtful and belittling words will have a negative impact on a child and may affect the child’s self-perception. For example, a child may feel rejected if he or she hears phrases like “Leave me alone” or “Get out of my way.”
Even when the child disobeys or does not act in the desired way, care must be taken with the words used. It is important that the child understands that what he or she is doing is unacceptable or disruptive, but that it does not take away from the child’s self-worth or the love of the parent.
Letting the child express himself
It is sometimes tempting to say to your child “Stop crying” and then not hear him or her or “Don’t be a baby, there’s no reason to be afraid.” Yet it’s important to let your child express and experience his emotions.
When your child is emotional, reassure him, empathize with him and help him name what he is experiencing and take the time to listen. To reassure them, you can use phrases like:
“I feel like you’re in pain, I understand.”
“You’re worried, I know, but we’ll go together the first time and I’ll stay close to you.”
“It’s true that it’s hard, but you’ll get through it. I have faith in you.”
Comparing your child to his or her sibling can create jealousy and unhealthy competition between them. Your child is building his or her identity and confidence. Hearing phrases like “Take a cue from your sister” or “You’re really more stubborn than your brother” may make your child feel that you like him less or that he is inferior to someone else.
Similarly, an unfavourable comparison (“You’re as stubborn as a donkey” or “You’re slower than a turtle”) may make your child feel bad about himself. Instead, try to work with him to see how he can improve, but without putting him down and without comparing him to anyone else.
Telling your child that he or she is “so good” or “the best” at something may seem positive at first, but it can reinforce the feeling of comparison with others. They may then think that they can be “good” or “bad” as a person, “better” or “worse” than someone else. It is therefore preferable to emphasize his good deeds with encouragement that focuses on what he has accomplished and on your pride in seeing him succeed on his own. For example, you can tell him:
“Wow, you did it, I’m proud of you!”
“Congratulations! You cleaned up your room! You’ll feel better in a nice clean room and it will be easier to find your stuff.”
Your encouragement is important to your child. When you tell your child that you are proud of him or her in different ways, it helps your child feel that sense of pride and confidence.
On the other hand, using negative phrases such as “I’m disappointed in you” or “You embarrass me” will damage his self-image. He may realize that your love is conditional, that you love him for what he does, not for who he is.
When words exceed thoughts
If you happen to say words you regret, tell your child you’re sorry. It’s not a lack of authority or a sign of weakness to apologize to your child. Not only are you setting an example, but you’re letting your child know that he or she is important to you and that his or her feelings are important.
Tips for better communication with your child
Here are a few tips to help you and your child communicate better, to avoid frustration and reduce moments of impatience:
If you feel overwhelmed or upset by your child’s behavior, take time to regain your composure before addressing the issue with your child. For example, you can tell your child that you don’t agree with his or her behaviour and that you will discuss it together at a quieter time;
Use a time when you are both alone to address difficult situations that are causing tension between you and him. It is easier to understand each other and find solutions when you are not caught up in the emotion of the moment. Talk about your dissatisfactions in a calm manner, and invite your child to do the same.
To help your child identify and name his or her emotions, you can also name what you are feeling. If you’ve had a difficult day, you can tell your child in a simple way that your mood has nothing to do with him. This will reassure him and prevent him from feeling responsible for the situation;