By now it is a well-known fact the words we speak matter. They impact our lives and the people we speak to on both a subconscious level and conscious level. From a young age, we are taught little things like ‘if you don’t have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all’ or ‘be kind’ or ‘be mindful when it comes to your words’. It was embedded in almost every nursery rhyme, song, poem or TV show we watched as young children. Of course, there was a reason for this, mostly for development of ethics, values and good character. Yet still, there is deeper reason.
Maria Ritcher along with collaborating scientists in a neuroscience experiment found that brain responses to aural and imagined negative words by monitored subjects proved that negative words induce stress and anxiety hormones. During this process, they discovered painful or negative words increase Implicit Processing (IMP) within the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sACC). Now, an additional study found in children higher levels of negative self-talk induced stress hormones. This proves negative words also have a physiological affect on people.
As the study showed, when it comes to children, negative self-talk plays a crucial aspect in the development of a child. Most habits are formed in the first seven years of life. At this stage, the subconscious mind is the most active and absorbs the world as is presented to it. If an open and optimistic view is presented to the child about themselves and the world around them, they will have an opened, positive mindset and higher self-esteem.
How Phrasing of Words Affect Children
Children with lower self-esteem and anxiety are often the ones raised in harsh environments where there is unnecessary scolding and taunts of the child’s every mistake or imperfection. Calling a child any name or phrase which says or imposes they are the issue instead of their bad behaviour or action will eventually lead the child to think they are the problem instead of what they did.
Example: A parent calling a child dumb for breaking a window vs a parent calling the child’s decision or action of breaking the window irresponsible.
A teacher calling a child lazy for not preparing for the exam vs A teacher calling the child’s choice of not preparing for the exam lethargic.
This leads to low self-esteem which causes negative self-talk- after all, if the ones closest to the child thinks lowly of them who are they to think any better. Low self esteem in children manifest in different ways; low school performance and bad or unusual behaviour as well as how they socialize with peers are a few. In their older years they may become sexually promiscuous, start doing drugs or alcohol and even develop depression. A lot of parents/guardians do not realize the word choices they make especially in the moments when they are angry can plant a dangerous seed within the child.
Words and Phrases to Avoid Telling A Child:
- You are bad- no child is born bad. They have innocent curious intentions that may not always be right
- Nobody wants a kid like you/ Nobody wants a kid who does…- all children need acceptance and love though matter what they have done. As a parent, there is no such thing as an unforgivable mistake.
- Do not talk to me- if your child is trying to tell you something like they are sorry you should not ignore them. This can lead to them feeling like they cannot come to you to express themselves. Don’t cut off communication channels.
- Leave me alone- You are the one your child looks to.
- No- there are many times you WILL need to tell your child no but when avoidable, don’t say it. Your child will feel a little less suffocated and will engage in more positive terminology.
Example: Instead of saying no running try saying please walk.
- Calling your child names like: lazy, slob, slut, useless, fat, ugly, unlovable etc- these words plant themselves like seeds and affect your child especially in their teenage years.
A child is not old enough to understand you did not actually mean it since children take everything literally. Your unintentional (or intentional) words can cripple the child’s mind. This can have life long effects if not corrected.
Words that Limit
When children are taught somethings in life are only made for some people or their dreams might be impossible it shakes their hope and shatters and their confidence. This can be seen when children tell their parents what they want to be when they grow up.
Example: There was a woman who wanted to be an artist. Her family thought there would be no money coming out of that and said there was no room for a starving artist in the family. So, they made her lower her dream by negotiating to be an art educator.
I have personally witnessed and heard stories of children telling teachers and parents their dreams and careers only to be disappointed with adults poisoning them. Children are then apparently introduced to the ‘reality of life’ that their dream may be too hard or impossible to achieve. We teach children to ‘keep things practical and realistic’ therefore instilling in them you can only do what has been done. (Keep in mind no one thought in the 1800’s man would fly, go to space or be able to talk to each other real time from different points on the globe).
I had a friend who went to a career fair. There were various displays of people showing off and talking about their career choices and journey. The teachers noticed my friend was just standing there and asked why. My friend responded there was no booth showing an artist which was what she wanted to be. The teachers then went on to more or less give my friend reasons about why being an artist is not a practical or not the best career choice.
I experienced something similar when I first tried dance. I did dance for about three years but was only ever in one show. Nevertheless, I worked hard and practiced a lot at home until one day I was told I would be in a Christmas dance performance. I was absolutely thrilled and thought all my hard work had finally payed off. It was about a week before the show and I was at rehearsals. The dance teacher said take five and so we did. There was noise all around as the dancers spoke to each other. One of the best dancers was talking to the dance teacher in the corner (and I like to call this the moment of God) and I so happened to zoom in on their conversation at that exact moment. The dancer talking to her asked about why I was placed in the back. I will never forget what the teacher answered, “Because she’s not all that good, you know?” Those words followed me around for years and years. Eventually I found a way to blame my ‘bad dancing skills’ on my height until I became strong enough and old enough to realize what the dance teacher said that day was not the golden truth.
As a parent, teacher or anyone for that matter, you need to realize you are not God and therefore you are not the one who puts dreams in children hearts. Therefore, you have no right no crush a child’s dream by discouraging them or telling them they are not good enough.
What to Do
What happens in childhood affects your teenage and adult years. If you are a parent or someone who was raised or raised a child like this here are some tools to help.
- Cut off all harmful words and narcissistic traits
- Give your child positive reinforcement and affirmations
- Reward your child/yourself when he/she/you does something good or accomplishes a goal
- If you are a child or teenager struggling with depression, low self-esteem or even suicidal thoughts because of harmful words REACH OUT FOR HELP. Apps like Prayer or sites like helpguide.com are really useful. Also talking to your counsellor, trusted adult or friend is another good alternative
- If you are a teenager or adult being affected by harmful words that has manifested in different ways join a support group.
Remember, verbal and emotional abuse can be just as bad and damaging as physical or sexual abuse. It is never okay to make someone feel horrible or less than. Everyone has a right to know just how amazing they are.