Home Family Early Childhood Boosting Your Child’s Brain and Heart. Five Alternatives to Negative Phrases

Boosting Your Child’s Brain and Heart. Five Alternatives to Negative Phrases

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A Neuroscientist’s Perspective on the Power of Words in Parenting

As a parent, have you ever considered the power your words can have on your child’s emotional intelligence and cognitive development? Research increasingly indicates that communication shapes not only a child’s understanding of the world but also their mental well-being.

The Pitfall of Negative Phrasing: Why Some Words Do More Harm Than Good
Negative phrases can set the stage for a child’s future struggles. For example, a study from the Journal of Family Psychology found that shaming children can lead to increased instances of depression and anxiety as they grow. The key to avoiding this lies in constructive communication.

When parents say something like, “You’re so lazy,” what they often fail to see is the long-term psychological impact of such a statement. In a real-world scenario, let’s say nine-year-old Timmy has not done his chores for a couple of days. Frustrated, his mom blurts out, “You’re so lazy!”

What’s overlooked is the message that Timmy internalizes: “I am lazy, and therefore, I am not good enough.” This can create a self-fulfilling prophecy where Timmy stops trying to be proactive. Psychologist Carol Dweck’s studies on fixed vs. growth mindsets show that labeling children can discourage them from taking on challenges (source).

What to Say Instead: A more constructive approach would be, “I noticed you haven’t completed your chores. Is something on your mind?” This opens the door for a conversation and makes the child feel seen rather than judged.

The Problem with Saying “You’re too sensitive”

When young Sarah cries because her favorite toy broke, her dad says, “You’re too sensitive!” While it may seem harmless, the underlying message is that expressing emotion is a sign of weakness. Moreover, according to research published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, suppressing emotions can contribute to emotional disorders.

What to Say Instead: Rather than dismissing Sarah’s feelings, saying, “I see that you’re upset. Do you want to talk about what’s bothering you?” validates her emotions and makes her more willing to share in the future.

The Fallout from Saying “You’re fine. Stop making a scene”

Imagine six-year-old Jack falls off his bike and scrapes his knee. His mother tells him, “You’re fine. Stop making a scene.” Jack may feel that his physical and emotional pain isn’t valid, leading him to internalize his feelings. Child psychologist Dr. Laura Markham suggests that such denial can lead children to disconnect from their emotions.

What to Say Instead: A simple, “I see you’re in distress. How can we work through this?” acknowledges Jack’s pain and offers a path to resolution.

The Consequences of Saying “Why can’t you be more like your sibling?”

Comparing siblings can have damaging effects that last into adulthood. In a study by Dr. Alex Jensen, it was found that favoritism by parents can contribute to depression in adulthood.

What to Say Instead: Acknowledging each child’s individual strengths is crucial. Saying, “You have your own strengths, and we love you for who you are,” celebrates their uniqueness and minimizes sibling rivalry.

The Fear Induced by Saying “Wait until your father/mother gets home”

When parents use this phrase, it serves as a threat, creating anxiety and fear. According to studies by Dr. Robert Larzelere, fear-based tactics have been shown to have negative outcomes, including aggressive behavior in children.

What to Say Instead: Addressing issues in the moment helps children understand the consequences of their actions more effectively. Saying, “Let us talk through this situation now so we can resolve it together,” emphasizes a collaborative approach.

Raising Kids Who Are Smart and Compassionate

Dr. Pamela Davis-Kean, a psychologist and researcher, points out that the emotional stability of children is deeply linked to their academic performance. Therefore, as parents, our role isn’t just to instruct but to guide, nurture, and validate. The right words can make all the difference in the world.

Remember, the goal is not just to raise smart children but to raise children who are both emotionally and cognitively intelligent. With a shift in the way we communicate, we can hope to achieve just that.

Written by
Nina LeBeau

Nina is a certified mediator with a background in psychology. She covers a wide range of topics from emotional well-being to stress management for the entire family.

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