Choose Your Words

Words can pack a mighty wallop to children's self esteem.

Posted Apr 08, 2013


Your seven year old runs out of the bathroom leaving a pile of his dirty clothes on the floor for the millionth time. You want to scream. In the heat of such moments, it is not uncommon for parents to respond with common phrases such as, “What's the matter with you?” or “How many times have I told you not to do that?” Or, parents frequently use adjectives such as bad or lazy because of their frustration. Without knowing it, these verbal responses actually pack a mighty wallop to their child's self-esteem. Words are very powerful and it is important to choose them carefully. We want our children to grow up feeling good about themselves. Here are some helpful guidelines for communicating more positively about misbehavior.

Avoid statements that leave a child questioning his self-worth. If a child spills her juice when pouring it into her cup, avoid saying, “What's the matter with you?” or “How many times have I told you to be careful?” These statements cause a child to feel ashamed and to wonder, “Is there something wrong with me?” It is better to offer the child a paper towel and remind her to pour slowly next time. Keep in mind that when we hurt a child's feelings, the child not only feels insecure about herself, but she questions our love. Furthermore, your child becomes angry and will be less co-operative.

Avoid labeling your child. When a parent calls a child bad or lazy, he feels that he is not valuable. Furthermore, the label soon becomes a part of the children's identity, and actually can program more negative behavior. It is more effective and self-esteem building when we focus on the behavior that needs to be changed and communicate exactly what we want from our child. For instance, “You need to put your pajamas into the hamper when you change your clothes”, rather than use negative phrases. Using objective explanations such as, “It's our job to keep the house clean”, helps children to be more co-operative.

Avoid personalizing your child's behavior. Parents can become very upset and make statements such as, “How could you do this to me?” Many times a child’s misbehavior is just a child acting like a child. If you personalize the interaction, it diminishes the child's sense of self. She will not only feel ashamed of her behavior, but she hurt you as well. A personalized statement also makes the child feel too powerful. She needs to feel that you are strong and can take care of her.

Step into your child's shoes. You will gain a better understanding of the way you are coming across if you try to experience what your child may be feeling. If you have said something that bothers you, you can always say, “I'm sorry”, and talk over the situation. This is a good practice because it teaches your child to take responsibility for his actions and express remorse.

It is important to keep in mind that children learn to follow your rules over time. As a parent you need to be patient and repeat them over and over again, as hard as that can seem. Ultimately your child will internalize your rules and make better behavioral choices.