We’ve all been there. Feeling trapped indoors. Zoom meetings happening. The boss is in a tizzy. Deadlines looming. Piles of laundry growing. What’s for dinner? Where are the kids? Frozen in the icy blue light of an xbox, doing homework, or running through the house? Suddenly it seems as if the straw that breaks the camel’s back is a tree trunk hitting home right now. In slow-motion you hear and feel hurtful words flowing out of your mouth as quickly as water flows downstream. Words like lazy, ungrateful, stupid, crazy, out of control…or a derogatory remark like “what is wrong with you?” or “why aren’t you like her?” tumble out of your mouth. On any other given day, you would never speak to your children or anyone, as a matter of fact, this way.

But today is different and based on your daily stress level, you may find that you’re sounding like this more often. Emotion gets the best of us at times and emotion overrides logic every day of the week – especially in highly stressful times. You might catch yourself when this happens and apologize. Perhaps you ignore the comments you made and you hope the children do as well. But children don’t. Children hear and see and are aware of situations just as adults hear, see and have awareness of them. The difference lies in how children process what is seen, heard and experienced and how they feel about it. As a child’s mind develops, consciousness and reasoning continue to expand and develop over the first 7 years of life. In some children it can take longer. During this formative time period, children are primarily in “download mode”, learning as much as they can from the adults and the world around them. It’s part of our natural survival instinct to learn when a situation or person is dangerous, unsafe, and ensures that a child has the necessary skills to survive puberty and grow into adulthood. A child hears what an adult says and believes that it is true. Not only do children perceive what is said at a literal level, they understand it to be this way forever. Does the situation or do the words bring fear, risk, danger? Does the body need to react quickly to stay safe and stay alive? A child’s ability to use conventions of language, build vocabulary, and understand the nuances of speech to decide if something or someone is safe or not develops over time during the maturation process. A child’s understanding of time develops in a similar manner. Now, you might be thinking, “what have I said to my children during this quarantine?” Take a deep breath! No one has perfect parents and all of us say things we don’t mean on occasion. Knowing this, you can be more cognizant of what, and importantly how, you say things to your children moving forward.

The Power of Not Saying Anything Negative is more Powerful than Saying Something Positive

Positive words are great but their influence is not as impactful as a negative word or phrase. While positive words and phrases carry influence a good portion of the time, negative words and phrases affect people negatively 100% of the time. That’s right, EVERY single time. Especially now when negative words and images bombard us, one of the best ways to disarm negative thoughts and words is to refrain from thinking or saying anything negative. Easier said than done! Since our brains are designed to hold only one thought at a time, we cannot hold onto a positive and a negative thought simultaneously. When you catch yourself having a negative thought or saying something negative, stop, take a breath, and substitute it with a positive one. Remember your parents saying, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all?” They were right and this is something you can control with practice.

Here are some ways that you can substitute positive words, thoughts and actions for any negative ones that come up in your interactions with your children:

  1. Always speak with warmth and honesty to your children. Children have a difficult time understanding the nuances of sarcasm and advanced humor. Your child will understand you better and feel more love and connection to you with a warm and caring tone.
  2. Value and recognize your child’s individuality. Avoid comparing your child to others including siblings, friends, and relatives. For example, rather than saying “why can’t you draw like her? ” you might say “You select the best colors for your drawings.” Compliment your child so your child feels treasured rather than feeling not enough.
  3. Describe and reward good behaviors rather than telling children “what not to do.” Teaching good behaviors instead of punishing unwanted behaviors is an effective tool that great teachers use as part of their classroom procedures. Say things like “we always clean up after dinner” and “we always make our bed in the morning”. “Don’t do this and don’t do that” makes a child feel that they can’t do anything right and erodes self esteem. By providing clear direction about what you do expect, a child feels confident upon meeting the reasonable expectation for behavior. Having these conversations before a potentially sticky situation actually helps your child feel confident, secure, and prepared. One caveat…involves safety. Saying “Don’t touch the hot stove!” is a perfect example.
  4. Model language and speech for your children. Derogatory remarks and name calling are not respectful and are not language you want your children ever to use with you or others. Combining this with hurtful conditions and language creates a sense of unworthiness and disconnectedness for a child. It really derails their self esteem. For instance if you say, “You’re so stupid” and “If you don’t hurry up, I’m leaving you here” is demeaning and frightening. Because they can be literal, children will believe they truly are stupid and that you will honestly leave them making them feel lost, alone, and unworthy.
  5. Finally, if you notice you are upset often or have your own personal issues including grief or anger to manage, seek help with the many therapists and counselors who are available. No one has to manage these feelings alone and feeling upset is terrible for you as well as for your child.