What You Say to Your Child Will Impact Their Life

The second article in a two-part series on civility.

By Judi Lirman, MFT

In Part 1 of this series we discussed if it was true that Nice Guys Finish Last in Business? We touched upon a study that found that speaking to an employee in negative terms impacted their self-respect and their work productivity. If this happens with adults many of whom are equipped with a lifetime of coping mechanisms, what does speaking in a degrading tone or manner do to your child’s sense of being?

Have you ever wondered how one child could be self-confident and adventuresome, while another is self-loathing and afraid of change? It is likely due to several influences including parent/child interactions.

Your internal programming starts the day you are born. You receive messages and pick up on behavior patterns from your parents, grandparents, siblings, and others who surround you. These are the individuals you trust the most and what they say can impact you profoundly. We accept what they tell us to be the truth from the existence of the tooth fairy to the fat man who comes down the chimney or that wishing upon a star will make your dreams come true.

It is from these loved ones that you form a sense of self-acceptance or rejection: you are wonderful or worthless, smart or stupid, productive or lazy, capable of making money and having independence or being an albatross around a parent’s neck. These beliefs are embedded in your psyche from a young age, well before your cognitive abilities become functional at puberty. The problem is that as you age, they often get in the way and control you.

Over the years, I have counseled many families and children who have difficulties in school, with friends or at home due to many of these negative messages. How you speak to your children and the stories you tell them effects how they view themselves and the world around them. Negativity, if left to ferment, can quickly turn into self-loathing internal communications.

As a therapist, I understand how easy it can be for people to fall into the same patterns they saw their parents follow—even if they’ve said they would never, ever say such things to their future children. We mimic what we see our parents and other adults around us do and say.

Positive Ways to Influence Your Child

One of the goals of therapy is to identify why you are acting or reacting in a particular manner. Once the root cause has been determined, the behavior(s) can be changed as well. Often children with low self-esteem have been told by a parent that their voice is inconsequential, which in their minds translates into unworthiness. How you react to situations and the tone you use also influences your children. For example, if you or spouse are inflexible with schedule changes any modification may send you into a tailspin. When this happens, your children take note and may exhibit the same type of behavior and impatience when they become frustrated.

Clarity is the Great Equalizer

When I work with children, my goal is to be as honest and clear with them as I can be. Children understand clarity. It’s when we are ambiguous with our instructions that they feel confused and out of sorts. Here are some examples of negative versus positive communications:

Negative Phrases

What is wrong with you?

Don’t make a mess in our room.

You’re a bad boy or girl.

Positive Phrases

What has made you so upset? Let’s talk about why you reacted in that manner, and find a more acceptable way of handling it next time.

Please put away your toys/clothes once you have finished with them.

Tell me what happened? We all have good and bad days.

Taking Back Your Power

Maya Angelou had a saying: “I’ve got my own back.”  I always have taken it to mean that she believed in her power, no matter what anyone else said or did.

When you stop giving others permission to define who you are or what you will become, you are taking control back. Working with a therapist is an effective way of changing those negative internal messages to positive ones. Once you have identified the root causes of your anxiety, fear, depression or low self-esteem, you will be able to determine that what was said or demonstrated to you in childhood is not valid or based on the truth. Instead, it was how your parents viewed the world. Once you can identify the negative messaging and understand where it came from, then it will have less control over you. More importantly, by letting go of these harmful thoughts, you can create new messaging that authentically portrays who you are and helps you to change course in your life’s journey.