Recently, I’ve experienced the sobering reality of how negative language impacts children. Typically, my three-year-old son is strong-willed and vocal. But, after being acknowledged and empathized with, he is very receptive to reasoning. That is, until a few weeks ago.
Just after Christmas, I found myself especially exhausted. This pregnant momma was wiped after playing Santa, playing Elf (setting up a KidKraft dollhouse is no quick feat), packing up our two young ones and heading out of town with my husband, and cramming in as much time with our relatives as possible.
Once home, my kids were showing signs of being overstimulated too. Sibling rivalry consumed our household. My daughter wanted space. My son took that as a challenge to get closer. To no end.
And so, this couch ridden mama resorted to unknowingly using the word stop way, way, way too much. “Stop bugging your sister!” And, “Stop touching her.”
Soon, every time I got down to my little boy’s level and opened my mouth, I was met with the word, “STOP!” So, I took a step back. I evaluated my approach and my discipline. I tried reacting more calmly, more thoughtfully, more empathetically. Honestly, I thought I was trying every positive parenting strategy in the book. And still, he was stonewalling me. I was at a loss.
I needed to introspect and take accountability for my negative language. Because, I could see it was impacting my child.
It took me way too long, but I finally realized the error of my ways. He was mirroring my speech. Moreover, he was talking to me the way he was being spoken to. Light bulb moment. One morning, exasperated, I made a pact with my kids. “We’re going to stop saying ‘Stop.’ It isn’t helping any of us. So, if Mama says, ‘Stop,’ one of you need to remind me that we don’t talk that way. If one of you say, ‘Stop,’ I will remind you.”
Almost immediately, both of my children found more positive wording to express how they were feeling.
And, guess ended up being caught saying ‘Stop” far too much?
Mmmhmm. It was me.
It hugely reinforced my previous idea that negative language impacts children negatively. I just felt sorry I had been so oblivious.
How Negative Language Impacts Children
Negative vs. Positive Language
Research has shown that ‘don’t,’ ‘stop,’ and other forms of negative language actually do more harm than good. The reason? Discipline worded negatively is much harder to understand.
‘Stop’ on its own tells a child nothing. They are left to deduce what they shouldn’t be doing and what they should be doing. For preschoolers and toddlers, we are actually asking too much. Now, some may argue we should simply add what they should stop doing to the word stop. However, by being specific, we are only resolving half of the issue. We still haven’t told our children what they should be doing. As a result, we are requiring our children to double-process. This means a young child has to establish what isn’t wanted of them and what to do instead. Moreover, negative language becomes discouraging to children. When they constantly hear what they are doing wrong, it can feel futile to try to do right.
On the other hand, positive language tells them what to do instead and eliminates confusion. It reinforces good behaviour, is clear, and requires that the parents put more thought into their discipline. In truth, when we default to the same phrases, our children are more likely to ignore us.
Alternatives to Negative Language
- Don’t run – Only walking, please.
- Stop touching your sister – Hands to yourself, please.
- Don’t throw toys – Please keep your toys on the ground.
- Leave him alone – Come over here and play.
- Don’t take out all your toys – Let’s clean up what you were playing with before taking anything else out.
- Don’t hit – Only gentle touches, please.
- Stop yelling – Quiet voice, please.
- Calm down – Take a deep breath. Find 14 more alternatives to saying calm down here.
- You’re doing bad listening – Look at my eyes. I need good listening.
- Stop picking your nose – Go get a Kleenex, please.
Finally, finding a way to say ‘yes,’ goes a long way. For instance, instead of answering, “No you can’t have a cupcake now,” saying, “After dinner, you can have a treat,” is much easier to digest. The message is different, the outcome the same.
When it comes to how we discipline our children, our words matter. Negative language impacts our children negatively. And, we want to accomplish our discipline as effectively as possible. Positive language and positive discipline are the most effectual course of action.