We tend to underestimate how negative language impacts children. Find out why it is a less effective form of discipline, what research on neurobiology says about how to speak more effectively and find positive phrases to improve listening and misbehaviour.
Includes a printable cheatsheet at the bottom of this post
My three-year-old son can be strong-willed and vocal. But, most of the time, he is open to reason.
That all changed three weeks ago.
We had come back from celebrating Christmas out of town. As if playing Santa, (setting up a KidKraft dollhouse is no quick feat), packing up our two young ones and travelling wasn’t enough, I am very pregnant. I mean pregnant to the point that people think I’m due any day even though I’m not.
Once home, my kids showed signs of being overstimulated from all of the holiday excitement. Sibling rivalry consumed our household. My daughter wanted space. And my son took that as a challenge to see how many buttons of hers he could push.
Related reading: Stop Sibling Rivalry Using These Ridiculously Simple Strategies
And I was bone-tired and resorted to parenting from the couch.
“Don’t bug your sister.”
“Stop it now.”
“No, you can’t jump from the coffee table to the couch!”
Soon, every time I got down to my little boy’s level and opened my mouth, I was met with the word, “STOP!”
I took a step back and evaluated my approach.
I tried reacting more thoughtfully. In my mind, I was using every positive parenting strategy in the book. But he continued to stonewall me. I was at a loss.
Then, I had a lightbulb moment.
It took me way too long, but I realized the error of my ways. He was speaking to me the way he was being spoken to.
One morning, exasperated, I made a pact with my kids. “We’re going to stop saying ‘Stop.’ And find ways to say yes to one another. 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.”
Related reading: Here are Effective Strategies That Will Get Your Kids to Listen
Almost immediately, my children changed the way they were speaking. But the habit was much harder for me to break. To reinforce my pact to my kids, I dusted off some parenting books and did some research. This is what I found.
How negative language impacts children
Research has shown that negative language is, in fact, ineffective.
For young children, discipline worded negatively is much harder to understand.
‘Stop’ on its own tells a child nothing. He left to deduce what he shouldn’t be doing and what he should be doing. For preschoolers and toddlers, that’s asking too much.
Now, some may argue I should simply add what my son should stop doing and the problem is solved. But doing this has inherent issues. You see, when I say, “Stop bugging your sister,” I am requiring my son to double-process. Meaning, he must process what I have told him not to do and deduce what he should do instead.
In contrast, positive language is far more effectual because it tells children how to cooperate.
Common examples of negative language and alternative positive phrases
- Don’t run → Walk, please.
- Stop touching your sister → Hands to yourself.
- Don’t throw toys → Please keep your toys on the ground.
- Stop interrupting → I can see you want to talk to me. Wait one moment, please.
- Leave him alone → Come over here and play.
- Don’t hit → Only gentle touches, please.
- Stop yelling → Quiet voice, please.
- Calm down → Take a deep breath. We can work through this together (You can find 14 more alternatives to saying calm down here.)
- You don’t need another toy. I’m not buying that. → If that’s something you really want, why not save up for it?
- This is nothing to get upset about → I can see this is hard right now. Let’s work together.
Additionally, positive language reinforces good behaviour, is clear, and shows thoughtfulness. This is because the parent is responding in a way that doesn’t simply default to, “No,” or “Stop.” When we use the same phrases without much thought, our children are more likely to ignore us.
But it goes beyond that.
This post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
The neurobiological reasons for using positive language
Double-processing aside, there are even more compelling reasons to use positive language. And it comes down to research on neurobiology.
In general, science finds that when a child (or anyone for that matter) is told no, their fight, flight, freeze or faint response is activated (1). In this state of mind, children are more likely to emotionally respond. The result is a child who likely feels angry, avoidant, rigid or helpless. In contrast, when a child hears positive phrasing, their prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for resilience, curiosity, open-mindedness, problem-solving and even morality is engaged (2).
Consider this example.
My little guy is splashing in soapy bathwater when I realize bedtime is fast approaching.
I grab his t-rex hooded towel and say, “It’s time to get out!”
“No. I stay in the bath!” he declares.
My default would be to say, “No more bath,” and maybe scoop him out of the tub. My son would scream, I would dress a damp thrashing toddler and wait out his tantrum.
But, I am equipped with this knowledge.
So instead, when my son says he’s staying in the bath, I acknowledge how he’s feeling.
“Oh my goodness! You’re having the best time in the bath, aren’t you?” By acknowledging his point of view, I’m getting him into a more agreeable state.
He nods. Then, I say, “I know you’d like to stay in here. It’s time to get out now, but how ’bout we have a bath again tomorrow?”
Get a printable with positive phrases below
But the benefits don’t stop there…
Before responding, I pause, reflect and then respond. I no longer respond out of exasperation as much. By approaching both of my kids with more patience and a willingness to find a solution they were more likely to do the same.
Not only that, but in my efforts to use more positive phrasing, I started saying yes more.
- No, you can’t have a cookie → Yes, you can have dessert after dinner.
- I can’t play right now → Yes, I can play with you after I’m done writing this email.
- I don’t want a mess right now so no you can’t make slime → Yes, you can make slime as long as everything is cleaned up once you’re done.
And in turn, this acted as invaluable modelling for my children to be more flexible and say yes more too.
Anything we give attention to, anything we emphasize in our experiences and interactions, creates new linking connections in the brain. Where attention goes, neurons fire. And where neurons fire, they wire or join together.
– Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson
Based on the research from Payne Bryson and Siegel, by looking for ways to discipline my children in calm, positive and constructive ways, I’m helping wire their neurocircuitry in favour of that behaviour.
A final note about dropping negative language in favour of positive phrasing
Does this mean you should edit everything you say or never use negative language again? Simply put, no.
In all honesty, there are times where “No. It’s completely out of the question,” or “Stop right now,” are necessary and arguably more effective. That said, the more I strive to use positive language, the more I realize that the situations that demand “hard no’s” are much rarer than I once thought. On top of it, the overall emphasis on using more positive language has paid dividends in our household. I notice my children are more resilient and less reactive.
As such, when I get off track, I will always come back to this approach as it is undoubtedly raising more open-minded children who have a greater ability to problem-solve.