How words impact your relationship and your child’s self-esteem
Caitlyn Valle, LMFT
“What did you say? What did you just call me? You need to change that attitude!” As a practitioner, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed exchanges like this between parent and child, or heard arguments that occur when a child goes through a new phase or decides to befriend someone the parents just know is going to lead to trouble. We all want to be heard, understood and respected!
Communication is more than just words, and the ways in which we listen and deliver messages can make a huge impact on our relationships and the ways in which we ultimately find happiness. Renowned philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein noted that, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” Language is not just verbal, and it does have the ability to change our experience.
In previous posts I’ve addressed the concept of mindfulness, simply being aware in the present moment. This awareness means paying attention to what is happening within and around you — without judgement. So how does our awareness of language and communication affect our parenting and our ability to maintain a healthy relationship with our children?
To start, I would like you to take a moment now to reflect on how many “positive” statements — statements of recognition, praise, acknowledgement you have given your child over the past week — without judgment. (“I believe in you, thank you for being helpful, you are doing your best, I’m listening to you, I really appreciate how you helped your brother, I trust you.”)
Now please take a moment (without judgment!) to think about what we might call “negative” statements, which might include comments from a change in attitude to getting upset when your child isn’t ready for school on time, to expressing disappointment about school performance. (“That’s enough! You never pick up your toys. Why do I always have to ask you 10 times? Why don’t you focus on your schoolwork? You have a poor attitude.”) I ask you to engage in this exercise not to point out a parenting flaw or to bring about feelings of guilt, but to bring attention to the ratio: how many positive statements do you think are delivered to your child compared to the negative ones? The truth is, we are all human and we all get tired, frustrated and distracted at times, so bringing attention to this point creates an opportunity for change. Life can be challenging and we’re all doing the very best we can!
As a personal parenting challenge, try using these three tips to bring more awareness to the ways you deliver messages to your child. It might seem like one more thing on an already-full to-do list, but I promise you that communication is like a savings account: the benefits accrue over time.
1. Try to start each interaction with your child with a positive statement. First thing in the morning, during afternoon pick-up, getting ready for bed etc. Sounds difficult, right? It is! Inevitably we need to provide feedback and direction to our children, but not as the first thing we say to them. Try using a “Positive Sandwich.” Start with a positive, then go to a feedback comment, then say something positive again. For example: “Jessica, I noticed how much time you took completing your math homework, and I see that you may need a little more help on your fractions. Can you ask your teacher for some additional help tomorrow? I am so proud of you for continuing to work hard even though these fractions are tough.”
2. Focus on one thing that you know your child is struggling with during the week and make a dedicated point to acknowledge even subtle efforts toward correcting it. For example, if your child is struggling particularly with completing homework on time or getting ready for school on time, notice the effort they are making to try to be more efficient even if it doesn’t result in a finish time that would be our goal. “James, I noticed that you picked out your school outfit the night before to try to be ready more quickly for school, that shows me that you’re really being responsible. Great job!” By noticing progress toward the goal, we’re building confidence that the child will be able to get to the goal and also recognizing the effort they are putting in to get there.
3. Each and every child is capable of greatness. This is a concept that might seem foreign — isn’t greatness child prodigies, 13-year-old concert pianists, Olympic gymnasts? — but the truth is that your child shows greatness every day and it’s our job as parents to remind them of that. When we are mindful and recognize their greatness, we are allowing our children to see it in themselves. When you recognize your child for an accomplishment, it can be something small: “I really appreciate the way you had your backpack ready for school this morning”; “I noticed that you called your friend today when you knew she was upset, that shows that you’re a kind friend”; “I know you did your best today at your baseball game and I’m proud of you for all those swings you took.” Be specific when acknowledging little successes, and if you can, connect that specific thing they did to a quality you notice about them.
The last bit of reflection I would like you to ponder is about recognizing yourself and the awesome job you’re doing. When was the last time you reminded yourself or your partner, parent, friend, teacher how much each of you are doing to raise your child? From laundry to meal preparation to football practices in the rain to sleepless nights of worrying — you have the greatness that it takes to be a parent! You are doing so much every single day to make sure you’re the best parent you can be. This week, take as many times to recognize yourself as you do to recognize your child, and remind yourself of all you are doing to take care of you both.
For more information about positive parenting and concepts referenced in this post, or to suggest a subject for a future post, I invite you to write to me at Caitlyn@tcservices.org .
For concepts referenced in this post visit www.childrenssuccessfoundation.com.