The Powerful Effect of Words

In the early years of my practice, a mother came into my office pulling her young child by the ear. She pushed him down on the couch and said to me, "Fix him!"

She continued to tell me why this child needed "fixing" and how he rarely did anything right. I watched the child whose head was hung low, as his mother elaborated on his imperfections. After a few moments I asked the mother if I could visit with her son alone, and invited her to find a seat in the waiting room. I then turned to the young boy and asked him a few questions. When I showed interest in what he had to say his eyes began to light up and he started to share his feelings with me.

When I brought the mother back into the office, I excused the child and began to ask her some questions about her son. Her answers were most revealing about their relationship. Here's what I asked her:

1. Tell me five things about your child.

2. What are your child's strengths?

3. What are the most common words and phrases you say to your child?

4. Which of the following categories accurately describes your current relationship with your child? a) no relationship, b) negative and critical, c) minimal interaction, or d) positive and healthy?

5. What kind of relationship do you want with your child?

Now think about your answers to questions 1 and 2. As you look at your answers, if positive strengths came easily to your mind, this would indicate that you have a positive and healthy relationship. If it was difficult finding positive strengths, your relationship is most likely in trouble and in need of change. If this is the case, here are a few suggestions to begin the process.

Recognizing Your Effect

First and foremost, recognize the power and influence you have on your child. It is incredible. What you think of your child will significantly influence how he/she thinks of them self and how they act.

Try to catch your child “being good.” Identify and verbalize one positive behavior in your child each day. This is most effective when given in front of others. When I have taken this same challenge to “catch” my children being good rather than just reacting emotionally when they were bad, this is when the magic happens.

It takes practice, but we must expand your vocabulary from, “Not now, I’m busy,” to “Let me think about that;” “Not today,” to “Yes, I would be happy to;” “Be quiet,” to “Come sit by me.” The results will be remarkable.

Accentuate the Positive

When thinking about your response to question number 3, are most of the words and phrases positive or negative? If the majority of your answers are positive or uplifting, keep it up. If you find the majority of your answers were negative, try substituting words and phrases that instead build and lift.

When building and lifting words and phrases become a part of our everyday vocabulary, children begin to see themselves as important, successful, and loved. Parents find themselves becoming more positive, optimistic and caring.

A young woman tells a story of when she first learned that she was valued. She was in the garden with her mother. With dirt-caked hands, the mother asked her young daughter to hold a glass of water to her mouth so she could drink from it. “You’re so helpful. I’m lucky to have you,” said the mother. From then on the young girl saw herself that way – helpful. It became something of a defining word in her life. As she felt helpful, she became helpful. This indicated that how we feel about ourselves can result in action. She was helpful in school, helpful in the neighborhood, helpful in Church. She had other reasons to that way of course, but a simple word spoken at the right time had a major influence. (Church News, “The Power of Words,” 23 March 1996.) A few positive words at a critical moment can make all the difference in a child’s life.

It’s Part of the Process

Words are an indispensable part of the communication process. Their power lies in their simplicity and plainness. I have observed that children who struggle with self-identity issues and insecurities typically come from homes where words have been negative/ or critical. Destructive or harmful words teach children that they are not important or that their efforts are not good enough. Children begin to feel they are an inconvenience or a bother to their parents.

Also, children raised with negative or critical words often turn to willful disobedience, temper tantrums, or other negative behaviors to get the attention they crave. Parents then react to these negative behaviors with frustration and anger, resulting in emotional scars for both parents and children. Sensitive and tender feelings of self worth are damaged and often require months or even years of repair.

A Higher, Better Way

As a member of the church, I have seen and have been happy to recognize Heavenly Father’s positive pattern of communication with His children. It is demonstrated throughout the scriptures and even in the helpful and uplifting words of his Prophets and apostles. We see in our daily scripture study phrases like come unto me or endure to the end.

When we do not know what to do, He invited is to ponder and pray, to be patient and kind, to seek good things, and strive with Him. Many times we have heard President Hinckley remind us to be of good cheer, to try harder, to walk a little taller, and smile a little more. He has asked us to be more friendly and uplifting to those around us.

Invisible Scars

Words can and do leave lasting impressions on us. Name calling and/or labeling a child in a careless moment results in emotional scars not easily removed. Saying “I’m sorry,” or “please forgive me,” is the first step back in rebuilding the relationship. Even when words were hostile in years past, the magic words “I am truly sorry” can help heal resentment of pain.

Practice Makes Perfect

In your family, try these building and lifting Family Home Evening activities.

1. Make a List: Have each child write on a piece of paper the most common words they hear from family members. Then have each child share his/her list. Make a master list of all words and phrases reported. Then discuss as a family if any of these words are harmful, or do they strengthen and invite the Spirit into your home. Discuss which words they like best.

2. The Writing’s On the Wall: With a marker, trace a child’s body on a large piece of butcher paper and hang the silhouette on a wall or door. Every day for one week, ask each person in the family to write at least one positive thing about that child. At the next family home evening, have that child read the words said about him/her and share how they feel. Repeat this experience for each child including the parents.

Our homes are training centers for words of praise and encouragement. It is here where we mold character by how we speak and act towards each other. Magic words can become the shield that protects our children from a world of increasing negativism and criticism.  

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