Conversations with Children: Tips for Using Words in Powerful Ways
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By Dr. Jessica Alvarado
The power of the words we use with children is like no other! Much research has been done on the lasting effect our words have on children: we all know someone who still remembers something a parent, grandparent, sibling, or teacher said years ago that still feels fresh today.
As parents, we’re not always aware of the implications our words can have; some of us may still regret something hurtful we said to our children when emotions were high. The truth is that no parent is perfect, and we all say things we don’t mean or wish we had said differently. With that in mind, we can all be more proactive in our conversations with children, using our words carefully and in honest and loving ways. Below are some practical tips for ensuring our conversations with children are positive and meaningful.
Choose kind words. This may seem like a no-brainer, but we need to ensure that we’re using words to explain how we feel or think and not words that make children feel defeated. There should never be any name-calling or phrases that cause a child’s self-worth to be compromised.
Be honest. It may sound silly to say, but it’s important to be honest with our children. It’s okay to tell a child that you feel sad about a situation or that you’re disappointed. But be cautious in how you say it: the focus should be on how you feel, not on what the child did.
Consider your child’s temperament, personality, and current situation. Some children are more sensitive than others, while other children may be in family situations that are causing them to act out or seek attention in negative ways. Situations such as divorce, a death in the family, or moving to a new home can be stressful,causing a child to behave inappropriately. Be mindful and understanding of life circumstances that could be impacting your child’s behavior.
Think about timing and environment. Sometimes we are too quick to lash out verbally, and this causes more harm than good. Unless there is a safety issue, take a few minutes to reflect before you speak, and consider how you might express concerns to a child in a way that makes sense, in an environment appropriate for conversation. Find a private spot without many distractions, where the child can look at you, and where others’ attention will not be drawn. Embarrassment can be extremely harmful to a child, having lasting effects. Your conversation is about you and your child—not you, your child, and every other person who happens to be nearby.
Be aware of your tone, volume, and body language. We’ve all witnessed those moments when a parent is pointing a finger at a child, hovering over them and talking too loudly. If a conversation is needed immediately, kneel down to your child’s level first look him or her in the eye and remember that a rude or mean tone and loud voice level will not teach your child anything.
Allow your child to feel and speak. So often we are quick to reprimand, wanting to hear a child say “sorry” so we can move on. While an apology is appreciated, we need to make sure we’re giving children time to process situations and learn how to express authentic apologies. Model for children by expressing how you feel. When developmentally appropriate, allow the child to feel empathetic. When a child has this time, it can be used as guidance for positive behavior.
Speak and act in love. We are easily caught up in our own emotions, and can become distracted by our desires to correct negative behavior. Always take time to remind your child that you love him, and express it with both words and physical actions, such as a hug or kiss. When we speak and model in love, children feel secure and safe, and they continue to grow confidently. We are their first teachers, and we want to model appropriately so that they replicate our behavior in their interactions with others.
Following the tips above will provide some gentle reminders for making conversations with children more powerful. We won’t always be perfect, but we can always try again or shift our reactions to show children love and respect. Every conversation we have with children helps to shape their lives, and when we model appropriately, we help them feel safe, secure, and loved!
Dr. Jessica Alvarado is a full-time faculty member in the Sanford College of Education at National University. She finds great job in her role and her work with students continues to drive her to make a difference in the field of early childhood. Apart from her position at National University, she enjoys being a mom to her son, Cayden- learning from and loving him!