The power of words to make a difference at home or school

Name-calling, exclusion and put downs can scar anyone, especially children – that makes sense for sure.

Communication is a really complex process – and we are communicating even when we don’t say a word. We know that eye rolling, ‘tsk tsk tsk’ing, turning away, ignoring and freezing out are all forms of shaming that hurt and can also scar.

How can we communicate more positively around children if our primary childhood experiences were more hurtful than helpful?

Many years ago I did several seminars that explored NLP – also known as neuro linguistic programming and I found it fascinating in so many ways.

The first thing explored the concept that we have preferred systems of learning and processing information. Understanding this really helped me as a classroom teacher to ensure I was more inclusive of the auditory learners in my classroom – as I prefer a more visual kinaesthetic approach as a communication style.

Sometimes we can find it hard to connect with a child for this reason – we talk using different channels!

NLP really unplugged for me the power of words – and not just in a warm fuzzy way. It helped me to realise that often nonliteral words are not processed by the mind and an alternative message can be received than was intended.

What happens when I say, “Don’t think of a blue elephant?”. For many people they often quickly think of a blue elephant. And in our homes our very well-intentioned messages of “Don’t hit your sister” or “Don’t draw on the wall with a lipstick” can be interpreted as a subconscious invitation to do exactly the opposite to what we intended!

When asked about dreams and goals many people respond by saying what they don’t want. Like the blue elephant story.

This also means that you may have created a mental representation of what you don’t want. This then becomes an “assumed outcome”. That is why so many grown-ups and children fail.

Upgrading our language to being very specific and action-based can actually improve our ability to communicate with our children and improve outcomes.

No really it can! When children use the old chestnuts – “I can’t, I won’t or I don’t” we can help them upgrade to beginning statements with these very specific words:

  1. I choose
  2. I can
  3. I am
  4. I create
  5. I will or
  6. My highest choice or my best option is …

Another helpful NLP technique that can help in our homes is changing the habit of telling our children what we would like them to do rather than what we don’t want them to do. Sounds easy but in the heat of the moment it is seldom easy.

One of the absolute best things I learned from NLP is the art of reframing. I was very sceptical at first when it was first explained to me however it didn’t take long for me to see that it has a potential secret power all of its own.

Reframing what you see

Reframing is the art of seeing things differently so that your perception of a certain behaviour may change – and so that you may respond more favourably. Reframing is also about thinking “outside the box” and “changing the frame”.

I first tried this in a school with a really grumpy and unfriendly principal who was often rude. I started telling myself that he had a secret life-threatening illness and seriously I seldom let his behaviour bother me again.

The new frame does not have to be true and that’s what makes this a creative way of changing how we see people when we can’t change their behaviour.

I have used reframing when I talk about toddlers as being potential geniuses when they practice unravelling a toilet roll and blocking up your toilet with it or throwing your mobile into the toilet and pushing the button while loudly saying – “ALL GONE” just like you do when teaching them how to flush.

Technically they are trying to understand how the world works and not deliberately trying to be naughty or badly behaved. By reframing we can remove some of the angst that can drive many parents into some very angry outbursts. It can also help in these moments to use my simple parental pause technique so that you can give yourself some time for that reframing process.

The power of words

The words we choose to describe our children – especially to others – also have great power at magnifying the negative or the positive – and can lift our children or crush them. Telling someone on the phone that your children are ‘annoying little shits’ while they sit within earshot is feeding a perception that they are.

Further, the more they hear these words or similar ones, the more this perception becomes internalised and the stronger this reality becomes in their mind to become the inner critic as they get older. It certainly will damage or at least challenge our fundamental human need of feeling connected and loved.

Our rooster children are often maligned for being “too much, too loud, too active or too strong” and we need to be mindful of the beliefs that can be shaped within those developing brains that will become a part of who they believe they are later in life. The same goes for our lambs who are often challenged for being slow to warm, shy or timid – labels can be so limiting and negative labels can be deceptively limiting and even destructive.

In her wonderful and resourceful book Raising Your Spirited Child: A guide for parents whose child is MORE (1991, Mary Sheedy Kurcinka gives positive labels to replace the negative ones to some common unhelpful labels.

Demanding — Holds high standards

Unpredictable — Flexible, Creative Problem solver

Loud — Enthusiastic and zestful

Argumentative — Has strength, holding strong opinions

Stubborn — Assertive, persistent

Nosy — Curious

Wild — Energetic

Anxious — Cautious

Picky — Selective

These are still as relevant now as when she wrote her book almost 30 years later. Seriously have a go at upgrading the way you describe your child.

Calling children ‘naughty’ or ‘bad’ or a ‘nightmare’ – often – is another area that can be transformed by using words like ‘interesting’ or ‘unique’ or ‘full of potential’.

My third son arrived in our family unexpectedly – I called him a miracle his brothers called him a mistake. Either way, he was an interesting, active and adventuresome little lad. He came to me when he was around 8 years old with his hands on his hips to tell me – “Mum you have been calling me a pain in the neck a lot lately – and I think it is going to damage my self-esteem!”

I took his feedback on board and upgraded my language – trust me his self- esteem was not damaged!

I especially like words like brave, creative, energetic, strong and active for rooster kids and words like gentle, empathetic, quietly capable and caring for our lambs.

All humans struggle with endless thoughts that randomly flow through our mind. Psychologists will explain that negative thoughts can create negative emotions and that makes us feel awful. There can be cycles of thinking that can make us ‘awfulise’ or ‘catastrophise’ which means our negative thoughts can make things worse than they really are.

Taming negative thinking

Taming negative thoughts can be a helpful habit. When you sense them getting on top of you –being aware and mindful of watching them rather than ignoring them is important.

Sleep deprivation, exhaustion and feeling overwhelmed are all times that we are most susceptible to an excess of negative thoughts and emotions. The sooner you can tame them the better!

Top Tips for Taming Toxic Thinking
(for Mummas especially but we can all benefit to be honest…)

  1. Start by taking deep breaths or releasing 3 sighs.
  2. Do ‘round and round the garden’ in the palm of your hand.
  3. Use a mantra:
  • I’ve got this!
  • Relax and chill mumma!
  • I am OK. We are OK.
  • Delete delete delete – when you have negative thoughts like “I am exhausted! I can’t do this! I am sick of this!”
  • I am more than this.
  • I am a good enough, imperfect parent.
  1. Burst into song – especially one that makes you feel great!
  2. Start dancing – seriously it is wired into endorphin pathways of fun from BC – before children
  3. Pretend you are Wonder Woman.
  4. Do some tapping
  5. Reframe the moment – “I am a marathon runner heading into the last kilometre – almost finished!”
  6. Choose gratitude – “I am so grateful I have been given the gift of a miracle to raise.”
  7. Remind yourself that there is always someone worse off than you somewhere in the world.
  8. Choose good quality fruit and nut chocolate (it’s a health food right?).
  9. Keep repeating over and over – This too will pass!

Remember, life is precious

I once had a powerful-life threatening experience that changed how I saw my life as a parent forever.

I almost haemorrhaged to death when I was 31 years old with three little boys aged 5 to 18 months. At the peak of the medical crisis I was wrapped in a space blanket and with my blood pressure plummeting, I lost consciousness.

I had the sense of slipping down a golden tunnel and I wanted to simply let go as I was exhausted from the 20-hour battle I had endured. Then in a profound moment I could see my sons in the distance – and the pain of losing them was so deep …I can still sense it when I recall this moment.

Luckily for me a creative medical intervention saw me survive.

When I went home everything was different. Those annoying little things – the endless washing, mess, noise, cheekiness and drawn-out moments moments like trying to leave the park or the beach – were so unimportant.

I was so grateful to still be alive that my tolerance levels were so much higher.

You can reframe your parent experience by simply imagining you had my experience – seriously – and things will refocus.

My last message about positive communication in the home is please become a good listener – pause, get down to their level (or up to their level if you have teens!) — and really listen.

Being heard is another fundamental need of every human being. Open your heart and really listen and then be still and hold a space for those words to allow for a deeper connection between two unique beautiful human beings.

For more on reframing young children’s behaviour check out Maggie’s new video seminar:
9 Things: A Back-to-Basics Guide to Calm, Common-sense, Connected Parenting (Birth to 8) now available to watch online or on DVD…

See what’s inside >


Image credit: ©️ Kevin Carden /Adobe Stock –