Effect of Negative Language on children

Children that grow up in households where parents use  degrading, humiliating and disrespectful language with them and make them feel “not enough”, usually develop low self esteem. Many children grow up in families hearing sentences like -

“You are a bad kid!”

You shouldn’t have been born!”

“You will never succeed in life!”

“You’re good for nothing!”

“You have been a curse to us!”

“You are dumb!”

“Your cousin is much more smarter than you!”

… and much worse!

In fact a client revealed how his alcoholic father went to the extent of saying –“You cannot trust me!”

Many parents rely on criticism and negative language believing that it will make their children responsible. Or they may think that they own their children and have the right to do whatever they want with them. Parents also use frequent comparisons with siblings, sarcasm and threats in their conversations.

Effect of Negative Language

Infants understand facial expressions even before they start communicating. They get affected by hearing shouting and yelling in the house. From the age of 2, they begin to respond to their parent’s communication. If a mother yells at her child, the child may yell back or withdraw into his own world.  Slowly as children grow older, the negative statements used by their parents start having a stronger impact on their emotional development. They feel unloved, unwanted, undeserved and unprotected.

Abusive and hurtful words that parents use affect all the areas of children’s lives. It affects their emotional, cognitive and social development. They grow up with feelings of ‘not being perfect’. They feel inadequate and blame themselves for being the cause of parent’s frequent reprimands and negative communication. They feel that they are constantly being watched with a critical lens. There is a feeling of being judged all the time.

These children grow up to be harsh on themselves.  It can even make them demanding of others and set very high expectations for themselves as well as for others. They become sensitive about negative comments and there is a tremendous amount of guilt. Kids having verbally abusive parents can even get into substance abuse or commit suicide.

In my interaction with clients with low self esteem, I have found that “hurtful words used by parents” has a profound effect on their self esteem. And when I ask them about how much they think it was their fault in the way their parents spoke to them, they are unable to intellectually find a fault within themselves but emotionally nevertheless, they are unable to shed the guilt and the “burden” of the parental statements. Even as adults, they accept all that was told by their parents. And their whole life is defined by what they ‘heard’ rather than what they ‘are’.

Virginia Satir, a renowned psychotherapist known for her approach in family therapy, says, “Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible – the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family”.

Frequent criticism can also make a child eager to always please others. The desire to be seen, heard, understood is a natural desire (Branden, 1983) but only when it takes precedence over vales and honesty and takes control over your life, does it become a problem.

Repeated comparisons with siblings and other children, veiled threats (I will leave you and go away forever, if you do not eat properly),  gender related remarks (Don’t cry like a girl) etc. also have a lasting impact on them.

Stanley Coopersmith, in 1967, identified the link between self-esteem and frailty, noting the “indications that in children domination, rejection, and severe punishment result in lowered self-esteem. Under such conditions they have fewer experiences of love and success and tend to become generally more submissive and withdrawn (though occasionally veering to the opposite extreme of aggression and domination)”.

Conclusion:

Nathaniel Branden (1983) says,

“I often tell parents, “Be careful what you say to your children. They may agree with you.” Before calling a child, stupid” or “clumsy” or “bad” or “a disappointment,” it is important for a parent to consider the question, “Is this how I wish my child to experience him- or herself?”

Some parents usually in a fit of anger, stress or frustration say hurtful words. And some parents keep repeating these words under some kind of misconception that they are doing good for the children.

Positive language will help your child in feeling loved and wanted and in realizing his self worth. Here are a few suggestions for responsible parenting:

  1. Deal with your own ‘past baggage’ or anger with EFT/Psychotherapy.
  2. Use language that you would like your children to use with you.
  3. Except when it comes to safety issues, where sometimes a strong ‘No’ is required, try using positive language with your child. Instead of saying “what not to do” suggest “what to do” instead. Rewarding positive behavior would also help.
  4. Show respect to your children.
  5. Be responsive and warm with your children.
  6. Do not compare unnecessarily with other children. Each child is unique and treasure their uniqueness.
  7. Avoid using ‘ derogatory’ gender related remarks with kids.
  8. Do not use hurtful conditions in your language. E.g. – I will leave you and go away.
  9. Do not use sarcasm in your language with children.
  10. If you are upset with your own personal problems,  then tell your child that you need some time and speak to the child in a calm manner despite being upset.
  11. Do not use emotional blackmail in your language with them. It can be very bewildering for small kids.
  12. Positive discipline is better than corporal punishment.

References:-

Coopersmith, Stanley. 1967. The Antecedents of Self-Esteem. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.

Berk, L. E. (1996) Child development. (3rd ed.) U.S.A: Prentice Hall Inc

Branden, N. (1983) Honoring the self: Self esteem and Personal Transformation. New York: J.P Tarcher Inc.

About Puja Kanth Alfred

I am a Counseling Psychologist and a Certified EFT Practitioner. In my 9 years of experience, I have effectively used EFT and Counseling to heal emotional and physical problems.
This entry was posted in Children, Communication and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Effect of Negative Language on children

  1. Simon Leung says:

    Having been taught to hate myself at an early age, has left me with decades of
    low self esteem. I am 40 years old and often times I feel that life has is not worth
    living. I have survived 24 suicide attempts during my lifetime but not sure when I
    would succeed in dying. Being diagnosed with Bi-Polar Disorder in the past and
    without current treatment has made my life unbearable.

  2. Puja says:

    I’m sorry to hear about your story Simon. Early life experiences have a huge impact on one’s self. However, those experiences were not facts..what you were told were not facts… and as a child you must have believed them but as an adult you can choose to think otherwise. i know its not easy but I have dealt with such clients. I would suggest you to try EFT with a skilled psychologist or enter into psychotherapy with some skilled professional.
    But I want you to know that just because some people taught you to hate yourself doesn’t make life unworthy. You cannot be punishing yourself for what others said or made you feel.

  3. Pat Brown says:

    It is important the messages we are delivering to our Children, it may determine if their career is Justice or Jails! Be that positive influence you want to see!

  4. Vanessa Calderon says:

    I wish I could send this to my sister-in-law and brother, but I would not like for them to know that is coming from me. Any ideas?

  5. Simone says:

    I have been the subject of a negative criticizing parents all my life. Whatever positive event I have accomplished they have turned into negativity, told me i am hopeless, never listen to me properly, the only time they listen if I pretend to be ill or miserable, then they feel happy. I am 50 now and struggling with communicating with them, as everytime i talk to them they try and tell me what to do. Their entire existence is around fear, anxiety , negativity and criticism.

  6. Jen says:

    when i was younger my sister was always praised and my brother always got attention but when i did good at things my parents never seems to praise me or give me the attention i wanted that attention so bad so i stopped being good in school thinking it would get them to pay attention all it did was put me in special ed where thru out most of grade school till middle school i was tease not just by kids but also the teachers they all thought i was dumb and always passed me up i thought for many years i wasn’t worth living here on this plant anymore my parents already had the two kids they wanted i was just a unwelcome kid that came at the wrong time my parents where about to split up before they found out they where going have me and stayed together for me is what i was told at a young age i was always called dumb and stupid freshmen year of high school i had to do testing and i started up with a new emotional couch is what they called it school but it was basically someone there to help prevent me from hurting myself during the testing i was given a range of levels of work i was loved math but never shown it because i thought i was stupid they told me there was not pressure and if i didn’t know things just past it over so when i finish they told i was actually really smart i tested really high on lots of level expect spelling so they took me out of special ed and they keep telling me how good i am doing it made me feel better i went on to get two degrees before i was 20 but due to health issue i have went a little downhill my weight went up and with negative people telling me how fat i am have made it hard for me yet again but now i am aunt i make sure that she doesn’t feel what i did i am very protective and when my niece who is still a baby broke something and my brother in law called her stupid i had to put my foot down i don’t want my niece to ever go thru the pain i went thru and i don’t want people to feel what i feel i want people to love themselves no matter what other think i hate seeing people being calling stupid and this was a very helpful read to me thank you for writing it

    • Puja says:

      Thanks Jen for sharing your story. It is indeed heart wrenching to watch kids being labelled stupid/dumb and belittled. It makes them feel so invisible. Every kid needs psychological visibility – love, appreciation, guidance and fair disciplining. In the absence of these, there is lot of self criticism and “I’m not good enough” feelings as the child grows up. EFT helps a lot in releasing this negative conditioning.

      I’m glad that your niece has an aunt like you who is so loving.

  7. Martina usigbe says:

    Very good. Every parent should read this.

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