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.

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About Puja

I am a Counseling Psychologist, Certified EFT Practitioner & Accredited Trainer with AAMET. In my 13+ years of experience, I have effectively used EFT and Counseling to help clients heal their emotional and physical problems.
This entry was posted in Children, Communication and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 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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  10. Charles says:

    Thank you for this informative post. I have just link it to a post on disciplinary that I published today.

  11. SudhaPriya Shrivastava says:

    I am a female of 26years. I have never been loved by my parents because I am a girl. When I was a kid then my parents always used to fight and being the eldest child in family I had suffered most. Every frustration my mother took out on me.Once when I was kid then for six months I wasn’t able to see my mother. My aunt used to beat me and one day my hands came between the door because of my aunts fault and my fingers was full of blood, my cousin used to beat me while tutoring. When I had been living with my parents then one day my mother burned my cheek with hot spoon. For every small mistakes she used to beat me with belt or other stuff and abused me. I used to love paintings but my mother had the habit of comparing me with my friend painting because of which I stopped painting one day and till now I am not able to paint. Not only this my cousins and my brothers used to treat me badly. I was always being told that they have picked me from the dustbin and when I used to cry the they used to laugh on me, my mother often curses me and tell me to die. My parents have never hugged me. I have tried to kill myself so many times and used to wish death for me. Because of some hormonal issues I had gained a lots of weight when I was a kid. My parents had put me through lots of body shaming. They used to point me at my waist size and my mother sometimes even used to point out about my breath size also. I had always been insecured about my body. Even in studies also I was always being Demotivated. Even my brothers girlfriend is being respected more as compare to me sometimes my brother has hit me and my parents have encourage it. I am slowly getting in depression. It has increased from paarst few months especially when a dog jumped on me and I fell. I was shivering for whole day. I don’t feel confident on me because of which I have so many academic failures. To be honest I dont even like my parents around me. For me they have become stranger. In most of my life time I have always lived in fear. I feel difficulty in decision making. Few months back I fell in love with someone but he left me for other girl. I feel worthless. Sometimes I have to be harsh on myself. Sometimes I get scared in my sleep. I am even loosing my sleep because of which I feel weak and difficulty in learning. I have the habit of self talking and sometimes get irritated because of the people around me.

  12. Puja says:

    Hi SudhaPriya,
    I am so sorry to hear that you’ve been through so much difficulty. It’s terrible how some parents end up treating their children. I would strongly suggest you to meet a therapist and work on these emotional wounds. Childhood plays a major role in the kind of beliefs we have. Once you heal the childhood wounds, you will release the limiting beliefs and feel worthy and deserving of a good life. Please see a psychotherapist as soon as you can.

  13. In my early childhood I was always ordered to do things. I actually did not know my name as a child because when they talked to me they would say “do this” and I thought they were calling me Do-ti. That is what I called my self and for a while and my parents did not know why I was calling my self Doti.
    It gets a lot worse after that. I read an article and kids hear the word no 400 times per day. I am sure I beat the average by a lot. There was basically nothing that I could do. The thing is my grand parents were not any better at all. In fact the were even worse in some ways. My grandmother just wanted me to continue farming the way she had been on the small patch of land in the mountains that could never become a farm. Every thing that I wanted to do out side of that narrow minded mindset was meet with no. Now I am a Nobody. Because I never achieved anything amazing or even close to good.
    It is sad because people tell me that I am now at the age where I should be moving mountains but I have no idea how to move my self to a better state of mind. Maybe eventually I will figure some thing out but it may be too late.

  14. Puja says:

    When the caregivers aren’t encouraging, it takes a toll on the child.
    But it’s never too late. Form a good support network, be with people who encourage you, develop a healthy non-critical inner voice, have self compassion – and a good counsellor can really help with all of this.
    One book I can recommend is Daring Greatly by Brene Brown.

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