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When words hurt
Posted: April 27, 2009
Last Updated: April 27, 2009

Psychologists have proven the popular children’s rhyme false; sticks and stones aren’t the only things that can break your child’s bones. Words can hurt people in ways you never imagined. The physical violence promised by the ‘sticks and stones’ is probably the least of your child’s worry. According to scientists, negative words can be as traumatizing as physical violence to your child.


A recent study found that the part of the brain known to be involved in processing physical pain – the anterior cingulated cortex—is active when processing both physical and verbal barbs. So getting punched on the playground is the same as being called names by a bully, both are processed the same by the brain. Both equal physical pain to us, and especially to children.


The words parents use are what form the basis of a child's sense of self. Words are a mirror reflecting back to our children vital information about who they are and what they will become. When a parent repeats, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” The child hears, “You aren’t as good as your brother.”


The constant repetition of negative comments towards a child can color their perception of their self until they believe what they hear from the people they love most.


Dr. Charles E. Schaefer, a professor of psychology and director of the Center for Psychological Services at Fairleigh Dickinson University, created a list of things to avoid saying to children based on comments from interviewing child psychologists and social workers.


Here is that list:


·         Name-calling - Negative labels attack a child's personality rather than a specific behavior; their self-esteem will be diminished. Labels tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies, as well. So instead of calling your child a “jerk” or a “klutz”, try to focus on the specific behavior like “Don’t be mean to your sister,” or “Next time let’s be a little more careful.”

·         Rejection - Rejection means saying you strongly dislike or wish to be separated from your child. To a child, being unloved by the person who brought you into the world means you must be unlovable. What children need more than anything else from their parents is to feel that they are unconditionally loved. Remember to tell your child you love them everyday, so they know you care.

·         Negativity - Children tend to live up, or down, to what we believe about them. Instead of saying such hurtful things as “You’ll never amount to anything.” Try saying something that expresses your concern, “I know it is hard for you right now, what can we do to try and solve what is going on?”

·         Scapegoating -- Don’t blame your child for your problems. Children are an easy target to fault for the troubles of others, their parents or family members. If children are to learn to take responsibility for their actions, parents must set an example of being personally accountable for their mistakes and weaknesses. Don’t blame your child for your problems.

·         Perfectionism – Children are learning how to be adults. You can’t expect them to know how to react in every situation. To hold children to unrealistic expectations only leads to their losing of self-confidence. Instead of expecting the world of them, praise children for their accomplishments and for doing the best they can, even when you wish they might have done better. With positive words and your children will do better, but being negative will only make them feel they aren’t doing well enough—ever!

·         Comparing – No one wants to hear how someone is better than they are. Comparing children causes resentment and competition in siblings. It also makes children feel devalued and inferior to others. It is best to talk about their progress and skills separately. Remember everyone has different talents. So instead of saying “You pitch better than your brother” say something without comparison, “You are pitching much better this season.” It allows you to praise each child for his or her individual talents without making someone else feel inferior.

·         Shaming - Shaming demoralizes a child rather than empowering him or her to change for the better. Instead of saying “You are acting like a baby.” Try saying something positive to the child like, “Sometimes it is hard to share, next time we will put your special toys away so they don’t get broken by others.”

·         Cursing – Instead of cursing, explain why you are angry and ask the child to take steps to resolve the situation. When a child cleans up their own mess with your help, they learn to be more responsible, and they are better for it. If you resort to name calling, you only hurt that child’s feelings while reinforcing that they are unable to solve the situation you find unacceptable.


Remember hurtful words can last a lifetime so be aware what you say to your children. Generally children are strong enough that an occasional hurtful comment won’t have a lasting impact, but to hear the same negative message all the time will make your child come to believe them.


If you are having problems communicating with your child call Border Area Mental Health Services. To reach Border Area Mental Health Services in Grant and Hidalgo Counties, call 388-4412; in Catron County, call 533-6649 for referral; in Luna County, call 546-2174.  For CRISIS, call 538-3488 or outside Silver City, call 1-800-426-0997.


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© 2008 by Border Area Mental Health Services and Putting the Web to Work. Front-page photo copyright by Bob Pelham, Pinos Altos Cabins, and used by permission. All rights reserved. For the privacy and comfort of our clients and staff, the photographs used in this site are representative and do not show specific individuals associated with BAMHS.