The Way We Speak To Our Kids Matters


I was walking into Safeway the other day and overheard a mom dragging her wily toddler along, commenting, “Come on, slowpoke, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” It was innocent enough, but something in her tone of voice sounded a bit too grating. Part of me empathized with the mom because I have definitely been there before, but part of me also sympathized with the child, wondering, “Does his mom speak to him like that all the time?”

As I have been delving more into parent work at my job, I’ve become more aware of the way we speak to our kids. I pay close attention not just to the phrasing we use but also our tones of voices, my own included.

Here are some of the more common phrases I have observed recently:

Hurry up; we are going to be late!

If I have to tell you this one more time…

You are driving me crazy!

Don’t touch that!

I’ll give you something to cry about! (That person was having a really bad day).

I have to say, I would never want to live with someone who talked to me like that! If I spoke to my friends that way, I don’t think I would have any left. And I can’t imagine the level of resentment, anger, and sadness my husband would feel towards me if I used that tone with him regularly.

Now, I know the relationship we have with our kids is different and sometimes more difficult than the ones we have with adults—we all have bad moments where we get frustrated and say things we don’t mean (or at least don’t want to admit out loud). But I’m wondering if those moments happen more often than we’d like to think, and I worry about the chronic impact of being spoken to like that has on our kids.  

There is myriad research on how and why we should speak more positively to our kids, including the impact it has on our relationship with them, their internal view of themselves, and ultimately the way they interact with others as they grow older.

So let’s look at a few things we could all do a little differently to help us speak more positively to our kids:

Slow things down and re-prioritize.

Anyone living in the Bay Area knows we are all in a big rush all the time. My family is always racing out the door, which means I’m often snapping at my kids repeatedly, yelling at them to put on their shoes, grab their lunch, and hurry up already. Recently, I have started trying to simplify our schedules a bit so we don’t feel so busy and ragged all the time.

Prepare in advance.

I also try to anticipate our needs ahead of time, which means I pack lunches the night before, line shoes and jackets by the door so we aren’t scavenging around for them in the morning, and encourage the kids to lay out their outfits before bed. If you can identify the most stressful times of your day and plan ahead, this can eliminate a lot of the frustrated communication.

Practice what you really want to say.

Obviously, our kids often need limits and reminders, but the words and tone we choose make a difference. Instead of sighing with exacerbation and saying, “What is the matter with you?” try finding a more productive way to get your point across. If you can, stop what you’re doing and give your kid the attention they’re craving; most of the time they just want to show or tell you something quickly and then get back to what they were doing.

If you can’t pause to give them a second, then try saying something along the lines of, “I really want to hear what you have to say, but I’m in the middle of something right now. Let me finish up what I’m doing because I really want to give you my full attention.” This allows them to feel validated and heard but also teaches them patience and respect. Need more ideas? Check out here and here.  

Try to leave your work at work.

This may seem nearly impossible, especially for those who feel obligated to be available by phone and email all day. But trying to get work done when our kids are around is setting ourselves up to make an exasperated comment. Setting these boundaries for yourself will make you more emotionally available to your kids and less likely to snap at someone.

If you’re feeling stressed, take a deep breath.

Trust me, this actually works. Give yourself a quick time out before yelling and see if that little break gives you time to formulate a more positive response or at least remove a bit of the annoyance from your voice. If you’re noticing you feel stressed more often than not, seek some help and make yourself a priority. Find some more “me” time. Join a mom’s group. Or talk to a professional.

Be cognizant of how and what you are saying to your kids.  

Before you say something out loud, think of how you’d feel if a friend or coworker spoke to you that way. Again, our relationship with our kids is different, but that doesn’t mean we have the right to be mean to them just because we are frustrated.

Want to read more? Look here and consider the book How to Talk to Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.  


Editor’s note: This article originally published on August 30, 2017, and was revised and updated prior to republication.

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Meredith is a transplant to the Bay Area and has fallen in love with the weather, gorgeous scenery, and plethora of local wineries. A wife and mother of two, she works part-time as a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist. She hails from Texas, where she attended the University of Texas and will always bleed orange. She then moved to Washington DC to attend Georgetown's School of Medicine, where she fell in love with her future husband, a fellow student, and has been happily married for almost a decade. She and her husband lived in Cincinnati, Ohio for several years for their medical training and found it the perfect place to start a family. She relocated to the Bay Area a few years ago and has quickly adapted to West Coast living. Meredith enjoys the balance of part-time working and full-time parenting and loves to write about this ongoing struggle. In her persistent drive to find more "me time", she actively pursues her interests in reading, running, soccer, baking, and wine tasting.



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