The Power of Words

Schewitz ThumbnailGuest blogger Kim Schewitz is a marketing consultant, writer and mother of two.

A radiant summer’s day finds the sandbox wriggling and writhing with clammy contenders for the lone dump truck. Two pairs of chubby, dimpled paws simultaneously lay claim and an animated tug of war ensues. Evenly matched the slightly more coordinated of the two lands what in 18 years’ time would be described as a punch and all hell breaks loose. Two fretful mothers descend amongst a gaggle of whispering onlookers; accusations are hurled and the mother of the aggressor rescinds in shame, apparitions of a lawsuit trailing not only behind her, but now too in the forefront of her anxiety – her newly-acquired poltergeist will only be subdued with a strict new discipline regime.

Meanwhile in the very same park, a 7-year-old game of tag has Caitlyn standing longing and forlorn on the sidelines, her precluding crime: her feminine garb. “You’re too prissy to play tag. Look at you in your silly, girly dress with checks and ribbons. Who do you think you are, Princess Jasmine?” The maternal response to these taunts and jeers is markedly more dismissive: “Oh honey, you know how girls can be sometimes. Take no notice of them, I’m sure they didn’t mean it; they were probably just jealous of your beautiful clothes.”“Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me.” Children who hit, push and bite are reprimanded and disciplined from an early age; no one wants to be the parent of “that” child. The child who has a quick tongue, however, is simply strong willed and is somewhat admired – he won’t be pushed around. From an early age we are taught that words don’t count as much as actions. That words don’t have the power to cause enduring injury. I beg to differ. While physical abuse is the villain in plain sight, verbal abuse is the intruder that goes in stealth and is just as dangerous. Words bite, they crush, they scar.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a handyman in my house who, when my older son (aged 6) was crying about something, felt perfectly entitled to comment “who’s the baby now?” At which point my son took himself off to sob in the corner, humiliation now an additional wound to his previous emotional injury. When I brought it up to him several hours later, acknowledging how his feelings must have been hurt and letting him know that sometimes people say mean things without thinking, he sprouted a new stream of tears, the pain still fresh and stinging.

It seems people have married the ideas of free speech and speaking freely. They voice whatever comes to mind without paying much attention to the delivery or the recipient. They are more concerned with unburdening themselves. After all, isn’t it healthier to “get it off your chest”? If this is true of strangers and acquaintances how much bigger is the onus on parents and teachers to watch what they say?

Communication comes in a variety of packages: a smile can colour our day like a rainbow after a storm; a dirty look from a mother, can bring us down like a hang glider in freefall. But words, boy oh boy! Words are as indelible as if they are written in ink. Remember when Johnny called you “Fatty” in grade 2; remember the grade 8 teacher who said who’d never amount to anything; remember when a friend took your hand and said “You can do it”…

The truth is words are way more powerful than we realize.

We think in words: if my mother can get so mad at me I guess anybody can; I should have done better; I am only loved when I agree.

We feel in words: I feel ashamed, guilty, humiliated, confused, hurt.

We define ourselves in words: I am a disappointment; I’m not worth it; I’m unlovable.

In fact we create our entire reality in words: I don’t deserve someone who’s good to me because I’m a bad person.

Words have a powerful energy that gets ingested by both the speaker and the listener.  I was recently struck by an article I read about a mother who was struggling with self control. She was routinely using shouting as the primary method of disciplining her children. What was jarring about the article was not the rarity of this mode of parenting but the mother’s self-loathing she experienced after an outburst. When we scream there is a very real part of us that realizes the full intensity of the pain we inflict and we hate ourselves for it. The release of venting is quickly followed by the bitter aftertaste of shame, regret, guilt and pain. So aside from the damage we cause our children, shouting also disables us – it prohibits us from providing a loving, nurturing environment when we are hating ourselves, and so the cycle is likely to repeat.

In her book Connected Parenting, Jennifer Kolari describes the long-term impact on brain functioning that words have. Repeated exposure to yelling forms deep neurological pathways that condition children to anticipate poor, unsupportive responses and negative experiences from the world, fueling fear, anxiety and a poor self image. Contrarily, positive verbal input, empathy and a sense of feeling heard nourish and nurture the self, create positive expectations and lay the foundation for resilience.

If words have the power to belittle, hurt, deflate, disempower, hate, destroy, so too do they have the power to inspire, calm, uplift, educate, empower, connect, reassure, and love. So before we let the words roll unconsciously off our tongues, let’s stop and take the time to create the beautiful human beings that lie inside each of our children and inside ourselves. Let’s choose life.

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Please remember that the advice given on this blog is not meant to replace medical advice or the direct advice of a mental health care professional.
"Connected Parenting advises us not just how to parent, but—far more important—who to be as parents. The therapeutic methods suggested by Jennifer Kolari are based not on simple-minded behavioural solutions, but on building warm, nurturing relationships with our children, with insight and compassion not only for their little flaws, but also for our own larger ones."
—Gabor Maté, M.D.

"A must read for parents, educators, and any other adults who want to connect in a deeply caring and positive way with the children in their lives."
—Barbara Coloroso