“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me…”
Even as a kid, I DESPISED this phrase. Of course words hurt?!
Yes, I do recognize that the underlying message behind this childhood retaliation was to empower and to not let other’s behaviors/words/actions break our self-esteem and spirit. I will not refute that notion. But what I will say, and maybe even implore us all to think about is that words actually really do matter! Let’s step away from the bullying/taunting image I opened up with and consider other arenas where our choice of verbiage has greatly impacted a situation…
A job interview? A school report? Expressing your anger towards someone?
What about explaining a difficult or advanced concept to a child….maybe about an impending divorce or perhaps a marital affair? (I can feel the anxiety rising but stick with me here…) If you have found yourself in this latter situation, how in the world do you begin talking about it or even explaining it in a way that feels cognizant and sensitive to the feelings of your audience. And if your audience is your children, how do you explain this very messy and complicated experience to them in a way that they can understand?
This last question is the one I would like to spend some time focusing on as it tends to come up a lot in therapy. (As a child of divorce myself, I am sure that my own parents wrestled with this question when I was younger.) I think what tends to happen is that people err on the side of caution…meaning that they tend to give very over-simplified, glossy versions of the truth to spare the child pain or simply to just make a very difficult situation easier to talk about.
The one I hear most often is: “Sometimes adults just grow apart.” And yes, sometimes that is true! In those instances, this can be a perfectly appropriate explanation. However, this phrase breaks down and loses credibility with kids when there is high conflict in the family, infidelity, abuse, etc. Your children know more than you think. They often sense the tension at home and pay attention to changes in patterns. If you happen to have a particularly sensitive and attuned kiddo, they are going to see right through that explanation.
So why do your words matter in this instance? When you provide an over-simplified, glossed-over version of the truth, that child is internalizing a message that when there is something wrong, you don’t openly talk about it. They might be hearing that it isn’t safe to share their feelings or ask questions. Which as a parent, is the last thing that you want!
SO…that leaves us with, what’s the better alternative?
That answer depends/changes based on the situation and the parent themselves. You need to carefully observe your own limits and feelings and be your authentic self with your children. I find that it is often best to explain the situation factually (ex: Dad has chosen to live with ______; Mom is struggling with some issues that make it hard for to do ______), and acknowledge your own feelings about it without overburdening the child (ex: I feel sad and angry about this change; I am confused too and don’t really understand his/her decision). Then the next best thing you can do is model for them how you manage and cope with your own feelings (ex: When I get sad, I know that I can talk to my friends about it; in time, I know that I will feel better). And lastly, let them know that it is okay to feel whatever they feel about the situation and that they can come and talk to you if they want to (ex: You may also feel sad or angry or confused and just know that you can come and talk to me or ask me any questions).
Generally speaking, you want your words to assure them that they are still loved and cared for while also validating their truths/experiences. Choosing your words carefully, especially in this situation, truly helps children begin to learn important lessons in emotional communication, as well as how to “embrace” negative emotions (ex: sad, angry, frustration) without over pathologizing them.
Words matter because they convey both intentional and unintentional messages. Being aware and mindful of their impact ultimately helps us to communicate more effectively with others and to also convey the best versions of ourselves…especially when it is our children who are paying attention.