The Power That Words Have: Strengthening Your Child’s Inner Voice

“There is no greater pain than feeling you are not enough.
Your child is enough, right now, just the way he is. And so are you.”
~ Vimala McClure, The Tao of Motherhood

Years ago, in a class I was taking, the subject of weakness came up. We were asked to stand in front of another person and hold our dominant arm out to the side of our body, parallel with the floor.

Holding it firm, the other person would push down on it and see if they could make the arm drop. We were all able to hold our arms strong against the physical pressure.

Then we were asked to think about what makes us feel weak.

In recent years we have become familiar with the new view on the childhood rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”. We know that words can hurt. Words sting. Words have power. Words even kill. But what many don’t acknowledge or realize is that it’s the words we say to ourselves, that hold the most power.

Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”. Words themselves do not hold power. But when we believe those words, when we repeat them over and over, when we pass them on to others, words can have a devastating effect.

The second part of that classroom lesson involved standing again in front of our class partner while holding that same arm out. This time we were asked to think of what we thought of ourselves deep inside, to concentrate on the words we used to describe ourselves that made us the most ashamed, the phrase we said over and over to ourselves that kept us from achieving the things we most wanted in our lives.

negative self talk“I am too old”
“I am too fat”
“I am not smart enough”
“I don’t have enough qualifications”
“I am too poor”
“I am unloveable”
“I am not enough as I am”

Holding that negative belief in our heads, or saying it out loud if we felt comfortable, our partner once again pushed down on our dominant arm. This time, no matter how hard we resisted, our arm quickly fell to our side. The simple act of holding a negative belief about ourselves made us physically weak.

Restating that belief in its opposite, “I am the right age”, “I am the right weight”, “I have the perfect qualifications”, “I am smart enough”, “I have enough money”, ” I am loved” or just simply, “I am enough”, our arms once again were unable to be pushed down. No exercise, no lengthy training, no therapy, just a change in how we spoke to ourselves about ourselves, made all the difference.

That little voice that says we are not enough has immense power. It can keep you from loving and from being loved. It can stop you from pursuing your dreams. Perhaps even worse, it may stop you from even daring to have a dream to follow. I would guess that many people who carry hatred in their hearts for others hold the belief “I am not enough” deep down in their hearts.

Sit with that statement, “I am not enough”, and notice what it feels like inside to believe that. Imagine that feeling being a part of your every day experience.

inner-voiceWhere do we pick up this sort of thinking? No child is born feeling anything but fully worthy of love and affection. But there are very few adults who don’t have insecurities that make up a tender achilles heel. When I became a mother one of the lessons I learned early on is this Peggy O’Mara quote, “the way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” Tell your daughter that she is a brat or a bully, and that’s how she comes to see herself. Tell your son that he is lazy or stupid and those are the words he will tell himself when he is struggling.

But it goes further than this. Even if you would never think of using words like “stupid” with your kids, pay close attention to your dialogue throughout the day. Overwhelmed and frustrated parents often say things like, “you are always so mean to your brother!”, “you’re so slow, why can’t we ever get out of the house on time?” or “what is wrong with you? Why do I have to tell you this over and over again?”.

When your child is faced with adversity or is in a situation where she doesn’t have you around to remind her to do what is right, what you want is for her to have an inner voice that says to her, “I can do this, I always figure things out!”, “I’m not going to hang out with that group, they don’t make good decisions”, “I’m disappointed that girl doesn’t want to be my friend. But I’m pretty awesome and will make a new friend”.

I am enoughOur children’s inner voices start with the words we say to them. What we say repeatedly to our children makes a difference. It shapes who they become, how they see themselves and what they believe is possible for themselves to achieve.

If the words “I am not enough” can instantly weaken your physical body, imagine what a lifetime of holding a positive self image can do for your child.

“Sometimes, we throw small bits of grace and compassion out into the world and they float away like helium balloons so far that we don’t know what becomes of them…But sometimes, someone hangs on. We don’t know to which moments. We don’t know to which kindnesses. It’s simply our job to keep making more balloons.” ~ Beth Woolsey

41 things to say to your children that can strengthen their inner voice (plus 3 bonus questions to ask):

  1. You are everything you are supposed to be.
  2. I love you exactly the way you are.
  3. You were made for me.
  4. I am so lucky to have a child like you.
  5. There is nothing you could do that would make me not love you.
  6. My heart is so full of love whenever I see you.
  7. I believe in you.
  8. You can do it.
  9. I know you’ll make a good choice.
  10. You are such a kind friend.
  11. I love being with you.
  12. When you hug me I feel wonderful.
  13. You always know how to make me feel better.
  14. Your laugh makes me so happy.
  15. I love spending time with you.
  16. I love the way you think about things.
  17. I learn so much from you.
  18. You’re so much fun.
  19. You really know how to focus yourself.
  20. You know how to make good decisions.
  21. I know you’ll figure it out.
  22. I want to hear your ideas.
  23. Your curiosity is so inspiring!
  24. I love to watch you ________.
  25. I will love you no matter what.
  26. You really know how to be a good teammate.
  27. You really listen to your body and know when you are hungry/full.
  28. I noticed how gentle you were with your baby brother.
  29. You do things that I never even tried when I was your age!
  30. You really noticed every detail. You are so observant!
  31. I noticed that you were scared, but then you _____ anyway. That was really brave.
  32. Thank you for choosing me to be your mom/dad.
  33. My favorite part of the day was when you and I _______.
  34. I noticed how easily you shared with your friend today. You really know how to make other people feel good.
  35. When you were only ____ years old you weren’t able to do that, but now that you’re _____, I notice how easily you can ______!
  36. I want to spend more time with you.
  37. You are more important to me than my work/phone/email.
  38. Wow! You did all of that without me having to ask? You really know how to do so much on your own!
  39. I never thought of it that way. I changed my mind about things because of the way you made your point.
  40. It must have been hard for you when _____. I was so proud of you for sharing your feelings/standing up for yourself/speaking up for your friend.
  41. I noticed what a difference you made by doing that.
  42. {bonus questions} Teach your children that when they are tempted to say something to someone else, to ask themselves first: “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?”. If you can’t answer yes to all three, keep it to yourself or reframe it.

It is not always easy to keep this positive frame of mind, especially if you struggle with your own negative inner voice. But I have always found it easier to compliment others than to compliment myself. So I began there. Changing a bad habit requires being mindful of the fact that you have the habit to begin with. Take the time to notice the way you speak to yourself and your children. Make a pledge to improve it even if it feels awkward at first. I hope this list is a start!

I am starting 2014 with the reminder that I am enough and I look forward to you joining me.

Happy New Year!