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The power of positive language

 One of our most popular Facebook posts of 2018 was about changing negative words into positive. It’s a skill we should all learn, not just for how we communicate with others, but also how we talk to ourselves. Children are often heard berating themselves when they are struggling. Comments like ‘I’m rubbish’, ‘I hate this’, ‘I can’t do it’ are driven by fear, doubt and shame. Our inner self critic can be our own worst enemy, affecting our self-confidence, self-esteem and competence.

How adults speak to children can have a major impact on the development of a child’s inner voice from a very young age. Children need guidance and support whilst growing up and negative language can create confusion in a child’s brain. It stirs up resistance and anger and makes them feel that they are always wrong or “being bad”.  As a result, they are more likely to take criticism to heart, compare themselves with others and keep thinking they just can’t do anything well. This can damage their mental health in the long run.

Paying attention to language

To guide children toward choosing and maintaining positive behaviour, adults need to pay attention to both their verbal (words) and non-verbal behaviour (tone and body language).

One study estimates that the average child hears the word ‘no’ or ‘don’t’ over 148,000 times whilst growing up, compared with just a few thousand ‘yes’ statements.

For example, if you say to your child ‘Don’t drop your plate’, the child will think of dropping the plate and likely drop it. We tend to get what we focus on and your child could grow up thinking they are clumsy. Therefore, it’s much more beneficial to say ‘wow, you are carrying that so carefully! Well done!’ With this kind of comment, you are more likely to see your child’s body language change; their back will straighten, they will smile and their fingers will tighten around the plate.

Last year, a Year 11 pupil told us that when she told her science teacher that she would like to be a marine biologist, his immediate reaction was ‘Really? You’ll never be able to do that!’ She was in Year 8 at the time and had held onto his negative comment for over three years until she talked to us about it.  It had affected her confidence in science and her overall self-esteem. This is what is called ‘The Negativity Bias’.

The Negativity Bias

According to neuroscience, the human brain is hard-wired to remember the negative more easily, than the positive. Thus, if someone gives you nine complements and one insult, it’s always the one insult you will remember. This evolutionary response dates back to the cave man days where we had to pay special attention to those negative elements of our environment that could harm us like sabre-toothed tigers.  Negativity is also imprinted deeper on our brain which is why we remember bad experiences or conversations for longer periods of time.

Neuroscience also shows us that negativity and stress are related.  For example, when we see the word ‘NO’, our brain releases dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters that create havoc with our normal functioning.

That’s not to say, we should always be unnecessarily complementing our children or never say, ‘no’ but we should be mindful of the language that we use to encourage the appropriate positive behaviour and empower children to believe in their own abilities. Once we start to be more aware of the negativity in our own language, we can create a more peaceful, positive, nurturing and supportive environment.  What the science teacher could have said to his pupil was, ‘It’s great that you have this ambition. If you’d like to become a marine biologist, these are the steps you need to take to get there….’.  That child would have left his lesson motivated and happy instead of demoralised and upset.

Empathy goes a long way in helping a child move from the negative to the positive. If your child says they are stupid for not getting something right the first time, help them by saying, “you just haven’t done it yet but keep working at it. Everything in life takes practice.” Showing your child that they are the ones who control their thoughts and not the other way around, empowers them to fight their own negative voice. Help them to reframe the situation into a positive. We don’t fail, we learn.

Just as negative words cause stress in the brain, positive words strengthen areas of the brain’s frontal lobes and promote cognitive function. Quite simply, hearing positive words makes us feel good.

Some examples of changing negatives to positives

  1. Stop shouting –  Please use a softer voice
  2. Don’t cry, you are not a baby!-  It’s ok to cry. It’s good to get it out. Now let’s have a hug to calm down.
  3. Don’t be rude – Please use kind words
  4. Stop running – Please walk
  5. You are so naughty! – Are you ok? Your behaviour today seems a bit unhappy.
  6. Don’t even think about throwing the ball in the house! – Please take the ball outside if you’d like to throw it.
  7. I’ve already explained how to do this! – Shall I explain it in a different way?
  8. ‘No more ice-cream’ – We all love ice-cream but too much isn’t healthy for our bodies. Let’s have some fruit instead. 
  9. That was a really stupid thing to do! – Was it the right choice to make? What have you learnt from this. What could you do differently next time?

Positive reinforcement and positive words build optimism, pride, feelings of security and happiness in a child which in turn helps to calms their inner self critical voice. We need to be kind and compassionate to ourselves as well as to others.

If you are interested in learning more about the power of language or would like some strategies for converting negatives to positives, please contact the team at Universal Mindfulness at info@universalmindfulness.co.uk.

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