5 Ways to Be More Mindful of Negative Language

Be more mindful of negative language with these five tips from Mighty Mommy.

Cheryl Butler
6-minute read
Episode #378

Last week I excitedly headed to New Hampshire to move my son home from his freshman year at college. I hadn’t seen him for several months so although I drove nearly four hours in the pouring rain to get to his campus, I eagerly prepared for that moment I would get to give him a hug—and then help him drag 20 plus tucker totes down four flights of stairs and into my freshly vacuumed mini van. 

As I geared up to get my tired-self ready for the next round up the stairs, I heard some noise from the dorm room next to my son’s. As I got closer I realized the noise was not what I had originally thought—a couple of college kids horsing around—instead it was a mother and her college son. And that horsing around was not that at all, it was the mom making degrading comments to her son about what a useless slob he was. I believe the actual words were “you’re a filthy pig” and worse, “I can’t believe we have to live with your gross habits for the entire summer.”  (Wait a minute ... did she see my son’s room!? Just kidding.)          

I tried not to make eye contact with this young man because it was obvious he was completely mortified that we had overheard this exchange, but I managed to connect with him and offered him a warm smile. I was so uncomfortable but at the same time I was actually ticked off at his other mother for being so cruel to her child and not seeming to mind at all that she did it in public. I found this to be a great reminder of how hurtful words can be, regardless of whether they are spoken softly or loudly.

According to a new study published in the Journal of Child Development, yelling—defined as shouting, cursing, or insult-hurling—may be “just as detrimental” as physical punishment to the long-term well-being of adolescents. And what’s worse, the more often we communicate negative messages to children through our words and actions, the more they will come to believe them. Even in otherwise loving homes, yelling, cursing or insults can have many of the same effects as hitting and can lead to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem in kids.

The way in which we speak to our kids is ultimately our choice, even when we reach parenting’s most frustrating moments, so Mighty Mommy shares 5 tips on how to be more mindful of negative language so you can think before you speak.

Tip #1:  Offer Helpful Words

Words are so powerful, and without us even realizing it, the effect of what we say to another person can leave a lasting impact, both good and bad. Choosing them carefully is so important. Equally important is the tone and body language we use.

In the case of the young college student that was taken to task by his mother in front of my son and I, she not only chose to name call “Filthy Pig” and tell him his lifestyle was “gross,” but she said it a very harsh tone, basically a snarl, and had her hands pointing at all of his things and then back at him basically telling him he was a disgraceful human being. Hurting words slash at a child's self-confidence; regardless of their age and once they’ve been said, you can’t really take them back.

Instead of offering hurtful words, we need to shift our mindset to using helpful words that can still pack a punch but in a positive way. “Wow, you sure did collect quite a few things during your Freshman year, didn’t you?  I’m proud of you for doing well during your first year away at college so when we get back home, we’re going to put your new skills to use and get organized for the summer.” Now your child knows that you are going to help him or at least encourage him to sift through all this stuff rather than beat him down for it.

Tip #2: Focus on the Behavior

When a child does something wrong, don't tell a child he is bad. Tell him the specific behavior is not good. For example last week my 10-year old daughter had two friends sleepover.  They were having lots of silly fun, yet when they were making a snack before bedtime, my daughter was criticizing one of her friend’s choices and made a few random comments like “Oh, how can you eat that kind of ice cream, it looks so gross!”  This made her friend feel a bit embarrassed that she liked a certain flavor when the other two girls did not, and she barely touched her ice cream after that. I quietly took my daughter aside and shared with her that her action to publicly criticize her friend’s choice could’ve been handled differently.  Annie’s favorite flavor is crazy vanilla and her brothers had a field day with the name of it a couple of years ago and it hurt her feelings and made her angry.  “You didn’t like it when your brothers bashed your favorite flavor, remember?” Instead of criticizing your friend’s preference you could either say nothing or say “Why do you like maple walnut so much?”.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. You can reach her by email.