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Words with Wisdom – To Make or Break your Child’s Spirit (Part 1)

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Words have power beyond our imagination and perception. Words can make or break one’s spirit, confidence and self-worth. Someone once said, “But the human tongue is a beast that few can master. It strains constantly to break out of its cage, and if it is not tamed, it will run wild and cause you grief.”

Words have the potential to cause lasting healing or damaging effects on one’s mental health. It is no surprise that many age-old sayings advise the choice of words. Careful use of words is even more crucial when we speak to our children, which is true for children of all ages!

So, then, how are we going to speak to our children? What words should we use, and how will we say them?

Here are some thoughts and tips for your consideration. There are two aspects to consider: the “What” and the “How”.

“What” Part – what words do we use?

1. When our child behaves well (or appropriately)Give Praises and Affirmations

 “Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” – Mother Teresa.

a. Let’s begin with the easiest and the most obvious – praise. We all have used praise at least once in our lifetime. However, are you aware of what to say when praising?

b. General praises are vague. So, avoid them. One main reason is that it does not let the child know what exact behaviour they displayed led you to praise them. Some examples:

– Bravo! Clever boy!

– You are so good!

– Good girl!

c. Use descriptive praises. Descriptive praises focus on the effort. They highlight what the child has done well and lets them know that their effort is appreciated. Descriptive praises often encourage the child to repeat the same behaviour in the future. Some examples:

    1. Bravo! You managed to solve the problem by yourself! Good job!

    2. That’s a lot of hard work, Susan! You have tidied up your entire room so neatly! Great job!

    3. Peter, you have been so generous towards your younger sister by letting her play with your favourite toy. Thank you!

    4. Thank you for taking the initiative to clean up the living room when I am busy with other responsibilities. You are so helpful!

d. Avoid descriptive praise + ‘but’. When we praise, we focus on appreciating the child’s effort in behaving well. We refrain from reminding the child of their past not-so-good behaviours so as not to discourage them. One example:

    • Hey, Lydia, thank you for taking care of the dishes; unlike in the past, you would leave your dishes everywhere and …

    • Wow, you helped to mop the floor … but it’s not good enough!

2. When our child has not behaved well or inappropriately – Correcting and Assuring

“Be mindful when it comes to your words. A string of some that don’t mean much to you, may stick with someone else for a lifetime.” – Rachel Wolchin.

 “Don’t mix bad words with your bad mood. You’ll have many opportunities to change a mood, but you’ll never get the opportunity to replace the words you spoke.” – Unknown.

a. When our child misbehaves, their actions may trigger us to say or react in ways that we often would regret. It also often triggers anger, disappointment, frustration and even helplessness.

b. As parents, our motivation for our children to behave appropriately often stems from our desire for them to succeed academically, socially, emotionally and vocationally. For example, when our child misbehaves in a public space, it may also embarrass us when people around stare or give disapproving looks. Whether it is our desire for our child’s future well-being or our own fear of being embarrassed, such situations may trigger anxiety, and anxiety can lead us to be too quick to react to their unacceptable behaviours without giving these children a fair “trial”. Without a chance to explain themselves, we may punish them without understanding the context and the child’s needs. Repeated over time, this will lead to a breakdown in our relationship with our child.

c. What we want to say to our children when they misbehave comes second to what the child has to say to us. We will likely act upon our presumptions and prejudices from past experiences by not listening to our child. We need to pause, take a deep breath, settle our emotions and listen first. The following steps are suggestions to consider ‘STAR’:

  • Stay calm. If you need to take a break to calm down, do so. Let your child know you need to settle your emotion first (this is also a teachable moment for your child.)

  • Talk calmly. Do not raise your voice. Refrain from criticising or passing sarcastic, cynical remarks about the child or their acts.

  • Ask what happened and what the child’s goal was in behaving in a way you disapprove of. Listen with empathy.

  • Refrain from giving lectures. Instead, turn your comments/statements of lectures into questions and prompts. Also, refrain from putting down the child’s suggestions or thoughts. For example:

–  Instead of: I already told you to revise your work and not do last minute work. See what happens now? Fail!

ASK: How do you feel about your score? What do you   think went wrong? How would you have done differently? What lesson have you learnt here?

– Instead of: You must follow what I say. You have no experience. Your method doesn’t work.

ASK: Let’s talk about using your way. What will be a good outcome about using the method you just mentioned? What will be the not-so-good thing that may result from this? Let’s try it step by step.

d. Coach the child, not force the child to follow what we think is correct. By telling the child what to do all the time, they do not learn how to process their thoughts and make sound decisions for themselves. This is especially true for older children like teenagers. For younger ones, lead them and give them prompts to solve the problems.

e. Encourage them to try new low-risk activities and assure them of your availability to support them. When our child knows we have their backs, they are more likely to explore and try new things and, eventually, grow in confidence and self-esteem.


Stay tuned for part 2 on How do we speak words that build up our children.

To find out more about our free parent support services, register your interest at https://go.fycs.org/PSS, or email us at [email protected] or call 88694006.


Written by: Lily Ching, Parent Coach, Fei Yue Community Services