Sticks & stones

Words really do have the power to harm…and heal.

Journalist Mridu Khullar Relph, speaking on the subject of creative development, said, “I once heard someone say that parents should be careful how they speak to their children. Because the voice and tone you use to speak to your child today is the critical inner voice they will come to know later in life”.

Many of us can relate to this idea. Maybe there was an activity that we really enjoyed as children, but we were told that we didn’t have the talent for it. So we stopped. Speaking personally, I only ever mouth the words to songs – including Happy Birthday – since a primary school teacher sagely suggested that I probably shouldn’t participate in the school choir.

And we’ve all heard the old adage: ‘sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me’. This is patently false. Words absolutely do have the capacity to create real and lasting damage.

Rachel Tomlinson, registered psychologist and founder of Toward Wellbeing, suggests that many of our internal judgements initially come from our caregivers. Author and researcher Kari Sutton agrees and cautions that these criticisms can be generational. In other words, the criticisms we heard from our caregivers can re-emerge from us, when we use the same criticisms towards our own children. “Critical inner voice is embedded in our earliest childhood experiences,” Kari says. “The research says this is around the time we are learning to talk.” From birth to ages eight or nine, children take comments as the truth. Kari says that parents should be aware of what she refers to as ‘throwaway comments’, those you make when you’re tired or upset, because these will be taken as fact. At this early age, sarcasm is not helpful, as children’s developing brains cannot make sense of it.

However, both Rachel and Kari also give encouragement that it is never too late to make positive changes to how we relate to our children, and provide some strategies for parents to think about. They both emphasise that this is not about criticising parents. It is about building awareness.


Rachel says that taking a step back from a frustrating situation is an essential first step. When you have had a moment to let the situation diffuse, get down physically to your child’s level, use a soft tone and, critically, label the behaviour not the child. A statement like “You are naughty”, could be rephrased to something like “I felt sad when you shouted at me. I would prefer if you used a softer voice in the future.”

Kari says that providing children a scaffold for reframing can be very helpful. She suggests offering to assist children with the vocabulary they need to articulate their emotions. For example, you could say, “It sounds like you’re feeling anxious.” Rachel says that these situations can be used as opportunities to equip your child with a toolbox of strategies to help them moderate their behaviour. To guide them in the right direction, you could say “It was not kind to snatch that toy. If you would like a turn, you should try asking nicely if you could play with it.”


Identify your own inner critic. Yes, most of us do have one. Kari explains that, as humans, we have an inbuilt negativity bias – our brain remembers negativity and things that could harm us. Historically, it was a safety mechanism that developed when exclusion from a group had dire consequences. Parents must watch their own self-talk, because children can absorb this as well. For example, if a parent says that he or she is hopeless, a child may then look at themselves and wonder, am I hopeless too? Children absorb what we do, think and say.

Along these lines, Kari also suggests that parents take a look at their own patterns and think about how they interpret the world. How do we talk about life events, not just our own emotions? This shapes the child’s perception of the world. Is the world an anxious place? Or is it, as Albert Einstein asked, a “friendly universe”?


Finally, embrace your own imperfections and acknowledge that it is okay to make mistakes, for you and for your children. As Kari explains, “not everything is cause for criticism.” The idea is to encourage a growth mindset, which means that we have the capacity to develop, improve and make progress. She clarifies that children need boundaries and rules, and they need to understand if their behaviour has been disrespectful or hurtful. The key is in how this is presented. Sutton says to “be sure to tell your child, ‘I love you, no matter what’.”

Have compassion with yourself. Kari says that the vast majority of parents out there are trying hard and doing the best they can. Rachel says that one of our primary jobs as parents is to “help our children make sense of the world.” We need to recognise that this is a process, and one that includes a feedback loop. Our children mirror our beliefs. Through self-reflection, we can make changes that will benefit not only our children but also ourselves.

Words by Melanie Zolenas-Kennedy

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