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The Power of Words

Have you ever heard the term "terrible twos"? I have not, until I came to the United States. This term does not exist in the other languages I speak. However, I readily adopted this point of view as I was parenting my own children. It seemed easy enough to explain away their challenging behaviors by assuming that they were just a part of them being in their terrible twos. My daughter was a sweet, mellow child when she turned two years old yet here I was, anxiously anticipating her to turn into an unmanageable, difficult child. Not surprisingly, by the time she was three, we were spending significant portions of our days dealing with frustration (hers and mine), tantrums and tears. You see, it long has been shown that when we expect something to happen, it usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because our thoughts shape the way we perceive the world, and our actions are dictated by our thoughts and feelings. In other words, my child was learning how to handle different situations by responding to my own behaviors.

It was then that I realized that in order to create a change in my child’s behavior, I have to start with my own. My daughter was merely reacting to my own behaviors because children are extremely well-tuned to our behaviors for survival reasons: those who are in sync with their environment have higher chances to thrive. Think about a parent-child relationship as a dance choreographed by both participants: Our moves as the lead dancers determine the moves of our partners, who are adjusting their steps to match our expectations. We are partners in this journey, but this is not to say that we are equal, at least not at the beginning. The adult is more knowledgeable, more skilled and hopefully, more flexible. It is our responsibility to lead the less skilled partner in this dance of life, guide them, support them when they stumble, and encourage them to keep trying.

Therefore, it is very important to have a more positive, flexible perception, focusing away from the negativity and limitations. This brings us to the unique perception we have of the world around us, and how we respond and interact with others in a variety of situations. We form this view, the lens through which we understand ourselves and those we interact with, based on input from our significant others starting in those early years. This view will be determining the course of our lives: how we deal with challenges, frustrations and surprises. Not surprisingly then, when faced with the same situation, some of us will focus on the negative aspects while other will choose to look at the possibilities to grow.


If this is true, what will happen then if we try to look at our toddlers not as terrible little monsters whose goal is to test our patience, but as little people who are trying to assert their independence, learn what they are capable of and understand the boundaries of their lives? This change of perspective is called reframing - changing the way we perceive different situations with the goal of focusing on the less negative aspects of the situation. This capacity to reframe negative situations not only reduces anxiety and increases well-being in the short term, but also is a key element in building resilience. In fact, studies have found that reframing shapes not only our thoughts, but our emotions as well.

Hence, if we can change our feelings by changing the way we think, then what will happen if instead of thinking about "terrible twos" we will talk about our "curious twos". Instead of using words such as "trying", "challenging", or "frustrating" we will switch to "independent", "persist", "determined"? If you see a child who is pushing boundaries in a normal and expected way, you no longer perceive her behaviors as bad and deserving punishment. I tried this and the result was less frustration, less anxiety and more patience on my part. Needless to say, that the interactions with my children became much more peaceful and enjoyable. Therefore, reframing is a powerful tool for adults who parent that allows us to remain calm, be more patient and thus parent more efficiently.

Thus, reframing involves not just staying away from the negative aspects, but also focusing on the positive traits and behaviors. This change in narrative leads us to separate the person from the problem, creating a greater sense of power to change the behaviors. Negative labeling, such as "she is lazy", "he can't focus" encourages passive acceptance of these traits and children go on to incorporate them in their self-perception. In other words, they will act on your words in self-fulfilling ways. Instead, you can shift your attention to your child's strengths: "he is determined", "she is strong-willed". By doing so you will be less frustrated and upset, your child will notice this, incorporate these more positive attributes in his view of self, act on them, and a road to a more positive, capable self-image will be paved.

Knowing this, we should strive to teach our children to reframe early on, to provide them with the ability to shift from what they can't do to what they can. Because if we move away from negative language such as "I can't", " I hate this", or "I am not good at this" to more positive and hopeful "I can try" or "I can learn how", we are not only creating a change in our thinking but also raising children who are not going to be afraid of trying. A problem is only a problem if one perceives it as one. If we view the behavior as a natural step in development and provide the necessary support for further learning, the child understands that all they have to do is to adjust what is not working and keep going forward.

Furthermore, by using a limiting language, we tell our children who they are and how they should or should not feel in different situations. If we, however, change to a more supportive language, ask more open ended questions and leave room for exploration, our children will be able to understand the reasons behind their emotions and behaviors. For example, instead of telling a crying child "calm down" or "don't cry", you can ask "what's wrong?". If the child says "nothing", keep exploring: "It looks like there is something wrong. Are you upset? Angry? Excited". This type of a conversation will lead to your child opening up and both of you trying to understand what the problem is and how to deal with, instead of ignoring those feelings. More importantly, oftentimes, it will be the child who will come up with the solution, thus leaving him with a greater sense of control and self-esteem.

For example, your child may confine in you that she is angry with a friend who was not playing with her. It is your role to keep exploring and asking questions rather than telling her what to do: "So how did you feel when Layla did not play with you? You felt sad? Angry". Once your child tells you how she feels, keep exploring: "Why do you think she did this?". Here it will be important to lead your child away from focusing on the negative. If she says: "She did not play with me because she is mean", try to shift the focus: "But other times Layla played with you, did she?" By shifting the focus to a more positive view of her friend, your child will not only learn to view people in a multidimensional way (not just as bad or good), but will also know that when you are upset with her, you separate her actions from the person she is. This will make forgiving herself and forgiving others easier in the future.

After your child opens up to a more positive view of her friend continue reaffirming this: "So many times, you enjoy playing with Layla don't you?" And then empower your child by asking her to come up with the solution: "What do you think you can do differently next time this happens?". Let her lead the way while supporting with suggestions if she does not have any. What is important in this exchange is that your child wasn't told how to feel and what to do. Instead she understood her emotions and found a way to cope. Now she knows that when something similar will happen in the future, she won''t feel overwhelmed or lost, because she has the tools to handle her emotions.

Therefore, if we change the language from limiting to empowering, it is inevitable that our children will learn to stand up after falling. Thus, we will be raising children who believe in themselves and do not give up in the face of failure. We will be raising resilient children who will grow up to be resilient and most likely, happy adults.

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