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3 - 5 min read

Your Words Affect Your Child’s Brain

As parents, we hold many of the keys to our children’s futures. These keys are the words we speak to them.

The words you speak become the house you live in. - Hafiz

I have this quote pinned to a board in my bedroom - a constant reminder that my words have power. Not only do my words shape my own moods, visions, and indeed, my own reality, but in large ways, they are also shaping my children. 

In a 2013 TED talk, “Does Language Bring Us Together or Pull Us Apart?” biologist Dr. Mark Pagel speaks of the potency of our words, explaining that through language we are able to “implant our ideas” into another’s mind. 

Think of how powerful it is to be able to implant ideas into someone’s mind. It’s a dangerous power, but also an incredible opportunity.

As parents, we hold many of the keys to our children’s futures. These keys are the words we speak to them. Our words have the power to build up or tear down. To encourage or discourage. To hurt or to heal. 

Consider the language we commonly use both about and in front of our children. 

I remember being in a salon one day listening to one mother talk to the hairdresser about her young son, who was standing beside her. “I can’t wait for school to start back. He’s been getting on my nerves so bad. He’s so rowdy.” 

As she said those words, I looked at the boy. His face fell. The light dimmed. 

I’m sure she loves her son very much and was just exasperated like so many of us get. I understand where she’s coming from. Yet, her words made an impression on that boy’s heart that day. Her words hurt. 

We seem to think that very young children will forget what we say, or that they’re not listening or perhaps understanding us, but their eyes tell a different story. Perhaps on some level, even infants absorb our words, and those words weave their way through firing neurons and nestle deep into the essence of their being.

Our words never cease to have power, and in fact, may be even more impactful on our teen’s brains.

In his book, Brainstorm, Dr. Daniel Siegel points out, “Unfortunately, what others believe about us can shape how we see ourselves and how we behave.” 

This is especially true when it comes to teens and how they ‘receive’ commonly held negative attitudes that many adults project (whether directly or indirectly) - that teens are ‘out of control’ or ‘lazy’ or ‘unfocused.’

Studies show that when teachers were told that certain students had ‘limited intelligence,’ these students performed worse than other students whose teachers were not similarly informed. But when teachers were informed that these same students had exceptional abilities, the students showed marked improvement in their scores.

Adolescents who are absorbing negative messages about who they are and what is expected of them may sink to that level instead of realizing their potential.

As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them become what they are capable of being.”

This excerpt was eye-opening to me and made me stop to think about the words I’ve personally spoken to my teens but also about the negative attitudes society projects onto them. 

Our American culture tends to describe adolescents as: 

Spoiled.

Disrespectful.

Undisciplined.

Lazy.

Are we collectively destroying the potential of a generation with our mouths? 

When we label our children with unhelpful terms like lazy, spoiled, and undisciplined, we are binding them - limiting their potential and snuffing out their light. 

Scientific studies actually show that positive and negative words not only affect us on a deep psychological level, but they have a significant impact on the outcome of our lives. In their neuroscience experiment, “Do Words Hurt?” Maria Richter and collaborating scientists monitored brain responses to both auditory and imagined negative words. They discovered that painful or negative words increase Implicit Processing (IMP) within the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sACC). Their study proved that negative words release stress and anxiety-inducing hormones in subjects.  

As it turns out, many of your brain regions that process language also control your major organ systems, your hormones, and your immune system. Scientists call this a “language network” because these brain regions participate in language-related functions. They allow you to read and understand these words, and at the same time, these brain regions guide your heart rate, the glucose circulating in your bloodstream, and change the flow of chemicals that support your immune system. 

For example, If you texted “I love you” right now to your friend in another country, it will change her heart rate, breathing, and metabolism. In this way, your words have the power to affect a human’s biology across great distances. 

In his blog titled Shaping Your Child’s Future Through the Words You Speak, Dema Kohen, writes, “It is natural for us to celebrate another human being and the beauty and worth we see in them.” Here he is referring to the adoring language we hear when we have newborns - what a blessing, what a bundle of joy.

He continues, “Tragically, as time goes on, we often begin to forget the language of celebration. It’s only natural to get used to the immense worth we once saw in our children. Where once we saw beauty and wonder, we now see ordinary humanness. Once we lose sight of the treasure inside our children, we shift our attention from their being onto their doing (behavior). As a result, the flow of joyful celebration dries up.”

Imagine a world where children of all ages are celebrated. Imagine a society in which two-year-olds are not “terrible” and teenagers are not looked upon with disdain. What could we accomplish? What could they accomplish if we didn’t bind them with our tongues?

Today, I offer up a simple challenge. Notice. Pay attention to the words you are wielding in your home. What labels have you directly or indirectly placed? Could you choose to intentionally speak affirming, uplifting, healing words? Can we once again let a “flow of joyful celebration” of the humans in our care spring forth? 

Just as negative words can harm, positive words can heal. By using our language to intentionally build our children up, we can literally help change their self-talk which will affect their well-being lifelong. That gives me a lot of hope for the future. 

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Rebecca Eanes is the bestselling author of Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide, The Positive Parenting Workbook, and The Gift of a Happy Mother. She is the grateful mom of 2 boys.