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Growing up, I remember when my parents would speak really harshly to me, and in those moments I remember thinking, “I won’t ever grow up to speak to my kids that way.” And while I still am trying to hold that promise to myself, I am not perfect.

We’ve all been there – we’ve told our kids a million times what the rules are, yet they come trampling through the house with dirt on their shoes, they leave their dirty clothes in the floor, they leave snack wrappers in their room, or they forget to complete their homework and come home with a zero as a score. In the moment, it’s easy to get frustrated, and it’s easy to say the wrong thing to them. However, it’s important to remember that the words you speak to your child are the words that will become their inner monologue. You are their inner voice.

Whether that monologue is a cheerleader or a bully is up to you. That might sound dramatic and if you are someone who believes in harsher parenting styles, it may sound like hogwash. But, I am here to tell you that small brains internalize what they hear and experience. You cannot take back what you say. When your child gets caught drawing on the walls, and you yell, “I can’t believe how STUPID you can be!” your child doesn’t hear ‘can be’ what they hear is that they are stupid. The wall can be washed. Your child can be taught better. But, you can never uncall them stupid.

Think about it: what is your own inner voice? Do you have a tendency to participate in negative self-talk? If you do – do the words you say sound familiar? It’s likely that it does, and it’s likely that voice is the voice of your primary caretaker growing up. And whether they were kind to you or too hard on you, likely has severely impacted your inner voice for the better or for the worst.

When speaking with kids, it’s important to do so intentionally. If you get upset with them, get upset at their action, not with them as a person. Have empathy for your tiny humans. Yes, she may have dropped the pitcher of tea in the floor, covering the floors with sticky sugar, but that could happen to anyone, right? It’s not an opportunity to tear your child apart. Instead, it’s the perfect time to have a talk about being careful. A mistake made by your child likely is not the end of the world. Even if it is- it’s highly unlikely that it merits abuse (emotional or otherwise.) Remember, tiny humans.

Take time to cool off before speaking in the heat of the moment. When you dole out punishment, remind your child that you love them no matter what, but that actions have consequences. There is a way to be an effective and an empathetic parent. You can be both and excel with balance.

Your child’s self-esteem is so important. It’s not just them feeling good about themselves. It’s them believing in themselves to accept love in a healthy way. It’s them going for their goals and careers because they know what they are capable of. Self-esteem isn’t about participation trophy’s or whatever people say when laughing at moms who care about their child’s self-esteem. Self-esteem matters because it is the ground on which your child stabilizes themselves in the world as an individual, without you. When we talk harshly to our kids, we chip away from that stability and if we continue, we can tear it down to nothing. We have the power to build our kids up or tear them down, using nothing but our words. Choose yours wisely.