I shouldn’t have said that… I’ll never be able to… I don’t know how…
Every day, it can seem like we’re surrounded by negative language. This negative language can even come from our own inner voices, which, according to psychologists, innately tend to be more negative than positive. This is referred to as a negativity bias.1 To change this, we must make a conscious effort to recognize the differences between positive and negative language.
As adults, this means unlearning some deeply rooted habits, like speaking to our children in a pessimistic tone. Kids can internalize the way you speak to them and then adopt these words as their inner voice—or even repeat your negative way of speaking in their own lives.
Luckily, as caregivers, we have the opportunity to model positive language for the children we care for and help them learn a different pattern and make positive choices. This guide will help you identify negative and positive language, learn to change your language habits, and help you model a more positive way of being in the world.
What Is Positive Language?
Word choice matters. Positive language is about choosing words that are affirmative and empowering. It also involves using a positive and caring tone when speaking to children. Because your words influence their perception of themselves, when you use positive language, you’re showing them you care and believe in them. In turn, they’re more likely to also believe in themselves.2
Where negative language focuses on reasons why something can’t be done or isn’t going to work out, positive language shows that there are always possibilities for better outcomes in any situation.
What Positive Language Is Not
The key to positive language isn’t to suppress negative thoughts—but to recognize the negativity and find another perspective.3
Positive language doesn’t mean avoiding difficult topics or pretending things are fine when they aren’t. It means acknowledging a challenge while still choosing language that:2
- Presents alternatives
- Is forward-looking
- Gives reassurance and expresses support
- Is active instead of reactive
The pillars above are great stepping stones towards adapting healthy parenting skills as you support your child’s growth.
Why Is Positive Language Important? 3 Benefits to Positive Language
Positive language has been shown to be a crucial part of rewiring the way you think. Using it can change your negative thought patterns so you can develop a more positive attitude.4 The words that we choose to describe ourselves, others, and circumstances around us are not just labels for our beliefs. These words actually help form our beliefs.3
Let’s look at some of the tangible benefits of implementing positive language in our daily lives.
#1 Positive Language Builds A Positive Mindset
Tune into your inner voice for a moment—do you tell yourself that you are valuable and lovable? Do you focus on your strengths? Or do you tend to talk to yourself about what you can’t do and what you lack?
If you find yourself doing the latter, practice using positive language in your daily life. You might find that your inner thoughts become more positive as well. Instead of focusing on the negative, you’ll develop a growth mindset and concentrate on the things you can accomplish.
Moreover, your positive language can affect how your children view themselves. If they’re able to follow your lead and adopt a positive mindset of their own, they may be more resilient in various aspects of their lives. They’ll be more likely to form caring relationships and feel confident about overcoming the challenges they may face in everyday life.3
#2 Positive Language Cuts Stress and Improves Mood
Stress and negativity are strongly correlated. Neuroscientists have found that even a quick thought of the word “no” releases a flood of stress hormones that disrupts your brain’s normal functioning.5
Voicing negativity aloud releases even more stress-related chemicals in our brains.5 Changing our language habits into more positive word patterns can help reduce stress levels in ourselves and in our loved ones. Although you can’t always say “yes” to everything your child asks, it’s helpful to show them the benefits of saying “yes” to positivity. It might be the difference in how they respond to challenges they face as they become older—with a positive mindset rather than a negative one.
#3 Using Positive Language Helps Those Around You
Think about how you feel chatting with someone in a good mood. Chances are, after your talk, you’ll feel a bit better yourself. Now, picture being in the same room with someone whose negativity is as palpable as a storm. Chances are, you start to feel pretty bad yourself.
Hearing our negative language impacts the brains of those around us, triggering the brain to release stress hormones that result in feelings of fear, irritation, and anxiety.5 These negative emotions can slowly corrode our relationships with others, especially children, over time.
By opting for positive language, we can set a powerful tone of well being and optimism for those we interact with.
How To Use Positive Language With Your Child
Using positive language doesn’t mean you can’t tell a child “no.” Positive language simply means presenting information or guidance in an affirmative way.
In other words, instead of don’t, redirect to do.6
- The phrase, “Don’t play so rough with the class pet” becomes “How about we let Hammy the Hamster have some time to play on his wheel? I bet he’d love that!”
The phrase, “Don’t throw sand in the sandbox” becomes, “Let’s keep the sand in the sandbox and make some beautiful sand castles together.”
- The phrase, “Don’t stand on the desks” becomes “Bottom in your seat, feet on the floor, please!”
Negative phrases and language builds walls and shuts communication down. Positive phrasing and language presents alternatives and suggests good choices. This lets the child feel empowered and included within a dialogue.
By putting less weight on the negative choice or undesirable behavior, positive communication language also takes the interaction out of a space of resistance and redirects the child’s energy onto a path of cooperation and freedom.
Putting Positive Language Into Practice
It’s not easy to change our language habits, and it won’t happen overnight. But with small changes, we can make a big difference in how children perceive themselves and the choices they make.
Here are some simple starting points for changing your language habits with your children.
#1 Be Clear and Direct
As adults, we practice many social behavior patterns that center on tact and indirect language. But with children, it’s important to avoid these coded language habits. Be straightforward, calm, and clear when giving instructions or reminders.2
Avoid phrasing a direction as a question (“Would you please speak quietly?”). Instead, make a direct statement (“It’s listening time now”)
Use, clear, simple language that’s within the child’s vocabulary
- Explain yourself as necessary, so the child understands the why of your request
Instructions that are simple and direct will also help you project calmness and respect for the child.2
#2 Take Your Time
Researchers have found that speaking more slowly when interacting with children can help create a sense of calmness for the child and reduce anxiety and anger.5 Take your time and choose your words carefully. This will also give you a pause to reframe any negative language that comes to mind initially into a positive form.
Give your child time to think and respond too. If they respond slowly, remember that they aren’t able to process language as quickly as you can. Don’t interpret this as defiance or tuning out.6
#3 Keep Your Voice Warm
Pay attention to your tone of voice as well as the words that you choose. Raised voices and tension release stress hormones in your child’s brain, which will only make it more difficult to communicate productively.
When you begin to feel frustrated, try this:
- Pause for a deep breath, inhaling to a count of four
- Hold your breath to a count of four
- Consciously relax your shoulders and chest as you let out your breath
This will help take the tension out of your voice and your body language. Both your brain and your child’s brain are positively affected by keeping vocal tones peaceful and warm.5
#4 Highlight Accomplishments
Rather than waiting for and reacting to negative behavior, watch for opportunities to acknowledge and celebrate desirable behavior.
Instead of saying “Don’t run indoors,” watch for the opportunity to say, “Thank you for remembering to walk when we’re inside.”2
#5 Try “First-Then” Phrases
When your child asks for something, instead of giving a negative “Not until you’ve…” response, use the first-then formula. “First, have an apple. Then, if you’re still hungry, you can have a cookie.”6
Positive Language Examples
The difference between positive and negative language is more subtle than simply avoiding obviously negative words like no, can’t, don’t, shouldn’t, won’t, and so on. Let’s look at some specific examples of positive versus negative phrasing and dig into the differences to watch out for.
- Instead of “I don’t know,” say, “Let’s find out.”
- Instead of “Sorry I’m late,” say, “Thank you for waiting for me.”
- Instead of “I can’t do that,” say, “I can try.”
In each of these examples, the same information is still communicated. The positive language simply reframes each comment from focusing on a shortcoming to a focus on hope, possibility, and kindness.
Positive Language and Affirmations
Affirmations are a way of putting positive language into practice in daily life. Why are affirmations important? Research has found self-affirmation to be an effective technique for stress relief and building positive habits.3 You can try using the same affirmation every day, or change them as needed.
Some examples of affirmations for kids include:
- I am strong and supported
- I can say what I feel
- I am enough just the way I am
The most effective affirmations are usually “I” statements in the present tense. They should be short, specific, and use action and feeling words.3
What Is Positive Body Language?
Most of us unconsciously know positive body language when we see it. Eye contact, a friendly expression, and an open posture all signal to us that we have the respect and attention of the person we’re speaking with.
Children pick up on these nonverbal cues too. When you’re interacting with a child, remember to periodically assess the signals your body language is sending. Be as respectful and attentive to the interaction as you would be to an adult. Look up from your phone and show engagement in the conversation.7
Some signals to keep in mind:4
- Turn toward the child
- Make eye contact or find a way to let your child know you are focused on them
- Smile while you are speaking
- Maintain an open posture—arms uncrossed, neck and shoulders relaxed, hands open
- Kneel or sit, so you’re on an equal eye level
Positive Language Starts With You
Positive language is a powerful tool for reshaping your relationship with yourself and your kiddos. Start by tuning into your inner voice. Notice how you think about yourself, your actions, and your experiences. As you change your self-talk into a more positive mode, you’ll see this growth reflected back to you in all of your relationships, especially with your children.
At Slumberkins, we believe that learning to model positive language for the children you care for not only helps them build resilience and adaptability, but also helps you in your own journey to wellbeing.
Find out more about our early childhood social-emotional learning kits and learn more from our affirmations curriculums for educators and caregivers. From snugglers to self acceptance books Let’s help you say “I can” to bring positivity into you and your child or student’s world.
- Vaish, Amrisha et al. “Not all emotions are created equal: the negativity bias in social-emotional development.” Psychological bulletin vol. 134,3 (2008): 383-403. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.134.3.383
- "Want Positive Behavior? Use Positive Language." Responsive Classroom. 10 April, 2012. https://www.responsiveclassroom.org/want-positive-behavior-use-positive-language/
Lyons, Daniel. "Affirmations and Neuroplasticity." Psychology Today. 30 January, 2020. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/anxiety-another-name-pain/202001/affirmations-and-neuroplasticity
- "Self-Talk." Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/self-talk
- Price-Mitchell, Marilyn. "Negativity and Your Child’s Brain: How to Help Kids Stay Positive." Roots of Action. https://www.rootsofaction.com/negativity-and-your-childs-brain/
Bragle Brooke at al. "Backpack Connection: How to Use Positive Language to Improve Your Child's Behavior." Challenging Behavior. https://challengingbehavior.cbcs.usf.edu/docs/backpack/BackpackConnection_emotions_language.pdf
- Wilson, Shawn. "Connecting with Kids: The Importance of Body Language." CK Family Services. https://www.ckfamilyservices.org/connecting-kids-importance-body-language/
- "Resilience." Center on the developing child. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/resilience/