After many years seeing countless families for therapy, I still find myself repeating an old saying in our sessions together:
The Power of Life and Death is in the Tongue
What does this mean? Exactly what it says!
Let me put it another way. If more people were aware of the power of words to both hurt and heal, I wouldn’t see half the clients I do. That’s because regardless of whether I am seeing a couple, family or even an individual, everyday I see firsthand the destructive power of words.
What sort of words am I talking about? Here’s just a small sample:
- “You’re just like your father/mother!”
- “You can bugger off then and live with your father/mother!”
- “I didn’t sign up for this; you’re a psycho!”
- “You’re fu*king useless!”
- “Every time you’re at a party, you dress like a slut!”
- “Why can’t you be like your brother/sister?”
- “Are you deaf or just stupid?”
- “Can’t you see I’m fu*king busy? Come back later!”
The list is endless. And so is the pain. I often see adults where such words were spoken many years ago, but the deep wounding is still there. I have seen words literally send people to the grave. Sound drastic? Not really. For example, I am well aware of the impact of bullying words on teenagers by their peers, and how this has contributed to the young person taking their life.
Make no mistake: words can wound.
But words can also heal.
Think back to when you felt really understood or soothed by someone’s words. The same ‘gift of words’ can be used for a family. So how do I speak to my family or partner? How do I talk to the teenager who seems to never listen?
Two Mistakes to Avoid in your Family
First, two common mistakes with words in families:
Talking More Than Listening – Remember the old saying that we are all given two ears and one mouth? It’s to remind us that we should spend twice as much time listening as talking. This is especially important when communicating with teenagers. However, most family members have things to say, but get frustrated at the lack of opportunity.
Constantly Expressing Negatives – If you find that the only time you communicate with your family is to criticise, there is something wrong, and the way we speak can often result in the very outcome we are trying to avoid. For example, yelling at the kids for not showing respect will simply create more disrespect!
Choosing to use positive rather than negative words can make a big difference. Also, try to praise more and affirm, rather than criticise.
Use Your Words for Good not Evil
So, what are we do? A big area, but here’s just two simple suggestions to start:
Don’t do anything until you’re calm – Try and avoid doing anything until you and your family member are calm. If it’s a young person, you don’t have to respond to them when you are upset, or when your child is upset and in your face. You just don’t. You can choose to say nothing.
When emotions have settled, you can sit down and talk with them. It’s rarely a good idea to bring up a difficult subject or resolve a conflict in the heat of the moment.
Be mindful of your triggers – While we try not to speak until we are calm, sometimes we are caught off guard. We all have certain ‘triggers’ that set us off and we all have different ones. Disrespect will get the blood boiling for one, while dishes in the sink will trigger angry words in another.
We all need to work out what are the ‘pressure points’ that make us emotionally buckle. This can sometimes take time as often we are on auto-pilot and don’t realise what we are saying. Don’t feel guilty if you get sucked in occasionally. It takes time to build new habits of communicating and relating – even in one’s own family.
Relearning words takes hard work and practice, but it will be worth it in the end. With practice, the home can be a much warmer place and less stressed.
Author: Dr David Ward, BSocWk, BA., Grad Dip (Couple Thpy), M.Couns., MPhil., PhD.
Dr David Ward is a psychotherapist with over 25 years’ experience, providing therapy to adults, adolescents, children, couples, and families. As a qualified Family Therapist, he can help a family get those stress levels down and guide the family to be the best it can be.
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