Words can hurt. In fact, words—along with the tone of voice that delivers them—can do real damage. Just think about comments that have been directed your way over the years. Comments of criticism, shame, rejection, anger, or mockery have an impact on our feelings, hopes, ambitions, and sense of self. Because parents are so important to a child, the words and tone of voice used by mom or dad tend to have a great impact.

The expression “words hurt” can actually be literal. The emotional pain networks in the brain are tied to the physical pain networks. This intertwining goes both ways. According to studies that have looked at both the emotional and physical pain networks, receiving social support can reduce perceptions of physical pain and taking a pain reliever such as Tylenol can reduce the discomfort of social rejection.

Pain inflicted by words can also linger. Hurtful words can change relationships. The effects of carelessly spoken words can settle into a child’s or an adult’s emotional memory, affecting perceptions and views of the world.

To be conscious about speaking with care to your child and others, consider these five characteristics before you choose your words and tone of voice.

  • Intentions—Do your words come from a place of goodwill? Are they going to build up the receiver rather than tear down the person? Are the words that you are choosing constructive?
  • Truth—Are the words in context rather than blown out of proportion?
  • Benefit—Will the words you are about to say help things get better?
  • Timeliness—Is this the best time to say what you have to say or are you reacting impulsively by speaking now?
  • Kindness—Can you be firm with kindness? This means not making any nasty, dismissive, inflammatory, degrading, or shaming comments as you say what you need to say.

Parents have many opportunities to make use of wise speech. When we speak with care, we often feel better about what we’ve said, and our children do too.