Is it true that "sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt you"?

I doubt it. As a hypnotherapist, I see people every week whose sense of self has been damaged by words spoken to them and what they have allowed those words to mean in their life.
Words can hurt. They do hurt, and sadly we often let them become permanent sources of pain. We all know the kind of words I am talking about. The cutting remarks said in anger. The putdowns. The ridicule. The unfair comparisons.

While all hurtful language is potentially damaging, when it comes from parents and other caregivers it is doubly so. Here is an encounter that I chanced upon last week in a supermarket checkout line. See if it doesn’t sound familiar.

An eight or nine year old boy is demanding a bag of candy. His exasperated mother seems at her wit’s end. She has probably been having a bad day and this is her "last straw." She grabs the kid by the collar, shakes him a little and raises a voice made shrill by frustration. She says something like, "You ought to be ashamed of yourself. A big boy like you acting like a baby. You are a spoiled brat. That’s what you are. Why do you have to have everything you see? You just can’t behave yourself when I take you out, can you? I don’t know what I am going to do with you." She blurted it all out so quickly that it was hard to keep track of everything she said. Clearly, she was angry with her child and wanted him to know it. But imagine what all this sounded like to the boy. His own mother has just told him that he "should be ashamed of himself," that he "acts like a baby," "is a spoiled brat," and "has to have everything he sees." On top of it all, he’s such a hopeless case that his mother doesn’t know what she is going to do with him.
I don’t mean to imply the boy’s mother was a generally abusive parent. Only at that moment, her outburst was abusive and was creating the exact conditions she thought she was trying to correct. Her son stopped asking for the candy. He became silent and pouted. I believe he also took onto himself something of the attributes his mother had just used to define him and lost some of his precious self-esteem.

Negative parental and caregiver programming through thinly veiled verbal abuse has put a damper on the human spirit since the beginning of language. Hurtful language is like a plague that gets passed down from generation to generation. It is so much a part of the fabric of life that most of us don’t even notice it. Of course, parents lose their temper from time to time. They don’t really mean it. We are all only human, right?
Perhaps. But it is very difficult for a child to distinguish what is meant when an angry parent, teacher or even sibling is expressing their anger through degrading language.

Humans are storytellers, thinkers, and conceptualizers. Our medium is language. We begin constructing a story about life and our relationship to it almost from the moment we are born. In a sense, each of us not only has a story but also is a story. We are the main character. The hero. Heroine. Things happen to us. We take actions. We witness events and outcomes. We draw conclusions. And we weave it all into an on-going, always consistent narrative.

At the core of our story is our sense of self. Are we smart or stupid? Lazy or hardworking? Handsome or homely? A winner or a loser? Part of an elite or a persecuted minority? A good person or a bad person?

To understand the impact of abusive language on children, it is important to remember that they hear language differently from adults. They take things said more literally than adults and tend to believe without question. How else could we convince them that a man in a red suit with reindeers and a bag of presents comes down their chimney every December 25th? Or that a bunny rabbit brings them candy? Children haven’t yet developed the critical faculty that allows adults to evaluate new information, rejecting or accepting it based on our past experience. Children are listening and watching in order to form their picture of who they are and how life is. And they generally believe what they are told.

When we are children, our parents and other grownups are automatically the authorities on this new world we born into. Surely they know what they are talking about. It is only natural that we design our stories about ourselves around the definitions they give us of our strengths and weaknesses. And this is whether or not those definitions are in our own best interests.

In the best of all possible worlds, all parents would carefully monitor their language. We would be supportive and nurturing 24-hours a day 7 days a week. But ours is not an ideal world. Ours is a world where parents are overworked, overstressed and taught to downplay the importance of language. As a result, many of us pass down the same kind of negative linguistic style that our parents used to raise us, especially when we lose our tempers even a little. We tell our children that they are lazy when we want them to learn that hard work brings rewards. We tell them they are irresponsible when we want them to take on responsibilities. We tell them they are selfish when we wish them to be generous.

Ironically, becoming our parents’ negative projection is a form of "honoring our parents." A good child listens to what his or her parent tells them and accepts it as truth, often literally.
When the grownup in our life says, "you are stupid," we think we are stupid. When they ask why we "can’t do anything right," we accept our incompetence as a given. When we are told that we are a "bad boy" or "bad girl" naturally we assume this is true. We might try to be good. But we know in our hearts that we are bad. After all, mother or father knows best, don’t they?
One of my main jobs as a hypnotherapist is to help people reprogram themselves with positive language and imagery. This should also be a goal of good parenting.

My clients typically come to me with some situation that they would like to change. Frequently it is an impulse control problem. Maybe food. Maybe compulsive spending. Maybe cigarette addiction. At the core of it is often a negative self-image created partially by parental programming. I use hypnosis to bypass the conscious mind and get the childlike mind we call the subconscious to discard the old beliefs and adopt a new view of themselves as good, worthy, strong, effective and able to make important changes.

But wouldn’t it be far better if we learned these positive ways of thinking as children?

If you believe that the child is the father of the man and the mother of the woman, I'd like to invite you to take on a challenge. I would like you to make it a practice to be as careful in what you say to your children as a hypnotherapist is with his or her hypnotic suggestions. This doesn’t require any special training. All that is needed is to adopt this version of the golden rule when dealing with kids. Speak unto others as you would have them speak onto you. Starting with the ones you love the most, use language to build, not limit, your children’s spirit and sense of self. Incidentally, you will find that speaking the way you would like to be spoken to works quite nicely with other grownups too.

Sticks and stones can break our bones, but words can build the human spirit.

Author's Bio: 

John Koenig Cht. is a certified hypnotherapist practicing in Seekonk, Massachusetts near Providence, Rhode Island. Typical uses of hypnosis include, but are far from limited to, weight loss, smoking cessation, stress relief, pain management, phobias, addictions. His work has been featured on both NBC and ABC national news.