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Stop Telling Kids (Especially Boys) to ‘Use Their Words’ and What to Say Instead

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If I examine the reasoning behind my own use of the phrase “use your words,” I can appreciate my intentions. When my child (who is now 4) has a flailing meltdown, I say the expression to help him faster. After all, I can make sense of words quicker than I can understand tears. And mom—me!—is the ultimate problem-solver, right?

But that’s the issue: The success rate of “use your words” is nil when I think back. And if I put myself in my son’s shoes, I get it. Hearing “use your words” during a hard moment (like when I put honey on his chicken and, oops, he didn’t want honey on his chicken) is frustrating at best and patronizing at worst.

The main reason for that is because he’s not developmentally capable of reasoning through non-verbal emotions at his age. Toddlers and preschoolers are still learning how to process events, feelings and words all at once. “Use your words” sets an unrealistic expectation that they absolutely cannot meet.

So, what’s a stronger approach? According to the experts at Transforming Toddlerhood, it’s more effective to pause and validate what your child might be feeling in the moment and remind them that you’re on their team. Their advice: Say, “I see you’re upset. What happened?”

As a next step, prioritize curiosity. Try describing the situation as a way to help them sort their own feelings and uncover the actions that upset them in the first place. (“I noticed that you got frustrated and stopped eating after I put honey on your food. Did you want honey?”)

Yes, ultimately, you want to empower them to, in fact, “use their words,” especially as an alternative to physical outbursts like a tantrum. But building an emotional vocabulary is a skill they have to learn. And even when they do, it’s good to remind ourselves that turning feelings into words when we’re stressed is hard to do at any age.

One final thought: Saying “use your words” can inadvertently teach children to push their emotions aside instead of practicing self-regulating socio-emotional skills. In other words, try to remember that the phrase isn’t about downplaying emotions—it’s about articulating them. This is especially important for boys, who far too often are brought up thinking they should be anti-tears. (In the long-term, this can result in behavioral issues and can impede their overall development.)

Bottom line: We want our kids to be able to express their feelings so that their world feels less overwhelming and scary. But throwing them into the deep end when they can’t yet describe and process their emotions is counter-productive.