Coaching & Support Before, During, and After Adoption

Detoxing Language: Becoming Conscious of the Power of Words

by | Apr 6, 2016 | General Discussion


family differences captionedAll families have differences. We are after all, not clones but individuals. Adoptive families are even more likely to have areas where preferences and inclinations don’t quite synchronize. Most of the time we can appreciate the zest and spice that our children’s differences add to our families.

Sometimes, however, their aptitudes and inclinations challenge us. A family of sports nuts, for example, may be utterly confounded by their child’s total disinterest in things athletic. Or, a family whose generations have been steeped in the arts, music and dance may be frustrated with their child’s refusal to engage while they focus their complete attention on sports.

As Intentional Parents we make an effort to nurture our children’s talents and interests. We strive to respect the spectrum of the entire family’s aptitudes, successes and struggles with mutual respect. Sometimes we utter language that undermines our good intentions.

Little girl having a temper tantrum with her desperate mother in background

What happens then? Words have power, convey emotion and often carry unspoken judgment hidden between the lines. Consider the distinction between these pairs of words: slender or scrawny; lazy or easily distracted; assertive or bossy, confident or arrogant. Each conveys a different emotional tone–one accepts, the other criticizes. The listener is sure to feel the distinction. At best they receive a mixed message; at worst they understand and absorb the implied criticism.

Although the old adage says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” we all know the truth that contradicts this old saw. Some words cut to the core, flay the spirit, and destroy self-esteem. Once spoken and heard, such toxic words cannot be taken back, “unheard” or forgotten. Forgiveness may follow, but the memory of such verbal poison and the emotional message they convey, will linger. The scar will remain as a permanent memory of a painful experience.

When our child pursues an activity which we find dull, uninteresting or even not “worthwhile,” the judgmental part of our consciousness may undermine our best intentions. For example, a sports nut mom, may find it excruciating to listen to her child drone in minute detail about a piece of music or favorite film. She might make an auto-pilot comment like, “That’s interesting.” That phrase commonly operates as code for BORING. At best it damns with “faint praise.” Often our body language conveys our authentic feelings: eyes roll or avoid contact, mouth gapes open or we continue to focus on our own task rather than fully engage with our child.

Why is this important? In our families, we dedicate ourselves to s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g our family culture to include not only our generational patterns but also those which our children introduced. We commit to a higher standard of connection and communication with our children. This requires a conscious awareness of both the literal and emotional meaning to the words we share and a strict dedication to avoid outright toxic words and phrases. Adoption World is rife with potential hand grenade words.

toxic talk croppedIn an earlier blog about Toxic Talk we explored the quicksand of harsh words and the damage they can inflict on our children. Adoption has its roots in loss–for parent and child–and this reality can leave us vulnerable to feelings of shame, self-doubt and, inadequacy. As the saying goes, “Hurt people hurt people.” In other words, when people feel hurt, they tend to lash out in response. It is helpful to remind ourselves of this when our kids dish out hurtful or rejecting comments. The heat of the moment is not time for a rational discussion.

We prepare for these conversations ahead of time and remind ourselves that though the words are directed at us–and may be intentionally hurtful–they’re usually our child’s effort to unload pain and to shift it to parents.


From GIFT coach, Sally Ankerfelt: “Slipping up” is bound to happen. Hopefully, the negative phrases mentioned in the blog will not be part of the slip-up. But, our slip-ups can be an opportunity to model How to make an effective apology:
Effective apology.cf4ddf8a327ea4b93474122cf9b135e81. State specifically what was said or done that was wrong. (i.e. “I called you a name and that was very wrong.)
2. State the hurt you caused. (“I see by your reaction how that hurt you.”)
3. State how your actions made you feel. ( i.e. “I feel sick that I said that because that is not how I truly feel about you.”)
4. Explain how you will act in the future. (i.e. “Next time I get so angry, I am going to count to five and take five deep breaths. If I need
to, I am going to take a short walk around the house to calm down before we talk it out.”)
5. Be good on your word and follow through with the plan.
6. The final step is for us as parents not to dwell on or continue to beat ourselves up for what we have said or done. We have to forgive ourselves, too, so that we can move forward with confidence and be the parents we seek to be. This step, too, is very important for our children to witness so that they can learn self-forgiveness and moving on when they falter in their own lives.