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Words matter: always, never and observing what is?

As I start making breakfast these words catch me flying into the kitchen: “Mum, she’s breathing on me!!!” Yeah. In that particular moment my brain decided to run the following stream of thoughts: not again this always happens when I’m about to… I can’t deal with this right now…

Your brain probably has your own unique (or not-so-unique) stream of unhelpful consciousness, I imagine. One of the ways in which it is unhelpful is running the tape with “always” and “never”. In the moment, the moment is all we have.

Our brains have a tendency to extrapolate from the here and now and generalize into always and never. I catch myself in moments when I am having a not so great kind of day (or, you know, ten minutes) and my brain says “life is hard”. An hour later, I’ve had my coffee, everyone is happily doing something, I get to sit and open a book. “Life is great”. Life remains to be all these things, continually shifting. Teaching our brain to catch the moment allows us to see this moment for what it is and not flood ourselves with “always” and “never”. It also enables us to respond to what is actually happening here and now, and not to all the stories we carry around. The words we use can increase situational stress (trigger fight-or-flight response) in the people saying them, hearing them, or thinking them. Words actually create our reality, in multiple ways. In challenging situations, if we use words that trigger us or our children, we are simply adding fuel to the fire. Even if the words remain in our head. Why not always and never?

First of all, “always” and “never” are never true ;) I remember being taught this beautiful lesson by my then 3-year old son. I walked into the living room in a very sleepy, tired mood and stepped on a block (those who know, know…). “There are always blocks everywhere” I must have said a bit too loudly, because he turned around, looked at me and replied: “There were no blocks here yesterday, and there are no blocks under the table.” Both factually correct. I had to laugh. It matters to our own brain and ability to respond: If we start with “she always/never” we trigger our own fight-or-flight response, and we will react to our children from that space. These words are also anger-inducing (notice next time when someone says “you never/always…” - how do you react?). It matters to our children’s brains and their willingness to cooperate with us: “You always/never/again” also triggers their fight-or-flight response, when they hear us say it. In addition, we might be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy in the long-term. If we say it often enough, and they hear it often enough, there is a chance that the “always” and “never” might get a bit closer to reality than we would like. How to move away from there… Practice observing what is going on in the here and now, and name it for yourself and your child. In Nonviolent Communication (NVC) we call it “Observation” (without judgment, analysis etc.). A great question to practice is: what would the camera see? Start with moments when you’re relaxed, our brains can only learn if we are relaxed, connected, safe. Instead of “life is great” name what exactly is so great. “I’m having a hot cup of coffee and finishing my book. I’m loving it” “I finished reading my paper, I really enjoyed it.” It might seem counterintuitive, but by observing what actually brings you joy, fulfillment, allows you to not only notice these things, but also have them as a resource for moments when life is not so great. Modeling also teaches our children to do the same. “You put that block on top of your tower and now have a huge smile on your face!” “When you finished that puzzle you jumped up and down!” Experiment with doing that in moments when things are not going so great. When one child throws a block at someone’s head. When your teenager slams the door. When someone is breathing on someone else and you notice your muscles tensing. What would the camera see? Rely on your senses, not on your judgments: What would the camera see? What can you see? What can you hear? Moving away from “always” and “never” (and other forms of judgment) and focusing on observing what is, enables us to also move away from figuring out who is wrong and who is right (in children’s conflict for example), and allows us to respond from a place of more calm. It’s not always easy. And it’s so very worth it. And as always, we start with ourselves. With care, Anna.

Some more resources here: An article co-authored by me on the topic of words in Early Childcare settings: On self-fulfilling prophecies: Janet Lansbury on the concept of “sportscasting”: Rachelle Lamb on “Observation” in NVC:

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