Key Words and Phrases To Use with Children to Promote Self Esteem and Build Stronger Relationships

by Jennifer A. Gardner, M.D. on April 26, 2013

Words don't just count. Words change lives.

In Part 1, parents were encouraged to explore how tone (“parental voice”) subtly influences children. The power in a parent's voice must never be underestimated, its impact is long lasting and far reaching.

In Part 2/3, parents are encouraged to build a repertoire of positive, healthy words and phrases and to use them often with children. Over time and with practice, these healthy words and phrases become second nature, allowing parents to communicate more positively and effectively with their children, while boosting confidence, cooperation and maturity. 

Words effortlessly and often without notice enter our colloquial vocabulary. Certain phrases are repeated out of habit so often that the effect is significant over time. As a parent you must become more conscious of the words you use with your children, especially words used to offer praise, criticism, or to teach, nurture, or discipline. Never forget that your words help shape your child’s emotional well being!

You will find yourself using the phrases that resonate with your personal belief system and parental philosophy. You must believe what you say if your children are to believe you. For learning, especially with young children, repetition is key! Start by picking two or three of these phrases and use often, the only caveat is mean what you say!


7 Words and phrases to encourage autonomy, self control and self discipline


1. "It's your decision" “You have a choice” "It's up to you" “You choose” “I trust you make the right choice” 

Let’s face it. Kids have very little power. Compared with adults they are smaller, weaker and less educated—with less life experience to boot. As a result, children often feel powerless. They lack autonomy and have little control. 

How do humans react when they feel powerless and inferior? They often compensate with an attitude, becoming hostile, defensive and uncooperative. They say, “NO!” Sometimes they even lash out at authority or strike back. Sound familiar? 

Fortunately, the solution is easy. Offer more choices to your children and they begin to feel they have control over some aspects of their life—and voila—instant empowerment and self esteem building! They feel respected, and learn to develop important decision making skills. Kids become responsible for their actions and decisions when they feel the decision was theirs. 

Conversely, most kids do not feel responsible for their actions if the decision behind the behavior is not perceived as their own. This is obvious when you hear your child say, “he(you) made me do it” instead of “I did it.” When you allow your child to make decisions, you shift responsibility away from you and onto your child. This transfer of responsibility is necessary for your child to become a mature and functional individual.

  • The more practice you give them, the better kids become at making choices. Everyone knows at least one child who cannot make a decision; can you see how this might develop from lack of opportunity to make decisions at home? To develop proficiency, children must be given opportunity.

  • When given choice children have the opportunity to make good decisions, building confidence. When they make the wrong choice—and they will—they have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes through consequences (provided we do not intervene and “save” our children every time!). When children are given the opportunity to learn from their mistakes they gain confidence. Remember, if given the choice between two equally acceptable choices, your child gains personal autonomy with no downside or aggravation! 
  • Avoid offering children limitless choice. Instead of “What do you want to do today?” try “Do you want to paint inside or play tag outside?” Too much choice overwhelms children (and adults!) and makes choice difficult, undermining self confidence. As children become older and more practiced, slowly begin to extend the amount of choices given.

In summary, this type of positive messaging will empower your child to make decisions, begin the transfer of responsibility for decision making to your child, and help build self control, confidence, and accountability.

2. “You always have more choices than you think” “What else might work?”

Kids are born “narrow minded” and we must teach them to think deeper and more broadly. This is especially true with problem solving. Kids often give up when the most obvious (first) solution fails, leading to feelings of failure and insecurity, which over time can shape poor self esteem. By reminding kids that there are other possibilities, you encourage children to think deeper. It is important that you give your children the opportunity to come up with these alternatives on their own, but offer assistance if they are unable to after careful consideration. 

How do you incorporate problem solving messaging? It’s easy, when the opportunity for problem solving arises emphasize, “I know there are more options here, is there anything else you can think of?”  “What else could be going on here?”  “What else can you try” or “What is the alternative here?” Give your child time to really consider the options, but be ready to help with simple, actionable suggestions if necessary.

In summary, when children are given the opportunity to produce alternative solutions, they feel empowered, confident, and are more willing to problem solve in the future. When unable to come up with their own alternatives, they still learn by your gentle direction and will be able to apply this solution to future situations. In each case, they learn there are more options than initially apparent. They are learning to think deeper and with complexity. You are literally expanding their ability to think critically!

3. “Please make a better choice, I know you can”

This is a phrase that allows children to self correct behavior when necessary, while allowing them to maintain dignity and control. When a child makes a bad decision, simply and calmly request that a better or different choice be made and express confidence in your child. This keeps the responsibility on the child and reminds her there are more options. Because you are giving your child a supportive second chance to make the right decision, she feels respected and remains in control—she has skin in the game!

In summary, this language conveys that a better choice exists and that current behavior is not acceptable, but does so by placing responsibility squarely on the child. Child is held accountable (while still supported) for current behavior and responsible for better behavior. Do try to refrain from lecturing, nagging or raising your voice, as this puts the child on the defense and is universal kid code for stop listening and do the opposite.

4. “I see you are choosing not to”

This is a phrase that you employ when your child knows better and is choosing not to behave well, and discipline is the consequence. This phrase is important because the child is held accountable for the behavior and its consequences— teaching personal accountability, a prerequisite to developing strong character. The message to the child is that the discipline is his doing, not yours.

In summary, before offering discipline be sure your child recognizes it was his decision not to listen/obey. By taking responsibility for misbehavior your child is maturing and accepting responsibility, on on his way to developing personal autonomy.

5. “Next time”

Replacing “Don’t…” with “Next time…” is a positive way to correct a child without being overly critical—while allowing you to positively message that there is a better alternative to current behavior.

Instead of “Don’t scream!” try, “Next time I would appreciate it if you speak in a quieter voice.” Here, the child draws the conclusion that his behavior was not good. Your point is made by stating facts, not passing judgment, and concludes with specific details of how the child can improve the behavior. 
Parents often feel that if the child isn’t behaving well, why should they extend this courtesy? That’s easy, to increase the chance of getting a good response. Think about making a return without a receipt. You know treating the cashier with respect and courtesy will likely produce the desired outcome. Your kids are no different...

6. “No” 

Kids need limits! All well behaved kids hear “no” from their parents on a regular basis. Conversely, poorly behaved children hear a paucity of “no,” which is a disservice! By learning to behave well, children get a positive response from other children and adults in their lives (friends, classmates, teachers, parents, grandparents). This is a major contributor to positive self esteem.

Conversely, children with few limits become accustomed to thinking only about themselves, which may be fine at home, but places them at a distinct disadvantage in other environments. Children pick up on disapproval at their behavior, and over time this can negatively impact confidence, without changing the behavior itself!

For maximal impact you must be careful how you use no. Instinctively, kids get their back up when they hear “no!” so be aware that any words that follow may not register! “No” is best delivered short and sweet. If after the 3rd time you child once again asks to leave the table respond firmly, “I said no!” (no explanation needed). Many parents make the mistake of tying no with a lesson, be aware it frequently is not heard! It is often best to save the lesson for later.

7. “Yes”

Kids also need to hear yes, especially when yes serves to motivate!  When your child (who has yet to complete her chores) asks, “Can I play outside?” your answer should be a resounding “Yes! As soon as you finish your chores.” Right off the bat your child is reassured that she can get what she wants. She is more likely to listen to the rest of what you say versus “No! You have chores to finish.” A subtle, but real difference. Only the directive has changed, but to your child it is a world of difference and could be the difference between cooperation and a meltdown.

When you approach your child in a manner that reinforces good behavior, you build confidence! Children learn, “I know how to behave well!” This encourages future good behavior.

Be sure you are not using “yes” as a way to easily quiet your child or avoid a tantrum. Yes should always be genuine, not offered as an appeasement or bribe!


4 phrases to encourage positive self esteem and confidence. These phrases should be used often and effusively.


1. “I love you for you” “I love you just the way you are” “I love you for whom you are, not what you can do” 

You must aim to show your child that you love them for whom they are, not for what they can do (mentally or physically) or look like. This is so important. Unconditional love, pure and simple, is the kernel upon which self esteem grows. Being valued for your very core is reassuring and empowering. It gives children personal, deep felt confidence and value.

2. “You are valued” “You are so important to me” “I am proud of you” 

Obviously children must feel valued and appreciated before they can build lasting self confidence. Kids that feel appreciated and valued strive to maintain and continually live up to that sentiment. They work harder, an example of a positive self fulfilling prophecy developing self esteem and pride! Remember to be specific, “I am so proud you are my child are kind and considerate.”

Kids that routinely feel under-appreciated take on the defeatist belief, “what is the point anyway?” and you have a negative self fulfilling prophecy in play.

3. “You are an important part of this family” “You make our family complete” “You contribute to our family”

Kids understand that they are growing and learning, and look to others to provide love, security, guidance, and direction. This is what family does! Knowing they are an important part of the family provides them with a safe harbor where they are free to take risks and make mistakes. This safe environment allows them to grow as a person, and gain confidence and personal value.

In addition, kids have an innate need to be a part of something bigger than self, and your family must fulfill this need (or a less desirable influence may!). Kids need to know they are an important and contributing component of the family. By verbalizing this, you help build confidence and a powerful sense of belonging.

4. “I appreciate you” “I appreciate what you did” 

This is called appreciative praise and it is a meaningful type of praise because the child is left to correlate the praise to his behavior, promoting critical thinking. The best praise is the most specific praise, “I appreciated you listening to me when I read to you tonight!” The child understands he has done a good job, but is left to conclude what was good about the behavior on his own. For instance he may conclude, “I was good because I listened and learned a lot” or “I was good because mommy was able to get me to bed on time.” Because the child draws his own conclusion, it is more effective than evaluative praise (Great job! We read it!).      



See Also:
Part 1, Talk, Talk! How Parents Can Use Words to Build Strong Relationships and Promote Positive Self Esteem
Part 3, 5 Phrase to Avoid Using With Your Child: Words Can Hurt, But They Don't Have To

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