How Words Affect a Child’s Self-Perception


A few opening questions for you to consider…

  • Is teasing the same as bullying?
  • Do words spouted in affection help or harm?
  • Can siblings create lower self-esteem by consistently insulting each other?  
  • Can negative comments produce a self-fulfilled prophecy?

The most well-balanced children will perceive weaknesses in themselves. Unfortunately, these little personal views can be exploited and amplified by their friends and family. Self-perception evolves from a variety of sources produced by both family and community systems. For instance, an older child may feel immature from being told “you are really irresponsible” when they fail to take proper care of a younger brother or sister. A younger child may feel incapable of doing things right after being told “you are the messiest child I’ve ever seen” time and time again. These feelings may create or enhance certain self-perceptions and become a voice in the child’s head called self-talk. When self-talk is extremely negative, it harms a child’s ability to communicate well, often causing them to withdraw. 


Let’s start with teasing. Many adults believe that all teasing is akin to bullying, but research has not borne out this belief. In fact, teasing is a higher cognitive skill which requires all members involved to balance their comments appropriately for it to result in positive feelings of affection. When done correctly, it has been found to improve likeability within groups. Teasing appropriately, and teaching your children to handle the interaction of teasing appropriately, can actually give them a leg up on having a strong sense of self while maintaining a certain level of empathy for others.

First of all, teasing can never be vicious or mean. If a child teases by calling other children names like “fatty” or “puny,” these should not be construed as teasing words, but as hurtful words, and the child instructed accordingly. However, a child who is very small, but agile and acrobatic might be nicknamed “monkey” by the whole family in an endearing way because the result highlights the child’s skills rather than demeaning his small stature. It is never teasing when you call your children demeaning names. All words build up (or tear down) the self-perception within children, depending on whether these words are offered in love or, alternatively, in a negative way.

Clearly clarify when teasing works and why to your children. Make sure that your children understand when teasing crosses the line and becomes hurtful to the intended target. Remember and teach them that a healthy respect for other members of the family should be the foundation for all teasing. They need to learn that when another member of the family teases them (like Grandpa, for example), any teasing back must stop short of disrespect. 

Insult: The Ugly Stepsister of Teasing

Your children are likely to be taking their teasing cues from sitcoms where insults are followed by a laugh track. Spend time watching these with your children and then debrief it. Ask them why an insult was funny. Ask whether they would feel that insult was friendly or hurtful. Explain that insulting is NOT teasing.  Help them see this difference.

Years ago there was a game played in which children or young people insulted the other’s mother. It probably still gets played by some today. Its landscape is the personal insult, with the apex being the insult “Your Momma is…(insult)”. This game walks that edge building insult upon insult about the opponent’s mother as each one tries to out-insult the other. There has always been a boundary about insulting a child’s mother, and any game like this noticed by parents should be quickly extinguished.

There is never a time when insults are acceptable. Insults are meant to hurt, being a form of aggression designed to replace violence. Unfortunately, they do violence to the psyche, especially if they exploit weakness. Siblings participate in insults beginning at a fairly young age if parents don’t stop them. Parents who come from families where sibling insult was common may accept this behavior as normal. Sometimes parents even participate. Especially now that stepfamilies are common, it is very important to pay attention to sibling interaction and stop unacceptable insults. Often this behavior comes from jealousy and anger at the new siblings and the new circumstances. The younger children often become the victims of the older kids. 

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

When an entire class of students at a tech school was described as “a class of goof-offs” they rose to the occasion by becoming exactly what their teacher said they were. Kids tend to live up to the expectations that are communicated to them. Make sure your words aren’t actually limiting your children’s success.

When a mother says, “You’re going to end up in jail one of these days just like your father” she is not doing any favors for her son. She may really just be afraid of that outcome for her son, but she could be unwittingly promoting it. This proposition may be reinforced within the child because the mind may perceive this untruth as truth because someone with authority stated it. The child knows he is like his father because he is biologically connected, and his mother has perpetuated the misleading notion that his behavior must be tied to these biological roots. In truth a child can be so unlike a parent in personality that they will never have any behaviors in common. But children don’t know that.

Positive results can also be encouraged through prophesying a child’s future. To tell a child they will go to college, that they are smart enough for college, and that many wonderful life events are going to happen after college is a reinforcement for children to think about college as an expected event in their lives. Most important, there is no reason that it cannot to be true.

Conversely, negative self-fulfilling prophecies are often based on fallacies. For instance, if you tell your children they cannot go to college because you cannot pay for it, you are basing this prophecy on a fallacy. Just because you cannot pay for college doesn’t mean that there are no other routes to college for your children. People put themselves through college in a variety of ways. Instead of limiting children by your fear of the cost, encourage them to research all the ways it is possible to get a college education. 

The words we use are some of the most important choices we make. How we label children through teasing or insults or how we trap them in self-fulfilling prophecies all relate to how they perceive themselves, and therefore how they interact in the world with others. Chose good words, positive words and you will mentally help your children to set their sails in a good and positive direction.

Written by Heidi Densmore

Copyright 2014 / Good Choices Good Life, Inc. / All Rights Reserved

At the end of the day, the most overwhelming key to a child's success is the positive involvement of parents. Jane D. Hull