As I was growing up, I heard a lot of the same words over and over again in regards to my behavior. The redundant questions and statements from parents and teachers brought a lot of unnecessary confusion and pain into my life.
I have Sensory Processing Disorder which creates a lot of unique challenges for me. You can learn more about SPD by reading my article, One Reason I’m So Weird. I’m sure my disability was the main reason the following words were repeated like a broken record to me. However, they did more damage than good. Words have a lot of power so we need to be wise about how we use them.
Here are five things I believe you should never say, with some alternatives to say instead. I hope these will turn a struggle with a difficult child into an opportunity to help them instead.
1. What’s wrong with you?
Hearing this question always made me shrink inside. It diminished my self-confidence in massive amounts. Just because I’m different, doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Sure, my brain doesn’t process the world around me the same way yours does. My perception is very unique. However, these words led me to believe I was a mistake, or broken.
Say this instead: “You have a special gift. You were made for a purpose.”
2. I’ll never understand you.
This may be a true statement; people can never understand how I feel or perceive the world without being inside my body and mind. However, these words lack compassion. The thing I wanted more than anything as a kid was to be understood, or validated; for people to believe my battle was real and not just write me off.
Say this instead: “I’m sorry for what you’re going through.”
3. Why can’t you act normal?
Believe me, I wish nothing more than my body and mind would stop betraying me all the time. I want to enjoy peace and joy in everyday life as much as the next person. Now don’t get me wrong, learning to behave in social situations was an important life skill I needed to develop. However, pointing out the fact I was not like everybody else only made me feel like an outcast. It shattered what little hope I had at times.
Say this instead: “What can I do to help you?”
4. Why can’t you be more like your brother(or sister)?
My mother only said this to me one time, but it lingered with me for a lifetime. I know, now, she didn’t intentionally mean to hurt me by saying this. She was simply frustrated in the moment because I challenged her at every turn, whereas my brother was an easy child to care for. However, the words of comparison made me believe my parents loved him more; like there was no value in being me. This resulted in intense feelings of rejection. In fact, I ran away at six years old because I honestly thought my parents would be happier if I was gone. That’s a whole other story.
Say this instead: “I love how different and unique you are.”
5. You’ll never amount to anything.
Growing up I was often forced into very overwhelming sensory environments for school or church and then punished for the way my body responded to them. I struggled with frequent sensory meltdowns, but everyone just assumed I was an ornery brat. Homework and chores were impossible to complete when my heart and mind were racing at full throttle. But during my moments of panic and stress, caregivers would say things out of frustration that devalued me. What I needed most to be productive was a safe zone. I can be highly productive and do amazing work, as long as I’m in the right environment.
Say this instead: “How can I create a safe place for you to relax, focus, and do your work?”
Words are like seeds that will either help a child bloom and grow into healthy beautiful fruit, or they’ll fester and turn into painful thorns that can choke out our true identity and purpose. Choose your words carefully. Even a few simple words of encouragement and understanding can have enormous impact in someone’s life…especially if they don’t hear words of affirmation very often.
Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits. – Proverbs 18:21
Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body. –Proverbs 16:24
For more insights about how I perceive the world with a sensory disorder, and how I overcome a world of chaos and misunderstanding, please watch my TED Talk: