Frequently, one hears a good parent patiently directing his or her distressed child to “use your words.” It is part “Let’s lower the decibels below those of a jet engine at takeoff." It is also part “If I could understand what you want or need, I could better help you.”
And there is a portion of “I want you to combine words from the left hemisphere of your brain with the powerful feelings from the right.”
Another fraction is a message to the child: “You have exceeded your emotional limits. I am here as a caring adult to help you learn something new to expand your skills. This is a future gift so that when you feel this way again, there is an alternative. P.S. You are not alone.”
“Use your words” is good advice not only for crying children, but also for the rest of us. Imagine a world where people use their words when they are angry. They would shoot off their mouths and not their guns. Instead of coming to the precipice of their emotional endurance and falling over in rage, people would throw insults instead of punches.
There is an inextricable connection between words and feelings. Knowing how to connect them makes us human. The biological sensations of love and sorrow linked with words give us poetry. Language and the longing of the human heart produce plays and works of literature.
“Use your words” is also good advice for parents as they teach their children. If moms or dads are upset, explaining their frustration to their children instead of demonstrating it with violence or irritability soothes both the teaching parent and the learning child.
Because there is an inverse relationship between stress and speech, “use your words” helps overcome fear. As fear goes up, speech goes down. As speech goes up, fear goes down. Words can calm. Words can soothe. Words can elevate.
“Use your words” is also advice for the habit of journal writing. A beautiful young woman and her husband recently lost their first child only an hour after it was born. The couple had known for many weeks that the baby carried a lethal arrangement of chromosomes.
Since childhood, the mother has kept a gratitude journal. It may explain one of the reasons why she is so beautiful. Her capacity to put positive words on paper prepared her brain for her sorrow. Words fortify us.
When we put passions into print, we preserve the moment for all time. Otherwise, happiness can be as transient as the fleeting nervous impulse that generated the sensation in the first place. Words preserve the setting of expressions for their future retrieval. The brain files memories by feelings. Reading the words anew retrieves the whole experience.
Peacefully speaking one's mind is not intuitive to some people because their parents never instructed them in times of distress to “use your words.” When adolescence sweeps in and totally transforms — some people say distorts — the brain, words are critical as mother and daughter or father and son try to figure out their ever-changing coexistence.
A parent can use words of soothing, encouragement, discipline, instruction, advice, support and love. The intent is for the evolving teenager to respond in kind. Words can replace discouragement. Words can lighten darkness. Words can reconnect bonds that have been pulled apart.
“Use your words” is also a reminder to those living in a democracy to speak up. Use your words to improve the community. Use your words to give thanks to others. Use words, spoken aloud, to praise God and to honor his creation of good women and men.
In biblical language, the word was in the beginning with God, and “the Word was God.” Perhaps that is what good parents are saying; if we use our words and teach our children to do likewise, it is a prayer. We become more divine.
Parents know. To calm a distressed child is heaven.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician, fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing physician for 30 years and a hospitalist at Primary Children's Hospital and the University of Utah. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.