We all know the power of words; we have seen it throughout history. If you hear the words “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” you instantly know that this is from Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and his I Have a Dream speech in Washington D.C. Or maybe the words “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” from a speech made by President John F. Kennedy. These words are often quoted as beacons of hope and mission; they are respected oratory from major figures in American history.

I work in words. I don’t have the ability to intervene in someone’s health with medicine; yet by using the training I’ve had, I can use words to help people see their own potential. It can be an important part of restoring someone to a healthy life, and it can be powerful if done well. Yet we all have the power to use words to make positive change in our world, and destroy it.

Recently in the Spokane Washington area, where I live and work, we had a school shooting. Four students were shot, and one of them was killed. This has been a devastating event to every member of the immediate community where this took place, and the Spokane region in general. As I have begun to see my clients since the incident, I have been checking in with them to see how they are dealing with it. Most of them were shaken initially, but are doing okay now. However, one of the continual things that I have been hearing is the way some young people are making flippant comments regarding suicide and school shootings in their daily lives; I have often heard adolescents tell me that it can be difficult to know who is serious and to get adults in their schools to take them seriously. Even if the school has a zero tolerance to this language, kids are afraid that their peers will figure out who brought it to the attention of the staff in their schools.

While I have been working in private practice for a while now, I still get taken aback when an adolescent gets to my office and describes to me that their peers say things like “I’m gonna shoot this place up” or “Why don’t you just go kill yourself” regularly when they are at school. In most cases kids do not act on these suggestions, but there are young people who are emotionally vulnerable; these words can affect them greatly. Almost no child would ever mean either of those statements as a serious undertaking; yet imagine the feelings of guilt that they would experience should a vulnerable child act upon those words-and what might be the horrible consequences legally.
Yet is there a way for us to put a stop to this behavior? I look to my own experiences as a child and as a parent for those answers. When I was a child, I grew up in the Midwest; the area where I grew up was about as southern as you could be without being in the South. During my childhood in the 70’s and 80’s there was a word that was often used by my peers—that being the “n-word.” On one occasion I was talking to my mother and used that word in conversation; she immediately made it clear that she would not tolerate that word in her home, and that should I ever use that again, there would be prompt washing my mouth out with soap. That word immediately was removed from my vocabulary.

In my own home I do not tolerate using the word “hate” toward a member of the family. If either of my children used it toward each other or me, there was an immediate response of disapproval and dislike. My goal was to help my children understand that this was not an appropriate way to express anger and frustration, and that it can be extremely hurtful and venomous.

There is a way for us to make these sayings inappropriate for adolescents to use toward one another; we must set a standard within our families as to what is acceptable and what is not. It is just as important to teach children from an early age that not only should they use gentle touches toward each other, but gentle words as well. Sometimes the words can be more painful than the physical aggression if left unchecked.

It has never been easy to raise a child, and adjusting to having a teenager can be the most challenging stage of the parenthood journey. Yet it is important to remember that just because our kids have the word “teen” in describing their age does not mean that they don’t need us to help guide them through the last critical years of childhood into the responsibilities of adulthood. Teaching our children how to respect and care for each other, those they love, and those they will meet in their future is one of the most important responsibilities we can have as parents; it is paramount that we make both word and deed a part of that education.