Popular Parenting Myths No. 5: Is it Effective to Simply Tell Your Preschooler "Use Your Words"?
By Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D. 

Parenting advice has to make sense to be worth considering – but it has to have a lot more to it than that. In the 25 years that I’ve been a parenting psychologist guiding parents with typical childrearing issues, I’ve seen some advice elevated to an absolute belief – never examined, just accepted as truth.

Parents are finding that some of these beliefs need to be held up to the light, because the results don’t live up to the promises. Some myths need to be updated and corrected to help parents do the thoughtful, wise, validated childrearing job they’re trying to.

Myth: When your preschooler is upset and screaming, crying, hurting someone, or about to do any of those things,  just tell him to “use your words.”

Reality: The theory behind this commonly accepted advice is that it's the way to socialize our children so they learn to handle their emotions, without major meltdowns or outbursts, or physical aggression. When life's frustrations make children very upset, adults want to teach them to release and relieve their difficult feelings by expressing them in words. And adults can respond more helpfully when we hear our children express their frustration in words, such as “She took my fireman's hat,” “He knocked my building down” or “I can't get my zipper to zip.” That allows us to respond sympathetically and offer better guidance.

This is what we should be working toward as we help our young children deal with their difficult feelings. But here's the problem: Most preschoolers could better learn this important skill if we told them what words to use. Beginning at around kindergarten or first-grade age, telling children “use your words” is valuable to them. But for 2s, 3s and even 4-year-olds, it would be more realistic and age-appropriate to tell them the words to use. We should do that all the time with 2s and 3s.

So when a 3-year-old is furious that another child knocked down his building, we can say, “Of course, you're very mad. You didn't want your building to fall.  Tell Aaron, 'I don't like it when you do that. I wasn't done building. That's not nice.' ” Along with giving your child the words, you should also model talking in an angry voice as if it happened to you, so your child can release his anger by using his words. And when your 4-year-old is struggling with her zipper and is very upset, you can suggest that she say, “I can't get my zipper to work. I don't like this. I'm mad. I'm frustrated.” And again you should say the words with passion.  Then you can respond to your child, “Of course you are. You tried hard to zip up your jacket. Let's look at it and see if we can see why it won't zip today.” When your preschoolers use their  “words” and we respond helpfully instead of angrily because they hit back, they'll be more eager  to “use words” than to scream, cry, or hurt others.

Remember that “use your words” is a good concept to work toward. But let's phase it in slowly  during the preschool years, using it only when you've given your child the specific words to say in that situation. That's a better solution than expecting too much of an upset preschooler and  frustrating her even more by saying “use your words” when  she doesn't know which words.

Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D., author, has been a child/parent psychologist and a specialist in childrearing and child development for more than 25 years. Her parenting psychology practice is in Emerald Hills, California. She is also on the adjunct faculty in pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Rothenberg was the founder/director of the Child Rearing parenting program in Palo Alto, California, and is the author of the award-winning books Mommy and Daddy are Always Supposed to Say Yes … Aren’t They?, Why Do I Have To?, I Like To Eat Treats,  I Don't Want to Go to the Toilet, I Want To Make Friends and I'm Getting Ready For Kindergarten. These are all-in-one books with a story for preschoolers and a manual for parents. Her new series is for elementary school childen and their parents. The first book is Why Can't I Be the Boss of Me? (2015). For more information about her books and to read her articles, visit To find out about her counseling practice and her speaker presentations, go to

Perfecting Parenting Press 2015