Positive Language – The Brain Theory & How To Use It

Regular readers will know that the power of words and the importance of using positive language are common themes in this blog. But today I want to tell you about why it’s important – what is the theory behind and and can it really make a difference?

I am not a psychologist or a lecturer but this idea has hugely impacted my life, and particularly my life as a parent. In fact, I’d say it’s a game-changer! I hope you find it helpful too 🙂

I’ll be covering:

  • How the brain works
  • How positive language ties into this
  • Examples of positive language in action

How the brain works


The brain is an amazing bit of kit! It can whisk us off to a white, sandy beach while we’re sat on the bus, or drop us off at our favourite music concert while we’re doing the supermarket shop. And a lot of our brain’s conscious work is communicated to us with pictures – memories, ideas, daydreams and designs all come to us as fleeting images, flickering across our minds’ eye.

Positive Language - The brain transmits pictures - white sandy beach

But have you ever noticed that there’s no picture for the word “don’t”?

If I say to you “Don’t look at your hands” – did your brain just send you a picture of you continuing to read this blog, or did it imagine you looking at your hands?

Yup – it imagined your hands, didn’t it!

Okay, now you’ve seen it in action, let’s try another one, and remember to look out for what picture your brain creates…

“Don’t put your coat on.”

What was the image this time? Was it a picture of you continuing to sit where you are, or did you picture yourself slipping your arms into your coat?

That’s because there is no picture for the word “don’t”. Our brain just has to send a picture of us doing something with a note attached that says “you’re not allowed to do this”.

But the problem is, you’ve already pictured yourself doing that thing…

Point One: There is no picture for the word “don’t”


Next let’s have a super quick talk about the way the brain learns. My fellow blogger, Hayley from Mission: Mindfulness explains the idea of Neuroplasticity with this simple analogy:

Have you ever gone for a walk across a field where no one else appears to have trodden before?  You know this to be true because the grass is lush and springs back into place easily after you’ve walked on it.

And then you begin to tread that path everyday.  After a few days the grass stays flat when you walk on it.  Then it becomes a little patchy with brown, dusty sections coming through.  Then the grass has disappeared altogether and a footpath has emerged.  Others begin to use it and it broadens and becomes more apparent – easier to use.


Lucy At Home T-Shirt Pretty Fearless Sapphire Jumping

This is similar to how the brain works. When a thought (a memory, an idea, a feeling) occurs to you for the first time, it creates a pathway in the brain. If that thought (or pathway) is used regularly, it will become clearer and easier to access. Gradually more thoughts (pathways) will connect to it like side roads leading to a main street.

So your first thought about painting the living room blue gradually becomes easier to visualise, and your brain starts thinking of matching cushions and pictures, and when you see blue rooms elsewhere you imagine your own room being blue at home, etc

Point Two: Thought pathways that are used regularly become easier to access

Positive Language: Why It’s Important

I hope you’re still with me because the important life-changing parenting bit is coming up in the next paragraph!

So we’ve learnt that the brain transmits pictures to us but there’s no word for don’t. We’ve also seen that the thought pathways we use a lot are easier to access.

That means, when you tell your child NOT to jump on the sofa… you are ENCOURAGING them to jump on the sofa!

disney princesses feminist jumping ball gown

Here’s why:

  1. You say: “Don’t jump on the sofa”
  2. Their brain pictures them jumping on the sofa
  3. The more often you say it, the more they picture themselves jumping on the sofa
  4. The more they picture it, the easier it is to access that idea
  5. The more they jump on the sofa

Uh oh!

But fear not! All it takes is an adjustment in the language you use. By swapping negative language ( “don’t” ) for positive language ( “do” ), you will find your guidance much more effective.

So instead of saying “Don’t jump on the sofa”, you say “The sofa is for sitting on”. Now the child is imagining sitting on the sofa – the power of positive language!

Examples of Positive Language in action

I’ve put together a little list of Positive Language examples to help you see idea more clearly. It takes a while to get into this way of thinking as your first thought is often to say “DON’T do xyz”, but it soon becomes second nature, and it really can make a massive difference.

Instead of saying this… Try this…
Don’t jump on the sofa The sofa is for sitting on
Don’t shout at me Use your calm voice
Stop fighting with your sister Play kindly with your sister
Don’t ignore me Listen to me
Don’t let your shirt get dirty Keep your shirt clean
You can’t go to Grandma’s house tonight We need to go home tonight

I hope you found that helpful. I know it has made a huge difference to the behaviour in our house. But it’s also made for a happier environment because I’m not saying “don’t do that” all the time – using positive language feels kinder and more optimistic.

Is this an idea that you have come across before? Is it something you would consider trying? Do you think much about the power of words or is this a new idea? Let me know in the comments section below – I love your feedback.

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Positive language - language is powerful and the language we use as parents can make a big impact on young lives. Using positive affirmations and positive language everyday can make a big difference. Here's how to do it and why it works

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  1. 1
    The Dad Effect

    I love this, admittedly I use “don’t,” far too much but we do try and monitor our negative language. We have primarily used it from a life outlook point of view rather than discipline but I’ll give it a go in that way now. I hate it when I hear myself saying things like “well the problem is….” it just sounds so negative and gloomy.

  2. 3

    How interesting. I’ve sat her and realised that I never use the word ‘don’t’ with my kids, just like I don’t use ‘can’t’ and I’ve not really thought about it before. I do consider myself a very positive thinking person so maybe positive language just comes naturally to me.

  3. 4
    Liberty Henwick

    So interesting – that idea of ‘don’t’ being reframed as a word is clever, will be sharing on Facebook too to reread. I recently read another article about using the word ‘happy’ in the moment you feel it, positive words have an enormous impact. #BlogCrush

  4. 5
    Sara @ Magical Mama Blog

    I love this! I’ve been trying to work with my husband on switching his language with our one year old who is a sponge. Saying “no hitting” twenty times in a a row is not going to do any good. Definitely sharing this with him! Thank you for sharing! #BlogCrush

  5. 9

    I am right in the middle of writing a similar post!! Now I can’t pretend not to have read yours>..doh. Haha
    This is what teachers do all the time….it’s the ‘LETS WALK TO GET OUR COATS!” or ‘ LETS KEEP THE SAND IN THE TRAY’ it really, really works as the children can’t really fail at it. Like you say, if you say, “why is the sand all over the floor?” Children will hear sand on the floor and out more on the floor! Interestingly, very young children or children with special needs may only hear and process the last part of a sentence too such as, “stop throwing your toys….” yeap, they will throw their toys. Lovely post and I may have to change mine a little now! Xxx #blogcrush

  6. 12

    Wow! I learnt so much from this. I’ve recently started using ‘no’ and ‘dont’ my 11 month old understands the terms but I’d rather adopt the positive language approach. Thanks for sharing x


    Soffy // themumaffairs.blogspot.com

  7. 13
    Alice | Letters to my Daughter

    This is an excellent explanation Lucy! We try to use positive language as much as possible – both with Dee and in life in general. Saying something you don’t want to happen always puts the idea of the possibility that it might happen into the universe and the more negative things we can prevent from being put out there the better! #BlogCrush

  8. 17

    I’ve come across this before but LOVE the way you have put it. My eldest loves to bounce on the sofa and my bed! It takes practice in using alternative language but we will get there. I also find myself explaining why they shouldn’t do something even if I’m the only one who truly understands. #BlogCrush

  9. 18

    I think most if not all parents including myself could do well to read this every day. I find giving the children choices helps a lot with behaviour too. #BlogCrush

  10. 23
    Louise (Little Hearts, Big Love)

    Positive language does make such a difference. I’ve read before about how the word “don’t” makes you think about doing the thing you’ve been told not to do and so I try not to use it (although I often forget and then use it again!) I like the analogy for neuroplasticity – that’s a good way of thinking about it. I have to admit I do notice the difference when I use positive language rather than negative language – my girls always respond much better to it. Interesting to read the science behind it. #sharingthebloglove

  11. 24
    Katy - Hot Pink Wellingtons

    I absolutely believe in the power of positive language – I’ve used it a lot with my own inner voice to boost my self esteem and confidence. But for some reason this has been a great reminder for me as I’d not considered the impact of the negative words towards my son – I’m always telling him not to do things at the moment! It makes perfect sense, and I’m going to try hard to change my language. Thanks for joining us at #SharingtheBlogLove

  12. 25
    Laura - Dear Bear and Beany

    The power of words is incredible. Not just for the person saying them, but also the person hearing them. I’m really conscious with my girls, especially my eldest the impact of what I’m saying and the words I’m using. Thank you for joining us at #SharingtheBlogLove

  13. 29

    This is such a great post. I find myself slipping into using ‘don’t’ far too much so definitely going to look st reframing it. #sharingthebloglove

  14. 34

    Positive language really works with my child. I’ve noticed that my son responds better when I tell him what to do instead of what not to do. Thanks for the pinnable photo. Pinned! #BlogCrush

  15. 36
    Jean | Delightful Repast

    Lucy, don’t know how I missed this one before, but I’m glad I saw it on #BlogCrush today! This is brilliant! Pinning, tweeting AND emailing to friends. (I’m not participating in BlogCrush now because of the new inlinkz requiring login, but will continue to visit.)

  16. 39
    Debbie Denyer

    I love this post! I hate negative comments. I feel rubbish for using them again and again and as you say they really don’t work! I love the logic behind this. I’m definitely going to give it a try. Thank you. #BlogCrush

  17. 40
    Rebecca Smith

    crikey! I’ve been working on affirmations and visualisations for a few weeks now and haven’t seemed to make waves with it… these three points have unlocked the part of my brain that I needed to process this in a way I can visualise it…thank you, I can move forward now xx

  18. 42

    Love this post Lucy! It’s so well explained and all makes perfect sense when you put it all as simply as this. I will definitely be using more positive language from now on xx

  19. 43

    What a fab post.

    I use this positive method with the children I work with. Then praise them for listening/follow instructions. It really makes a world of difference.

    Your visual explanation’s are brilliant. Plus the examples are a fab way of seeing how to adjust your language.

    I’ll definitely share your post with my colleagues that struggle with using a positive alternatives for unwanted behaviour.

    Thanks for sharing!

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